“Coming to the University of Chicago…was mind blowing,” says Bernie Sanders, alumnus of the College (A.B. ‘64) and current contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders, known for his progressive liberalism, his Brooklyn accent, and his desire to start a political revolution, got his start here at UChicago a little over 50 years ago. And, on February 25th, he returned to talk about his politics and his college years with Chris Matthews for MSNBC’s Hardball College Tour.
It was a long but exciting night for the 150 students chosen to attend the highly coveted event hosted by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP). The attendees were chosen randomly from a lottery and were instructed to line up in front of the Quadrangle Club at 4:30 P.M. with nothing but their IDs and their phones. The line itself was out the door and rounded the corner. Despite some students having to wait outside in the cold for two and a half hours before they could enter the building, nobody didn’t seem to mind and everybody was buzzing excitedly.
"I'm here because I want to feel inspired by the political process,” said attendee Kiran Misra, a third year in the College. “Seeing [a presidential candidate] live allows you to not just see their stance on the issues, but who they are as a person.”
Throughout the talk, Sanders gave students an inside look into his personality as well as his history at the University. Sanders transferred to UChicago from Brooklyn College in the mid-1950s. It’s not hard to imagine a young Bernie Sanders interacting with his fellow house members in Chamberlin House or staying up late studying in the basement of Harper Memorial Library (his preferred study space, apparently). Although originally an English major, he quickly changed to political science after becoming more involved with social activism on campus. As student chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)’s social action committee, he learned about and became involved in the civil rights movement, saying he was able to “get involved with a lot of people who were different from me.”
Sanders’ education was a bit more about practice rather than just theory: he would often lead sit-ins to protest segregated off-campus housing during the early 1950s and was at one point arrested protesting policies instituted by the Chicago Public School system. “I learned about the trade union movement here. I learned about the civil rights movement. I learned about foreign policy and peace movement[s],” says Sanders.
His passion for activism remains strong half a century later, and it showed as he sat down with Hardball host Chris Matthews on the second floor of the Quadrangle Club. Sanders still believes that political change comes from the people themselves, and that protesting is the most valuable tool that Americans have. “[Rallying] is how change gets done…[we need] millions of people to demand change,” he said.
Although the conversation was mostly between Matthews and the candidate himself, the students remained the main focus. The Senator would often speak directly to the mostly student audience in the room. “If [these] young people are not involved in the political process, then [others] will make decisions for them that are not in their favor,” said Sanders to a roar of applause.
Additionally, UChicago students were able to ask Sanders questions, which ranged from inquiries about breaking down racial barriers to the current state of the criminal justice system. Third-year Patrick Quinn directly touched on the subject of prison reform, asking how would Sanders fix a system where “even intended reformers can fail in the face of institutional power.” Another third-year, Igolo Obi, pressed Sanders to speak on the structural barriers many low-income and minority individuals face. The Senator was open and encouraging to all students throughout the question and answer session, often praising them on the difficulty of their questions or on the validity of their arguments.
But, that’s not the only way UChicago students were involved that night. As Sanders entered the room for the show, members of UChicago’s extremely popular Dirt Red Brass Band played a jazz arrangement of “This Land is Your Land.” The band continued to play between commercial break. Their vibrant, New-Orleans style jazz even had Sanders himself grooving along; he would often be seen tapping his feet or moving his head alongside the music.
Sanders is currently a huge name in the political world, and students seemed grateful that they had the opportunity to hear him speak in an intimate setting. While this was probably the largest event the IOP hosted that quarter, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Students interested in politics and policy have countless opportunities to meet important politicians, journalists, or lecturers within the discipline through the IOP and other organizations on campus.
“The University offers so many opportunities that enriches [our] education and I haven’t taken advantage of that before now,” said second-year attendee Claire Costelloe. “This is a part of history and it’s great that the University is providing us access to it.”