David Joles/Star Tribune

Sen. Bernie Sanders at Friday's forum at Patrick Henry High School.

Sen. Bernie Sanders fired up hundreds of people in north Minneapolis as he vowed to address high African-American unemployment and incarceration rates, but the atmosphere grew tenser when some people pressed him for a more detailed agenda to help the black community.

The Democratic presidential candidate spoke in the gym of Patrick Henry High School alongside seven other panelists in a community forum hosted by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, which sought to have him discuss solutions to problems facing African-Americans.

Sanders delivered his standard populist message promising to get tough on Wall Street banks and institute universal healthcare and free college before taking questions from panelists. He pledged to support more tax breaks and subsidies for small businesses in areas of high unemployment, like north Minneapolis, in response to a question from small business owner Felicia Perry.

But he repeatedly shied away from stating his positions on whether African-Americans should receive reparations, to the dismay of several speakers.

“It seems like every time we talk about black people … we have to include every other person of color,” said Perry. “Can you please talk specifically about black people and reparations?”

Sanders acknowledged that he and Perry might have differences. It’s not just black people, he said -- there were Latinos and poor whites as well. He said the time to start investing in poor communities was “long overdue.”

“I’ve said black 50 times,” he said. “That’s the 51st time.” The audience laughed and applauded. “This is a national issue. …What I believe we should do is to invest most heavily in those communities most in need and when you have 35 percent of black children living in poverty …when youth unemployment in the African-American community is 51 percent, those are exactly the kinds of communities you invest in.”

Over the din of cheers, someone in the audience yelled, “We were promised reparations! We were told we were going to get it!”

Sanders said it was an unspeakable tragedy that one in four black males stood a chance of ending up in jail, and that young black high school graduates had such high jobless rates.

“That ain’t right at all,” he said, as the crowd cheered.

David Joles/Star Tribune

After Sanders criticized America’s high incarceration rates, a man with a criminal background stepped forward to ask what he would do for people who couldn’t vote because they’re felons.

“I feel the Bern, but I can’t cast a ballot,” the man said. “What are you going to do for people like me?”

Sanders said that after people pay the price for their crimes in prison, they shouldn’t see their rights to participate in democracy stripped away.

Calling the system “stupid and unfair,” he added, “This is just part of the whole business of voter suppression …my view is, people serve the time, that’s it. They have the right to vote, period.”

A number of people in the audience were aligned with Black Lives Matter, and activists in that movement began the event with stirring calls to address racial injustice before Sanders appeared. Sanders has sought to make greater inroads with black voters.

A row of public school teachers from around the Twin Cities came to cheer on Sanders, saying they were thinking not just of their own prospects but those of their low-income students.

“Every student should have a shot, but how many of these kids won’t get a chance to do that because of the system?” said teacher Rich Bettini before the event. “There’s so much promise that’s lost – how can we accept that?”

As the forum wound down, White Earth Ojibwe activist Clyde Bellecourt stepped up from the audience to complain at length about injustices faced by American Indians. Moderator Anthony Newb repeatedly tried to cut him off, asking that he state a question.

“This is a black forum,” Newby said at one point.

“This is people of color and I’m one of those people of color!” Bellecourt said.

Sanders waved to the crowd, signaling it was time to go. He was headed to the annual Humphrey-Mondale fundraising dinner in St. Paul, where his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was also attending. “We love you Bernie!” someone yelled.

“Native American people have gotten terrible deals with the federal government,” Sanders told Bellecourt. “I will do everything I can to address that, absolutely.”

After the event, Newby said he understood the frustrations of the Native American community, but that the forum was intended to specifically address the black experience.

Newby, NOC's executive director, added that Sanders had said some “very powerful things” about the criminal justice system, but that the senator had more work to do in sharpening his proposals on how his community investment strategies would filter down to the people in the room.

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