BALTIMORE -- As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) walked down the streets of one of Charm City's most disenfranchised neighborhoods on a sunny Tuesday morning, he was met with straight talk from the area's predominantly black residents.
“What you gon' do with all this, Bernie?” shouted one man running alongside the crowd moving down the streets of Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood that was home to Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after a "rough ride" in police custody in April. Another woman yelled about the need for change, while others voiced a desire for better schools, more job opportunities and an end to police violence.
It's understandable why Sanders chose to visit Sandtown. The neighborhood's landscape underscores the issues addressed in his economic and racial inequality platforms, as well as his calls for criminal justice reform. The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate discussed increasing the minimum wage, eliminating mass incarceration and funneling money back into America's black communities with several community leaders, including the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent pastor in the city, and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D).
“America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. But anyone who took a walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you were in a wealthy nation. You would think that you were in a third-world country where unemployment is over 50 percent,” Sanders said at a press conference following his walk-through. “A community that does not even have decent, quality grocery stores where moms can buy quality food for their kids. A community in which the dream of getting a higher education for many kids is as real as is going to the moon.”
“What can he do for us? ... The same thing still been going on -- police brutality and harassment.”
At his meeting with pastors, someone mentioned that there was no bank within 2 miles of Sandtown, and the conversation turned to high interest rates on payday loans and the prominence of check-cashing stores.
“The point being, it is very expensive to be poor," Sanders said, adding that it also probably costs more to eat in the area since there are no grocery stores.
During the walk-through, some residents yelled out in support of Sanders, citing his disassociation from super PACs and emphasizing that Republican front-runner Donald Trump is the antithesis of who they want in the White House.
Michael Williams, a Clinton supporter who lives in Sandtown-Winchester, told The Baltimore Sun he was impressed with Sanders' visit.
"There has never been a person running for president to come to our neighborhood," he said.
But several Baltimore residents who spoke to The Huffington Post remained skeptical of the reasons behind Sanders visit and the changes he could implement to better the streets they walk every day.
“What he gon’ do? What can he do for us? I mean, there ain’t too much they can do,” said Tony Morallis, a resident of Sandtown-Winchester. “They ain’t done nothing yet. No changes been going on. The same thing still been going on -- police brutality and harassment.”
Since the unrest that followed Gray’s funeral on April 27, the nation has become more aware of what is happening on the ground in Baltimore. The city's "apartheid schools" are overcrowded and underfunded; residents throughout the city say they are harassed by police; and Baltimore's city government has an issue with transparency, prohibiting some alleged victims of police violence from speaking publicly about their experiences.
Over half of all people released from Maryland's prison system annually return to Sandtown-Winchester, where the violent crime rate is 23 incidents per 1,000 residents -- around six times the national rate. Unemployment in the neighborhood for residents ages 16 to 64 sits at about 50 percent, and many people end up with minor drug convictions.
“A lot of the people who are participating in the crime and grime, there’s a strong correlation in terms of mental health and poverty and education,” said Lisa Wedington, a local who helps provide free mental health services for the city’s youth. “So if some of those issues could be addressed -- and not just show up for an appearance -- that would be fantastic. If [Sanders] could say something or do something to get the … council members to make a difference in urban communities, fantastic.”
"Unconventional ways” to improve the conditions in the neighborhood -- such as the food desert, lead poisoning and generational poverty -- are vital, according to Angela Francis, a contractor who owns a home in Sandtown.
“They can make blanket statements or general statements on what needs to be done. Everyone can see it’s a blighted community, so yes, we need money … but if it’s only going to remove us from our homes and put us into another blighted community where we’ll still be struggling, then that’s not going to solve the problem,” she said.
“We need them to knock on the doors, not just take a 10-minute bus ride into our community.”
Francis added that she worried that a typical approach would be taken to economically developing the area -- meaning developers would move in, gentrify the area and push out residents who could help rebuild.
“They’re gonna have to address the community as a whole,” she said.
Kwame Rose, an activist best known for confronting Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera during the unrest, pointed out that Baltimore is in need of better schools, more funding and “economic development inside of the black communities other than Sandtown-Winchester.”
“A lot of people have came to Baltimore and walked through Sandtown within the last eight months, but that doesn’t make a difference. People will still be poor in Sandtown when Bernie leaves," Rose said. "Police will still be violent when Bernie leaves. You know? It’s another day in Baltimore.”
Francis echoed these sentiments, and added that some of the leaders Sanders met with aren’t as active in the community as they claim to be.
“We need them to knock on the doors, not just take a 10-minute bus ride into our community and see all the boarded-up buildings,” she said. “We need you to get out of your cars and talk to the people who live there. Not necessarily council people or clergy or politicians, because guess what? They don’t live on my street.”
“They say they do, but I don’t see them at the grocery store,” she continued. “I don’t see them getting the rats off of the sidewalk or all of the debris and all the stones falling down into their playgrounds. My challenge is there. You say you live in my neighborhood? Come knock on my door.”