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Two Guys From Brooklyn: The Bernie Sanders Interview by Spike Lee

For THR's New York Issue, the Hollywood director and the senator from Vermont he supports for president — both of whom hail from Brooklyn — meet for the first time to talk free education, guns, a certain "demagogue" (you get one guess) and Obama’s legacy on the eve of the crucial New York primary.

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It’s the last night of March, and there are hundreds of people lined up on the sidewalk outside St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx. The rainbow crowd, mostly under 30 but with representation from every generation (and based on the packed subway on the way here, every borough), is buzzing with anticipation. Some 18,500 supporters are gathering on this unseasonably mild evening to see Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speak at his first big New York rally, and even though he’s a long shot to win the state’s Democratic primary April 19, the mood is celebratory.

On the sidewalk outside the park, a man in a Donald Trump mask holds a sign offering foam noodle whacks for $3, and two eager pint-size activists are gleefully whacking away. At the entrance, everyone submits calmly to Secret Service inspections, including a young woman in a college sweatshirt who sets off the metal detector (“I have a lot of piercings,” she explains). And inside there’s an energetic sense of mission pervading the crowd — along with the unmistakable whiff of marijuana. (“Smell the Bern,” jokes one journalist in the casually cordoned-off press area, and it sounds like it’s not the first time he’s used this line at a Sanders event.)

When did it hit you — I’m going to run for the United States of America? When did this happen?

I got to tell you there’s a funny story that every day 100 people brush their teeth and they look in the mirror and every one of them says, “There is the next president of the United States.” That’s the definition of the U.S. Senate. Honestly, honestly, I was not one of those people.

It wasn’t you, huh?

It wasn’t me. I love my state, very happy to be the senator. But this is what I concluded, Spike: With all due respect to Secretary Clinton and everybody else, it is too late for establishment politics and establishment economics. The problems facing this country now are so serious, are so deep, that the same-old, same-old ain’t going to do it. And what we need to do is create a political movement — what I call a political revolution — where millions of people come together.

A coalition, right?

Absolutely a coalition, based on the trade union movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay community movement and bringing people together to tell the billionaire class that they cannot have it all. People don’t appreciate how much power Wall Street has, corporate America, the corporate media. And we got to take ’em on.

Bernie, 99 Americans die every day in this country due to gun violence, a third of those by suicide. I know Vermont is different from Bed-Stuy, do or die; the boogie-down Bronx; Chi-raq; Killadelphia; Bodymore, Murderland [Baltimore, Maryland]. So can you explain to me what your views are about guns in this country? It’s killin’ us, and that’s not a pun.

Your first statement is right. Vermont and rural America, people talk about guns, you know what they’re talking about? They’re talking about hunting. And it is something that my state, tens and tens of thousands of people do. They take their kids into the woods, there’s target practice, there are antique gun shows, and that’s what guns are. I do know that guns mean something very different around urban America. And what we have got to do is get a handle on this horrific gun violence. There’s no question about that. I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA. D-minus voting record. And I have stood up to them for years. In 1988, Spike, I ran for the United States Congress in the state of Vermont. I lost that election because I was the only candidate who said, “You know what, maybe we should not be selling and distributing military-style assault weapons in this country, weapons designed just to kill people?” I lost by three points, and perhaps that was the reason.

Though they’d spoken by phone, Lee and Sanders met for the first time for their THR interview.

So three points in Vermont is five people?

(Laughter.) No, it’s 12 people. Actually, no. And my view is that right now we have got to deal with this. Every week, every two weeks, we are seeing mass shootings.

But the NRA and the gun manufacturers and the lobbyists, it seems like they’re so strong that they are invincible.

I don’t think so. I think there is a consensus about what we should be doing — and that means that if you tell the average gun owner in the state of Vermont, a guy who goes hunting, if you say to him, “Look, we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that people who should not have guns do not have guns,” they’ll agree with you. Not everybody. Overwhelming majority will agree with you. And what that means is you strengthen and expand the concept of the instant background check.

But Chicago, Illinois, their gun laws are just as strict as New York City, but you go 30 minutes from Chicago to Indiana, and you just walk out with all kinds of guns.

So you’ve got the gun-show loophole, which means that you have people there selling guns who are not licensed gun dealers. You got to end that.

A dear friend of mine, Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church in Chicago, he wants to say guns should be titled like cars.

I think again the kind of consensus that we need is an instant background check. And the other thing that we need to do is to know that on a day like today, any day, there are thousands of people walking the streets of America who are suicidal and/or homicidal. I get calls in my office from people who say, “Please help us find mental health treatment that’s affordable, that we can get to.” And people have a hard time doing that. We need to address that issue as well.

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Bernie, what does Black Lives Matter mean to you?

What it means is that we are all sick and tired of seeing unarmed people shot by police officers. That young people in African-American communities are harassed by police officers, where police departments are not there to be supportive but are in many cases oppressive, and that’s an issue that has to be addressed.

Trump. Have you seen the film A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan? Do you see a correlation between Lonesome Rhodes [a character who rises to fame in the early days of TV], played by Andy Griffith, and Donald Trump?

He is an entertainer by and large. He did very well on television; he knows the media very, very well. Don’t underestimate him. And God knows who he is really, but we see what he personifies on TV every night. He knows how to manipulate the media very effectively, he knows how to do what he does with people. But let me just reassure you: Donald Trump is not going to become president of the United States. That I can say.

Would you agree that he is possibly the Frankenstein that the GOP has created? They got a monster on their hands and don’t know what to do with it.

There’s no question. The estab­lishment Republicans are going nuts. And this could lead to a real dissolution of the Republican Party as we know it.

Sanders rallied a diverse crowd March 31 at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx.

Who are the people who are voting for him? When a guy says I can stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody — even saying that, knowing that 99 Americans die every day — and you’re going to shoot somebody and no one’s going to not vote for you? That’s insane to me.

Well, virtually every day he says something that’s crazier than the day before, right? So what can you say? But here is what I think is going on. I think that the establishment has underestimated the contempt and the frustration that the American people have, a segment of the American people have, with politics as usual.

With Washington, D.C., right?

Yeah, yeah. So when he says, “Look, I’m not them,” they say, “OK, that’s good enough for me.” You know? “That’s all that I need.” And there is a lot of anger out there and a lot of reasons for the anger. One of the reasons for these 50-year-old, 60-year-old white guys voting for Trump is in many cases they are working longer hours for lower wages, they are seeing their jobs go to China, they are seeing their jobs go to Mexico. They are scared to death about the future of their kids, and they don’t see anybody doing anything about it. And Trump comes along and says, “I got the solution, we’re going to scapegoat Mexicans and we’re going to build a wall a mile high.” People are angry, what do you do? You don’t get to the real issues as to why people are hurting, you scapegoat. You scapegoat blacks, Latinos, gays, anybody, Jews, Muslims, any minority out there, that’s what you do. That is nothing new. That’s what demagogues have always done, and that’s what Trump is doing. What we are trying to do in our campaign is bring people together to look at the real problems facing this country, which in my view is the greed of corporate America, of Wall Street, the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality. Let’s attack those issues. Let’s not scapegoat people.

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I’m very proud to be a tenured professor at N-Y-University, sir: It costs more to go to NYU than any other school in the United States of America. If you’re born in the wrong ZIP code, you’re behind from the jump. Can we talk about education? More than half of young black men do not graduate high school, which is a direct pipeline for the industrial prison complex.

You got it. You got it. You’re giving my speech here.

We’re both from Brooklyn.

(Laughter.) And here is what I say every day: Real youth unemployment in this country, which nobody talks about, by the way, is off the charts. For African-American kids 17 to 20 who graduated high school, real unemployment is 51 percent today. Fifty-one percent. Latinos, 36. White kids, 33 percent. And of course what ends up happening? Instead of investing in education for those kids or jobs for those kids, too many of them are ending up in jail, and we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth.

And a lot of these prisons are privatized, too, so it’s a business.

You got it, you got it. And that’s why we have introduced legislation that would end private ownership of prisons and detention centers, by the way. Corporations should not be making money in this country by imprisoning people. So this whole issue of criminal justice — of keeping people out of jail, which means jobs and education for younger people — it means taking a hard look at this war on drugs. Since the last 20, 30 years, millions of people have police records for possession of marijuana.

Sanders rallied a diverse crowd March 31 at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx. Dawson urged supporters, “Don’t complain to me if you didn’t make it your business to bring at least five people with you to vote.”

And let’s be honest, President Clinton was responsible for sending a whole lot of people of color to prison [for minor drug offenses], which he apologized for. But if I spent 10 years in prison, an apology is not going to be enough.

Right now, I don’t know if you know this, under the Federal Controlled Substance Act, marijuana is a schedule one drug right alongside heroin. Isn’t that pretty crazy? I have introduced legislation to take marijuana out of it. It should not be a federal crime. States can legalize it if they want. And we need to deal with local police departments as well in terms of holding police officers accountable, demilitarizing police departments, making police departments look like the diversity of the communities that they are serving. So I think that there is an enormous amount that we can do. And I think, by the way, the American people are fairly united on this. And you know why conservatives want it? Because we’re spending $80 billion a year locking up people, and nobody thinks that that makes sense.

And how much on education?

That’s right. You and I, when we were kids, first through 12th grade was free.

Sanders with his wife, Jane, at a Florida campaign stop in March.

And public schools in New York City were great then, great.

They really were. Absolutely. I went to a great school. The teachers were great, the par­ents took education seriously. Free public education, first grade through 12th grade. Well, you know what? Today the world has changed, right? The economy has changed, technology has changed, people need more education. And I believe that when we talk about public education in America today, we have got to be saying that it includes free tuition at public colleges and universities. Is that a radical idea? I don’t think so. If we could do it 50 years ago — when City College was virtually nothing, and University of California, great university, virtually nothing — I don’t know why the hell we can’t do it today, and that’s what I want to do.

Last thing. Hillary Clinton and yourself, are we in the bottom of the ninth inning? What’s happening here?

I’m feeling really good. We have won six out of the last seven caucuses by landslide victories in every single case, more than 67, 70 percent. We are in Wisconsin a few days [Editor’s note: The Wisconsin caucus is set for April 5, after this issue goes to press]. I think we have a good chance to do well there. We’re comin’ to New York City, and I think we’re going to win New York. It’ll be a tough fight; she was the United States senator here for eight years.

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But you’re from Brooklyn. You’re not scared, right?

No. In fact, I look forward to it. I’m very excited about it. I mean, one of the great joys of New York City — as opposed to a state like Iowa or Wisconsin, where you got to travel long distances — here you’re 15 minutes away from another population center. So we’re going to do a whole lot of rallies in this city. We’re going to go back to Brooklyn, spend a lot of time in Brooklyn, we’re off to south Bronx tonight, I think we’re going to have 10,000, 20,000 people out there.

The boogie down.

Yeah, the boogie down.

Well, thank you. It’s been an honor. You got my vote. Peace.