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'Don't respond in despair': Bernie urges UNC rally attendees to remain optimistic

Students lined up around South Road as early as 3 p.m., prepared to wait two hours for the rally to start. Excitement grew with each introductory speaker, and the crowd chanted, "Bernie beats Trump!" leading up to the main event.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders held a rally Thursday at the Bell Tower Amphitheater. Sanders spoke about his stances on health care, climate change and free college tuition. 

Attendees, volunteers and featured speakers emphasized Sanders’ longstanding commitment to progressive ideals. They said this was a key difference between him and other candidates.

Former Senator and current Sanders campaign co-chairNina Turner spoke about Sanders' activism as a college student.

“He don’t have to pretend to be for the people. He didn’t just start standing up for the people,” Turner said. “For many of you who are here today, Bernie Sanders has been on the justice journey when he was just your age at the University of Chicago, standing up against housing discrimination and segregation. He put something on the line then, and baby, he putting something on the line now.”

Sophomore Udhay Khullar said Sanders’ ideals make him excited about America’s future.

“He was the first one to preach it," Khullar said. "He was preaching it when nobody else was and he’s the reason that the conversation shifted as dramatically as it did. He’s the OG of progressive ideals.”

Other speakers included Ben Cohen, campaign co-chair and Ben and Jerry’s co-founder; actor Danny Glover; activist Phillip Agnew; UNC alumnus Adolph Reed Jr.; and Alana Edwards, president of the UNC Young Democrats. 

Sanders began his speech by asking the audience for their support in his venture to win the primary in North Carolina, win the Democratic nomination and defeat President Donald Trump.

“Let me tell you a little secret – don’t tell anybody else," Sanders said. "We’re gonna beat Trump here in North Carolina, and we’re gonna beat him bad." 

Sanders criticized the corporate elite and said his campaign finance system distinguishes him from other candidates.  Many of his donations are small contributions from working-class people, and his campaign recently reached 1 million individual contributors.

Sanders repeatedly addressed criticisms that call his policy ideas far-fetched. He discussed his efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“I was told, 'Bernie, you are crazy!'” Sanders said. “Well, I'm often told that. 'You’re too radical, you want to more than double the federal minimum wage, which is seven and a quarter an hour. Well, because the American people have stood up and fought for justice, what I’m proud to tell you is that over the last four years, seven states in America have already raised that minimum wage to fifteen bucks an hour.”

He addressed similar criticisms of his plan for free tuition at public colleges and universities and said imposing student debt on citizens is cruel.

Sanders plans to direct at least $48 billion annually toward making tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs free. He has also proposed canceling the entire $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt.

Nathan Clark, a volunteer at the rally, has experienced spells of unemployment while in student debt. He said the education system is sometimes crippling.

“We’re all equal and shouldn’t be left behind because of our financial situations, but education is a priority for everybody,” Clark said. “It shouldn’t be for select few, and it’s the same with health care. It should be accessed universally for everybody.”

Sanders said he would stand up to fossil fuel interests and transform both domestic and global energy systems. He criticized Trump’s views on climate change.

“He thinks that climate change is a hoax," Sanders said. "I think that Donald Trump is a hoax, and I think it is imperative that we have a president – this a pretty low bar, I must admit – a president who actually believes in science and listens to scientists.”

Sanders also discussed plans to decriminalize marijuana use, restructure the criminal justice system, pass common-sense gun legislation and promote humane border policies.

He ended his speech by encouraging attendants to remain optimistic.

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“Don’t respond in despair,” Sanders said. “Respond by standing up and fighting back and understanding what Nelson Mandela said. And that is, ‘Everything seems impossible until it is done.'"