BALTIMORE (AP) — Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took his presidential campaign to the heart of a Baltimore neighborhood on Tuesday that witnessed protests last spring, calling the level of poverty and rundown housing in parts of the city reminiscent of a "third-world country."
The Democratic candidate toured the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested before he died of a broken neck in police custody, triggering unrest. The first of six police officers charged in his death is now on trial.
"Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you're in a wealthy nation, you would think you're in a third-world country, where unemployment is over 50 percent, a community that does not even have decent quality grocery stores," Sanders told reporters.
During the tour, Sanders stopped to look at a large mural of Gray as he was led through the neighborhood by the Rev. Jamal Bryant of the city's Empowerment Temple AME Church. The presidential contender said it was "stunning that we are less than an hour from the White House and the United States Congress."
Sanders has sought to make inroads with black voters against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has garnered endorsements from black members of Congress and has longstanding ties to the African-American community.
Black voters will play a pivotal role in February's South Carolina primary and a series of Southern states holding contests on March 1.
One of Sanders's rivals, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, faced criticism for his record on law enforcement as the city's mayor, but Sanders did not cite O'Malley in his remarks.
In a sign of his support among liberals, Sanders won the endorsement Tuesday of The Working Families Party, a coalition of unions and progressive groups that helped elect New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Surrounded by media, Sanders took a short tour through Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood along with a group of black ministers. The tour took him past abandoned homes with Black signs affixed to plywood doors reading: "We must stop killing each other." As the senator passed through the neighborhood, one man shouted, "Hey man, we need change!"
Along one desolated street, a woman stood on the stoop of a grocery store, chanting, "Freddie Gray."
Sanders then stopped at a large mural of Gray near the intersection where he was arrested last spring. The mural depicts Gray's face, flanked by civil rights activists of the past and present.
The senator said it was "stunning" that despite America's wealth "in communities like this we are seeing kids dropping out of school, being in bad schools, dilapidated housing."
Sanders was later joined by two dozen black ministers and activists at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center, where he discussed ways to address poverty, job opportunities and education for black youth and their families.
During the meeting, some speakers described the fear that many black residents have of police officers and police brutality. Sanders noted that he was arrested as a young man while demonstrating at the University of Chicago and said "there is a revolution that has to take place" in which police departments become part of the communities they serve.
He said residents of many poor neighborhoods are hurt by a lack of grocery stores and banking options and many are preyed upon by payday loans and high interest rates.
At a news conference, Sanders appeared agitated when he was asked by a reporter about the threat of the Islamic State group, pointing to the downtrodden neighborhood he had just toured. "Obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue that we've got to address, but so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)