The Bernie Sanders campaign clashed head-on with an election cycle dominated by Donald Trump and the politics of terrorism on Tuesday, as the Vermont senator insisted that candidates needed to focus on the “third world” conditions of American cities instead.
During a trip to Baltimore to meet with local church groups and tour a neighbourhood still reeling from summer rioting , Sanders was questioned in a press conference about why his staff had instructed journalists not to ask him about him about the Islamic State.
“What about Isis, guys?” Sanders asked as he laughed and he turned to the black church leaders standing next to him. “How often are these people talking about the issues that we talked about today?
“Of course I will talk about Isis,” he added, more angrily. “But today what we are talking about is a community in which half of the people don’t have jobs. We are talking about a community in which there are hundreds of buildings that are uninhabitable. We are talking about a community where kids are unable to go to schools that are decent.”
The unusual instruction to reporters from a campaign press secretary not to discuss certain topics comes as Sanders is under growing pressure to demonstrate he can move beyond his initial focus on poverty and inequality and show the policy variety expected of a presidential candidate.
The same spokeswoman ordered reporters to ask no questions at all during a similar event on immigration policy held in Washington on Monday.
Tuesday’s clash also followed a chaotic tour of the Baltimore’s Sandtown district during which the campaign’s awkward relationship with an unruly media pack was on full display.
As Sanders toured the neighbourhood that was home to 25-year-old Freddie Gray before he was killed in the back of a police van, shouts of “no to Trump” were more frequent among bystanders than the occasional shouts of recognition for “Bernie” from those members of the public who spotted him through the thick scrum of cameras.
“Safe and liveable housing,” chanted others next to a mural of Gray, while the senator was trying to talk about the need for better educational and job opportunities.
The Vermont senator was unapologetic for his focus on poverty and inequality issues during his subsequent encounter with the media.
“You can agree with me or not,” he told the CNN journalist who raised the Isis ban. “Obviously Isis and terrorism are a huge national issue that we have got to address, but so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is healthcare, so is the need to protect working families, and I will continue to talk about those issues. You want to ask me about Isis, we will talk about Isis.
“America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world but anyone who took the walk we took today around this neighbourhood would not think you were in a wealthy nation, you would think you were in a third world country,” added Sanders. “Where unemployment is over 50%, and with 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 is as real as going to the moon.”
At times the answers emphasised the Vermont senator’s distance from the personal experience of many of those he met during the short walking tour, accompanied by his wife Jane.
“A few blocks away from where we live [in Vermont] there is a very nice grocery store, where we buy good quality food at a reasonable price. You don’t have that,” he told the group of church leaders. “The prices that people in this community pay are substantially higher than what I pay and the quality of the food that I get is significantly better.”
But the lack of economic opportunity and bleak international comparison was echoed by Dr Jamal Bryant, pastor and founder of Empowerment Temple Church, who agreed: “We are 45 miles from the White House and it doesn’t even look like we are in America. It looks like we are in a third world country.”
Earlier, during a closed-door session with church leaders, Sanders took questions that focused more on policing – an issue that is high on the Baltimore agenda during the trial of officers accused of killing Gray by deliberately giving him a “rough ride” in a police van.
One pastor, addressing police militarization, said that his daughter was afraid of the police. “She’s freaking out,” he said. “We have so many kids now who don’t trust the police. How do we change the mindset?” he asked Sanders, according to a pool report made available later by campaign staff.
When asked about the latest Department of Justice investigation into a similar death in Chicago, Sanders told the Guardian that “it’s a huge issue”, adding: “I made a request that the federal government do an investigation into what happened in Chicago and I am glad that they are. When an individual is killed or dies while in police custody, that should bring forth a federal investigation.
“The right thing is to demilitarise our police departments,” added Sanders. “The right thing is to make sure our police departments have the training that they need to understand that lethal force is the last resort, not the first resort, and to make sure that police departments look like the communities that they serve.”