Exclusive Footage: Trying to Score an Upset on Hillary's Turf, Bernie Draws Huge Bronx Crowd

As many as 18,500 New Yorkers packed St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx to support Bernie Sanders at a free rally on Thursday evening ahead of the April 19 primary. While Hillary Clinton holds on to crucial support in Harlem, Sanders' bold move surprised South Bronx residents, as the poorest district in the United States is rarely visited on presidential campaign trails.

More than a quarter-million people are living in poverty in the South Bronx, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So Sanders' message of establishing a $15 minimum wage standard, as well as making healthcare affordable and public colleges and universities tuition-free, resonated strongly with the gathered crowd, which was the Vermont senator's most diverse to date.

"We are not going to accept deteriorating inner cities!" Sanders thundered. "We are going to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, create affordable housing and 13 million new jobs!"

Watch AlterNet's exclusive footage of Bernie's rally Thursday night (story continues below the video):

Sanders, who was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland and Russia and grew up in a Flatbush tenement, was energized by a star-studded lineup that included Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee (who campaigned for Sanders in South Carolina), actress Rosario Dawson (who campaigned for Sanders in California) and René Pérez Joglar, a Puerto Rican rapper best known as Residente, of the alternative rap group Calle 13, who recently became the first Latin American recipient of the Nobel Peace Summit Award.

Dawson, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, criticized the Clinton campaign and some media news outlets for perpetuating misleading and divisive rhetoric. “Let me watch my tone, because we very much want a debate, which he already agreed to,” said the quick-witted actress, politically correcting herself.

“I’m supporting the guy who’s looking at all of us and saying you’re hired," Dawson said. "We can do this. Not me, us.”

Spike Lee kept it short and sweet by highlighting diversity as the reason “New York City is the greatest city on this Earth.” Saying "Bernie has to win New York," Lee addressed a younger generation, stressing that “we have to vote and we have to talk to our parents.”

But the biggest surprise of the night came from Pérez Joglar, who delivered the longest speech. Focusing on Puerto Rico, he expressed the Caribbean commonwealth's current debt crisis within the context of a troubling history:

Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. We are the oldest colony in the world. For years, we have been used as an experimental island. From the medical experiments on our people to the chemical experiments on our land. From 1941-2003 on the island of Vieques, the United States Navy undertook a series of experiments with different chemical and biological weapons while using the island as a bombing range. To this day, the land and people of Vieques have not fully recovered from this devastation. There’s a Puerto Rican, a political prisoner, who has been incarcerated for over 34 years, longer than Nelson Mandela. His name: Oscar López Rivera, and he deserves to be free, today.
More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military. In our schools, children are taught more about U.S. history than the history of their own country. That is a colonial education. Without giving you exact numbers, I can tell you the U.S. gets more out of Puerto Rico economically than Puerto Rico receives from the U.S. We are currently living an unprecedented economic crisis and have the highest rates of poverty and unemployment of any other place in the U.S., yet the U.S. does not even allow us to restructure our debt. And this is the best one: People in Puerto Rico cannot vote for the President of the United States. In other words, we are not allowed to choose the person who makes crucial decisions regarding our country.

President Obama has warned that Puerto Rico's debt crisis could escalate into a humanitarian crisis. A recent White House "Roadmap for Congressional Action" on the economic meltdown offers a similarly bleak picture of a decade-long situation that is rapidly deteriorating.

The 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico have endured a decade of economic stagnation. Since 2006, Puerto Rico’s economy has shrunk by more than 10 percent and shed more than 250,000 jobs. More than 45 percent of the Commonwealth’s residents live in poverty—the highest poverty rate of any state or territory—and its 11.6 percent unemployment rate is more than twice the national level. These challenges have sparked the largest wave of outmigration since the 1950’s, and the pace continues to accelerate. More than 300,000 people have left Puerto Rico in the past decade; a record 84,000 people left in 2014.

In a statement released this morning, Sanders called for immediate action, becoming the first presidential candidate to address this critical issue:

The economic situation in Puerto Rico will not be improved by closing more schools, firing more teachers, laying-off more workers, slashing pensions and suspending the minimum wage. Instead, Puerto Rico must be given the time it needs to restructure its debt and grow its economy in a fair way. Congress must act immediately to give Puerto Rico the same authority granted to every municipality in this country to restructure its debt under the supervision of a bankruptcy court.

Sanders also strongly opposed the unelected oversight board for Puerto Rico that has been proposed by House Republicans:

There is a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico that Congress and the administration must address as soon as possible. But let me be clear: Establishing an unelected oversight board that would be given the power to inflict even more economic pain on the 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico would be a move in exactly the wrong direction. It must be defeated.

Sanders appealed to his fellow lawmakers on Capitol Hill: “Congress must act immediately to give Puerto Rico the same authority granted to every municipality in this country to restructure its debt under the supervision of a bankruptcy court."

The senator was indefatigable: Earlier in the morning, he made an appearance on Hot 97 radio:

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image via Instagram

Sanders, accompanied by his wife Jane, also made time for a 45-minute meeting the Daily News editorial board, during which he fielded questions on a range of topics, including Wall Street, gun control and his opponent, the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“I think what she has basically said—not to expect bold change from her,” said Sanders, painting the former Secretary of State as a poor fit for the White House. “She talks about incremental change ... Is she a candidate of the establishment? The answer is, of course she is.”

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