Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke talks prison and gun reform in Pittsburgh visit | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke talks prison and gun reform in Pittsburgh visit

click to enlarge Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke talks prison and gun reform in Pittsburgh visit
CP photo: Elise Lavallee
Beto O'Rourke speaking to a crowd in Schenley Plaza
Hundreds of Pittsburgh residents, university students, and professors gathered in Schenley Plaza on Wednesday afternoon to hear from Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Much of his speech focused on gun violence. His plan for reducing gun violence includes mandatory background checks, red flag laws, ending the sale of automatic firearms, and creating a mandatory buyback program for those weapons. O’Rourke believes gun violence in the U.S. is closely tied to white supremacy and targets minority religious and racial groups.

“Right now, we have a president who welcomes violence into the open and into our communities,” O’Rourke said. “When you have a president who targets a U.S. congresswoman, chanting things like 'send her back' despite her arriving to this country more than 30 years ago, but defends white supremacists by calling them 'very fine people,' it sends a clear message to his supporters.”

The El Paso, Texas native and three-term congressman gained national recognition during his 2018 U.S. senate run against Ted Cruz in Texas. Though he didn’t win, O’Rourke received more votes than any other Democrat in Texas history after running one of the largest grassroots campaigns in the state. Utilizing this wave of energy and influence, the former congressman began his bid for the White House in March of 2019.

Cheryl Greer of Shadyside, who volunteers locally for the O’Rourke campaign, began supporting the candidate during his senate run. At first, she just believed he was the most likely to be able to defeat Trump, but quickly learned she also supported his policies and message.

“Pittsburgh has suffered from gun violence,” Greer said. “And after El Paso, O’Rourke understands what that means.”

O’Rourke also discussed establishing a $15 minimum wage and addressed racial discrimination. O’Rourke believes ending racial inequity in the U.S. requires a network of laws and protections, including higher wages and access to education and health care, in addition to ending discrimination in the criminal justice system.

“There are 2.3 million Americans behind bars right now,” O’Rourke said. “It’s the largest prison population on the face of the planet and it is disproportionately comprised of people of color. ”
According to the candidate, many of these individuals are nonviolent offenders, but many more are still in prison because they can simply not afford bail. Deborah Bogen of Highland Park, who was at the event registering voters, agrees.

“Sticking a lot of people in jail for small nonviolent crimes and keeping them there because they can’t afford bail costs us a lot of money, one person for a year is 42 thousand dollars. We could be using that money to fight serious crimes,” Bogen said. “Right now at Allegheny County Jail, between 70 and 80 percent are in jail because they can’t make bail, they have not seen a courtroom, they are not guilty of anything yet, and we're trying to fix that.”

O’Rourke proposes that in order to end these discriminatory practices, for-profit prisons and cash bail systems must be eliminated, marijuana must be legalized, and those who have been jailed for such crimes must be released and their records cleared, and the school to prison pipeline that exists for black children in America must come to an end.

“I’m still undecided but I do think the more people hear from more candidates, the better off we all are,” Bogen said. “There’s a funny saying that people think is a joke, but it’s not. We all do better when we all do better.”