It can feel like the 2016 campaign season was decades ago, in a different world. In fact, it has only been a few years. And the armies that were built then have been waiting, restlessly, to begin marching once again.
At 9:30 on Saturday morning, the line waiting to get into the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign kickoff rally at Brooklyn College stretched for a full block along the fence surrounding the quad, turned the corner, and stretched another two full blocks down Campus Road. By 10:15, when the gates were opened and the line finally began moving, it stretched for several blocks more. A few inches of pristine snow had fallen the night before, and it was early enough that everything still had the crisp, picturesque quality of a winter Thomas Kinkade painting, before the motion of Brooklyn reduced everything to grimy slush. It was pretty. It felt like standing inside a walk-in freezer. I had moments of serious concern for the health of my toes, as all feeling in them slipped away. Still, I stayed. Everyone stayed. For the cause.
Volunteers had proliferated. They lined the sidewalks, more of them than necessary, accomplishing mostly the promotion of a feeling of anticipation. It was clear that many Bernie 2016 voters were now Bernie 2020 volunteers. Vendors prowled the line with carts of “Feel The Bern” t-shirts that could well have been sitting in a forgotten storage unit since the last campaign. There were also volunteers from the many groups looking to peel off shards of the Bernie demographic: the Young DSA, a knot of college students wielding clipboards who accurately read my age and passed me by; the signature-seekers for local candidates across the city, asking where you were registered to vote; and even the real Communists hawking the Workers Vanguard, whose promotional cry was, “Running dog for imperialism Bernie Sanders! Check it out!”
It feels good to live in Brooklyn, where the radical splinter groups are to the left. In most of America the radical splinter groups are the psycho Christian fundamentalists and various strains of racist identitarians, and they get along a little too comfortably with the Rotary Club folks at Republican Party rallies. The Workers Vanguard types may be more interminable to argue with, but they are less likely to have a handgun or a glove compartment to keep it in. We all filed onto the quad in a neat line, as the volunteers urged us to keep the sidewalks open: “Everyone step to the right a little bit! Not politically, just literally.”
A white reggae band was warming up the crowd for the launch rally of this major presidential campaign. Before you mock this, try spending several hours listening to the Trump rally playlist on repeat, a bizarro classic rock mix full of the types of songs that play as intro and outro snippets on Morning Joe. If our national cultural mood is to be either a UC-Boulder Bob Marley Birthday celebration or the clubhouse of a Scottsdale, AZ, golf course during a TD Ameritrade corporate team building happy hour, I know what my choice will be. The nice young man with a ponytail sang Pumpkin Belly and it was a fine distraction from the packed snow beneath our feet that was slowly introducing all of us to frostbite.
The first official Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign rally warmup speaker was Scott Slawson, the head of the United Electrical workers union local in Erie, PA, that is currently on strike against Wabtec, a company that recently took over their locomotive manufacturing plant and has set about trying to slash wages, push full-time workers into part-time jobs, and smash the union with new, aggressively anti-worker rules. The union is, of course, on the side of the angels, and the story of this strike is one of working people putting their livelihoods on the line to try to preserve a way of life that multinational corporations are set on destroying so that they may suck away middle class wages from workers and apply that money to their balance sheets. As righteous as the strike is, though, it has gained national news coverage primarily because Bernie Sanders has spoken out about it again and again. He is leading, rather than following, the news cycle here.
Scott Slawson is a decent speaker with a valuable message, but when you think about the menu of all of the celebrities who Bernie could have gotten to introduce him in Brooklyn, an anonymous union local guy from Pennsylvania is not on the list. He was there because Bernie Sanders believes in his fight. That union is getting far more from Bernie Sanders than he is getting from them. It is one illustration of what was clear even during the last campaign: inequality is ripping America apart, and vast portions of our nation have become deindustrialized and reduced to hopelessness courtesy of international capitalism, and the victims of that hopelessness were fetishized by Donald Trump, who promised them everything and has given them worse than nothing. Bernie offered a vision that was not only as anti-establishment as that of Trump, but had the virtue of also being the actual solution to the problems, rather than a thin web of lies, name-calling, and scapegoating. Not much has changed in the past few years. Bernie is back to ask those mythical Working Americans who have often been conjured up as a representation of Trump’s constituency: Have your lives gotten better?
We all know the answer already.
Shaun King, the writer and activist, was the final warmup speaker. He evoked the memory of Erica Garner, who rose to fame as an activist after her father was murdered by the NYPD, and who was a supporter of Bernie in 2016. “She loved him,” King said, “because she knew in his heart he was just an activist pretending to be a politician.”
Bernie hasn’t changed at all. That’s his appeal. He hasn’t changed since he was the young man getting arrested at civil rights protests. Activists are distinguished from politicians by their ability to maintain a vision of what should be, rather than just what is.
Bernie took the stage on the quad of the college he went to decades ago and called for economic and social and racial and environmental justice. He called for Medicare for all and a $15 minimum wage and prison reform. He called for affordable housing and child care and tuition-free college and stronger Social Security and new infrastructure and taxes on the rich. He called for the end of private prisons and cash bail. He called for campaign finance reform and immigration reform. He said he will take on Wall Street and insurance companies and drug companies and fossil fuel companies. He said all of the things that he said four years ago, and that he said the decade before that, and the decade before that. One reason why Bernie Sanders has never been a darling of the news media is that he is a broken record, a characteristic that offers little in the way of “news” as it is traditionally imagined. That is a consequence of having actual beliefs rather than campaign strategies.
I did not believe that Bernie Sanders should have run for president in 2020. Though I love him and share his politics and backed him last time around, I felt that the best way to advance the policies we both believe in would have been for him to back a candidate who shares his beliefs but who was younger, and perhaps not a white male. I mostly felt that Bernie is just too old. That his time as a viable presidential candidate has passed, and that he could do the most good by encouraging up and coming leaders behind him to carry his movement forward. I feared, and still fear, the possibility that he and Elizabeth Warren will split the vote on the left and open the door for a more centrist candidate to take the nomination. I had many spirited-to-angry discussions with Bernie partisans about this, where I always wondered what the concrete, practical policy differences would be between a Bernie presidency and a presidency of say, Warren.
A week ago, a union man made an argument to me that resonated. He said that true change will never come from electoral politics; it will always come from movements. Electing any U.S. president will not bring about the changes that the labor movement seeks, because a president is by definition embedded in and, indeed, the leader of a system that a movement seeks to break. The qualitative difference between Bernie and the other Democratic candidates, he said, was not that Bernie himself would make the changes we need, but that Bernie respects activism enough to not stop the movements from doing the things that they need to do to make the changes—the things that are usually viewed by the existing system as war. Bernie, he argued, would be the only one who would not stand in the way of the movements, where the real work happens. He was in his own way making the very same argument that Erica Garner did, before she died of a heart attack at the age of 27: Bernie is not really a politician. He is an activist. What we need is not just someone to hold the White House door open for the movement, but also to not call the cops when the movement starts to paint the White House black.
I do not know yet who I will vote for in the Democratic primary. But it is hard to deny that Bernie has a purity of spirit that is unmatched in the field. His policy prescriptions are good, but it is his quality of being magnetically attracted to the right side of things that could come in handy when America’s situation gets uglier. As it surely will. Shortly after Bernie launched into his speech on Saturday, the crowd began chanting: “Ber-NIE. Ber-NIE.” It started on the risers behind him, and spread quickly across the thousands of cold spectators with warm hearts. “BER-NIE! BER-NIE!” The man himself looked momentarily annoyed. Then he cut everyone off. “No, it’s not Bernie, it’s you,” he shouted. “It is all of us together.”