How I lost my voice being part of a movement
One drizzly evening last month I got on the subway, went to the Bronx and stood in a line for 3 hours for an event I didn’t get into. I had a brilliant time. In my slow-moving part of the line I stood with young Muslims and Orthodox Jewish students, Latino families and African-American groups of friends. We stood waiting to get into a Bernie Sanders rally, which was so over-subscribed we were eventually shunted off into an overspill field to watch on screens.
When the speeches eventually started I listened and agreed with everything I heard. No to continuing militarization and war, yes to universal health care and education, ending mass incarceration and stopping the destruction of the environment. Yes, it’s a dream, and yes of course its aspirational. Did anyone ever start an inspiring speech with “I have a pragmatic 5-point plan?” But also it made sense — I have spent a lifetime working against inequality, and injustice, and here was someone promising to do just that.
Living in the US, in a corporate mass-media world where endless clips of Donald Trump spouting his latest shock-tactic racist lines seem to dominate, its also, I think, important to get involved and help fight against this rise of intolerance and prejudice.
So recently I have spent all my spare time, and some vacation days, working as a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign. I have canvassed in Brooklyn and Queens, worked on security lines at the enormous Washington Square Park rally, helped new voters register in Manhattan, made phone calls from the houses of complete strangers to the phones of complete strangers at “phone-bank parties”, emptied trash cans and delivered food and drinks to other volunteers, and throughout met some really fantastic people.
At the Brooklyn campaign office, a disused factory converted to the NY HQ, I found my niche, training new volunteers how to canvass, and how to use a special app, “minivan” to do so. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers passed through the doors, like me, keen to get involved. I explained, and talked and talked some more. I stood on tables to talk as the groups of volunteers got larger. I stood outside to talk when the weekends were warm enough and the crowds even bigger. I talked so much I literally lost my voice, hoarsely whispering “make sure you talk to the registered voter on the list”.
A lot of people came by themselves to volunteer. Some were nervous at the idea of canvassing, but keen to have a go. Many were engaging in their first ever political activity. Some had not even voted before. I would pair them up to go out canvassing together, delighted to inevitably see them return a few hours later chatting and confident from their campaigning experience. The sense of a new and fresh movement was exhilarating.
A surprising number of people came “just to have a look”, curious at this movement springing up. Most of them stayed to help, buoyed up by the buzzing atmosphere in the office to have a go at canvassing or phone banking. People turned up with food to donate all the time, cookies and home-made cakes, bags of chips and snack bars. One guy volunteered to clean the bathrooms. The media came in droves — China, Japan, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Australia — volunteer office manager Lisa is big in all of them, filmed stoically and calmly showing the reporters around, explaining what everyone was doing, and gently keeping the film-crews from disturbing the work underway.
On the Sunday before the NY primary, 1045pm at night, and still the office was full. Canvassers long back from their shift, did not want to leave, and sat in groups, putting together bundles of materials and chatting. The atmosphere was convivial, hopeful and positive, the sense of community strong.
In my day-job I work at a lot of events where pressure is intense and tensions can be high. It was amazing how much teamwork there was, and how-good natured everyone remained, even when inevitably mistakes would be made. There were no hierarchies of roles, people pitched in, and found their niche, helped each other out, and somehow the teamwork was seamless.
It was also an incredibly diverse group. I think the oldest volunteer was 92 year old world war two vet Eddie, who turned up with pictures of himself at worker’s rallies in the 50s, and came back every day; and the youngest ranged down to babies in stollers, and enthusatic teens. African-America, Asian, Latino, Causasian, all races, and every religion piled in to help. Feisty grandmothers (‘Girl, I’ve been talkin’ politics before you was born’), new parents (“I’ve got a sitter, I can do 2 hours”), it seemed all of Brooklyn wanted to join in.
The best change is grassroots. Real change, inspired not by a top-down structure of perfect soundbites and slick ads, but by real people coming together in their own communities and standing and working together. I have canvassed with film produces, construction workers, retirees, students, realtors. All of them were welcoming, passionate people. As a European, the at-times adolation of Presidential candidates is quite strange, as is the football match-type atmosphere in bars where debates are shown. But the sense of a movement for change is familiar, and the outrage at injustice powerful.
Whatever happens in the elections this year, I think this is a movement for positive change, and I’m proud to be a little part of it.