Feel the Bern: what I saw, heard and felt when I visited the New York campaign for Sanders

LOCATED in a small warehouse on Brooklyn’s 8th Street, surrounded by industrial and residential buildings — and near one of the best pie shops in town (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, in case you’re in the area) — Bernie Sanders’s New York HQ is remarkably understated.

Were it not for the blue-and-white banner cable-tied to the rust-stained fence — and this city’s visitor-friendly grid system — it is doubtful I’d ever have found it.

It is from here the New York campaign for Sanders — a 74-year- old Vermont senator whose 
 genuinely social-democratic platform has electrified the race for the Democratic presidential candidacy — is co-ordinated.

I haven’t called or emailed to let them know I’m coming. This is partly because I want to see what things are really like at the heart of this campaign — and partly because I couldn’t find any contact details on the website.

Sanders is some way behind Clinton in the vote

It is, therefore, with some trepidation that I pull open the heavy metal door and step inside.

I needn’t have worried. Even by US standards the people here — almost all volunteers — are incredibly welcoming.

The space is bigger than I expected. Two separate walls are piled at least six feet high with boxes containing flyers, posters, leaflets and other campaign materials. On the wall facing the door is a huge whiteboard with a list of “Things We Need”, including snacks, post-it notes and toilet paper. It’s all very familiar.

Another wall is covered with posters and stickers. Some are the standard campaign material I’ve seen in different parts of the city but two stand out. The first is a black-and-white photo of a 21- 
 year-old Sanders being arrested during a protest against racial segregation in schools.

Bernie Sanders at a rally

The second is a poster emblazoned with a slogan I’ll hear variations of, again and again, over the coming days: “Finally, a reason to vote.”

Next to the door stands a table topped with sign-in sheets and more campaign literature, the most striking of which is illegible to me due to being written in Russian. This spot is staffed by Tina.

“My daughter was really involved in the Occupy Wall Street campaign and we bought a button-maker back then,” she said. “We remembered we had it the other day so we’ve started making Sanders buttons.”

I ask how much they are. “No charge. Just take them.”

Across the room, a training session on data-entry is in full flow. More than a dozen volunteers are huddled around a folding table, laptops open, smiles on their faces, while another volunteer walks them through the process.

In another part of the room, a handful of recruits are being guided through their first “phone-banking” session, which involves cold-calling potential supporters, gathering their details and encouraging them to vote in the coming primary contests.

I may be more than 3000 miles from Scotland but, after the explosion of grass-roots energy that characterised the 2014 independence referendum, I feel very much at home here.

As the morning progresses, the flow of people, the enthusiasm and the noise increases. There is a buzz, a real sense the work being carried out here is important.

The door just keeps on opening, with more volunteers joining the action. They come in pairs, in groups or even alone. They come to make calls, to collect canvassing materials or just to ask what they can do to help.

In a city as diverse as New York it’s not surprising to find that the motivations for getting involved are varied but, as I speak to different people, one key theme emerges — these people want to see a radical, structural shift in the way their country operates.

Almost all of them seem to have voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but this time it feels different. Sanders, they tell me, represents real change in a way the current president never did.

Bernie, not Barack, is the one they’ve been waiting for.

The people here are angry –about inequality, about corruption, about the failures of their healthcare system and about what they see as increasingly limited futures for their children.

But anger is not the emotion that radiates most strongly; instead, there is an overwhelming feeling of hope which is utterly infectious.

Sanders’s supporters are not just raging against the dying light of the American dream, they’re setting out to reignite it.

To these people — and so many others across the country — Hillary Clinton is just another establishment candidate tied to Wall Street and the influence of what Sanders calls the “billionaire class”.

His campaign has been fuelled by small donors — Americans giving $25 or $30 a time — not corporations trying to buy power. “Paid for by Bernie (not the billionaires)” is printed on every leaflet and poster I can find. As several volunteers are keen to point out to me, “Bernie can’t be bought.”

It seems fitting that this is all taking place in Brooklyn and not just because Sanders, whose local accent remains unmistakable, grew up a few miles away in the Flatbush area of the borough.

Even when you can’t see them, the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline — one of which bears the name of Republican hopeful Donald Trump — loom over everything. Billion-dollar empires are just a subway ride away but, for the people who call this brilliant part of the city home, they might as well be in another world.

One of Sanders’s key campaign messages is that, “There is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.”

Even here, in this relatively up-and-coming area of Brooklyn, it’s not difficult to understand why that narrative has energised people. Sanders is quite obviously correct and New York, perhaps more than any other city in the entire country, proves it.

But for all the enthusiasm and dedication of the people there, the real strength of this campaign isn’t found in the official HQ. In a place where even the street art is political, the power of “movement politics” should surprise no one. Like all worthwhile movements — the Scottish ‘indyref’ campaign included — the most important work is being done on the streets.

That effort is epitomised by what I see a few days later on the ground floor of what looks, at first glance, to be a semi-abandoned apartment block on Seneca Avenue.

This is where I meet Amber, who has been running regular “phone-bank parties” from her studio for several weeks, inviting complete strangers into her home to pool resources and enthusiasm.

Once again, she doesn’t know I’m coming and, once again, I receive a remarkably warm welcome.

I have arrived early but, even so, I’m not the only one here. Steven — a regular at these events — is already sitting with his laptop open, ready to get started.

He is enthusiastic and well informed, able to readily provide detailed information on 
 legislative changes and key policy decisions which, he says, have brought America to where it is. He is also deeply invested in this movement and desperate for it to succeed.

Steven said: “This is the first time I’ve been involved in a political campaign.

“People have been waiting to hear this message for a long time. Issues around wealth and inequality are so important and now we have someone willing to talk about them.”

Does he really think that Sanders can beat Clinton, either here or nationally?

“A lot will depend on New York and Pennsylvania. If Sanders wins in New York then the Clinton campaign is in real trouble. Right now we’re probably around 11 points behind, but we can close that gap in 11 days. It’s definitely possible and we’ve got all the momentum.”

Amber is quieter and, she says, less knowledgeable than Steven, but her confidence and 
 determination are impressive.

I ask if, like Steven, this is her first campaign and get a surprising answer — she previously did some work supporting Ron Paul, an unsuccessful libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I liked some of his policies,” she said, matter-of-factly.

It’s obvious that she has been drawn to Sanders not by a sense of identity, but by his support for certain key policies and the belief that he is the best candidate to deliver the sort of change she feels is desperately needed.

Amber approves of breaking up the big banks who caused the financial crash in 2008 but, for her, the issues are even clearer. She added: “Universal healthcare mainly and free college education — that would be great.”

There is anger about Trump’s hateful rhetoric

She goes on to explain that the US seems to lag a long way behind other countries in these areas, before opening up about why the issue of healthcare matters so much to her.

Amber said: “I had a roommate a few years ago, and one day he didn’t get out of bed. I assumed he was hungover but later on went in to check on him. He’d got hurt on the way home and hit his head and I thought he might have a concussion.

“And you know what? I was scared to take him to the hospital. I knew he didn’t have insurance and was worried he wouldn’t be able to afford it. He could have died.”

It’s a situation familiar to millions of uninsured Americans, and one in which Amber has also found herself.

She said: “I went without healthcare for six months or so. During that time I got pretty sick, but I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. I just had to live with the illness and hope I would be ok.”

I tell them about the posters in the HQ and that a sense of hope is what’s struck me most during my brief experience of US politics. I ask whether they think it just might be enough to drive Sanders on to the victory they crave.

“Hope is invaluable and this campaign provides it,” Steven replied. “It’s all about giving power to those who have felt powerless for so long.

“We may not get another chance like this. It isn’t like other elections — it’s the most important in a generation, maybe more.”

Amber agrees but adds a caveat: “Tactically, it probably makes sense to tell people this is a once-in-a-lifetime shot but I don’t think it is.

“I don’t think he’ll be the last revolutionary candidate. He’s got such a movement going people will follow in his footsteps.”

She pauses for a moment, then adds: “I’m hopeful.”


Originally published in print and online by the Daily Record on April 19, 2016. Original article can be accessed at www.dailyrecord.co.uk

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