On Monday, November 16, I went to a Bernie Sanders rally in Cleveland. Now, I’m not a line person. I can’t think of any time I ever felt strongly enough about something to wait hours and hours for the satisfaction of having it. Growing up, I never purchased a Harry Potter book near its release date, and I never went to a midnight showing. I never camped outside the art museum in college for the chance at hanging a Picasso in my dorm room. Even bathrooms…I would sooner use the men’s room or squat behind a tree than wait for a dozen or more women to do their business.
It’s not as though I don’t like Harry Potter or fine art or all that. My default setting just happens to be ‘misanthrope,’ and I don’t wait well with others. So, when I found myself joining 6,000+ people outside the Wolstein Center to see Bernie Sanders, I was pretty sure I was out of my mind. It was a chilly Monday evening, and I had just finished a long shift at the museum. I was hungry and tired. I felt frumpy in my work uniform in a crowd of well-groomed, stylish millennials. More than once, I wondered what on earth I was doing there, but there was no turning back. Not really. My friend had dropped me off on his way home, and my only escape was on the RTA.
It honestly wasn’t that bad once I committed to it. I ended up running into a museum volunteer in the line, and I finally registered to vote at my new address. I only ended up waiting about twenty minutes before the doors opened, and another thirty for it all to kick off after I found my seat. Besides, I was pretty excited. It’s not every day you get to hear a presidential candidate speak four miles from your apartment…
I will apologize in advance, because I’m not going to speak much to Senator Sanders’ politics in this post. You can read articles written by much smarter people if you’re curious. Obviously, I agree with most of his platform, but I haven’t had time to really figure out how I feel. What follows, instead, is my account of what transpired as I attended my first political rally. My memory of events is based off a series of text messages sent to myself, so, obviously, it is very credible…
At 6pm, the doors to the arena opened wide, and I followed the herd inside. I briefly considered spending my bus fare (the only money I had) on a snack, but, seeing more dismal lines forming at the concessions counter, decided to find a seat instead. As I pushed back the dark green curtains and looked around, I quickly realized I was on the wrong side. The giant floodlights centered on the podium were blinding, and I didn’t feel like squinting at the Senator’s back for two hours.
Frantically, I pushed my way to the opposite side of the venue and took the first seat I could find with a decent view. Almost immediately, two men sat on either side of me and began manspreading into my bubble. Ignoring their weirdly encroaching thighs, I busied myself with eavesdropping.
(“Ohmygosh!” a young woman behind me exclaimed, pointing over my shoulder to the seats across the arena. “We could be on TV if we sit there!”
“Nah,” her companion responded, noncommittally.)
With half an hour still to go, I felt like a majestic eagle on a cliff as I watched everything fall into place. Eager young bodies packed into the standing section like sardines, despite the abundant space on the floor behind them, each hoping to get as close to the podium as possible. Campaign volunteers passed out official shirts and signs in the rows seated behind where Bernie Sanders would speak in order to present a more united front when the event was broadcast on television. I briefly wondered if the apparent sartorial unity at every political rally was staged.
At 6:30pm, a group of labor activists led an unsuccessful attempt to warm up the crowd with a slow clap.
(“What are we going to do?” the woman behind me asked. “Clap for thirty minutes?”)
At approximately 6:35pm, the labor activists abandoned the clapping and tried The Wave.
At 6:50pm, I wondered whether the music was so loud to compensate for the awkward sections of empty seats. I certainly wasn’t expecting so much unfilled space, but I would later learn that the crowd for Bernie Sanders on Monday was comparable to the crowd for Barack Obama in 2010. Apparently, watching a rally on the tunnel-vision of television is much different from watching it “wide-screen” and in person.
Senator Nina Turner took the stage at 7pm to introduce her cohort and potential candidate. She was inspiring. Her voice was clear and strong as she proclaimed her support for Bernie Sanders. “Enough is enough is enough!” she repeated as she gave a brief summary of what we all knew Senator Sanders would bring up in his speech. She closed to the sound of applause as she spoke of her grandmother, who used to say: “You only need three bones to get you through life: a wishbone (for hope), a jaw bone (to speak out for justice), and a backbone (for courage when all else fails).”
(“Turner turns up!!!!!!!!” I texted myself as I stood and cheered for her eloquence and power.)
My reaction to Senator Sanders’ speech was overwhelmingly positive. His choice to raise funds from small donations rather than large corporations is commendable. His devotion to the working class, to families, to social justice is like a dream. At 7:36pm, he said, “It’s not about electing a president. It’s about starting a political revolution,” and my eyes filled with tears. He was straightforward and direct as he spoke. There was no hemming and hawing about the brother of an uncle of his father who had once worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. He didn’t provide an extensive biography of his wife and kids. The issues were the stars, and he refused to waste time with gimmicks and fluff.
He also refused to waste time waiting for folks to cheer. Unlike an orchestra concert, where you know not to clap between movements, it was difficult to tell when applause was appropriate. It seemed like nearly every point was punctuated with loud approval. “WE LOVE YOU, BERNIE,” was a shrill and constant echo across the venue. Corporations elicited hearty ‘boo’s and dismantling the prison industrial complex met with vigorous ‘whooo’s. Yet, no amount of shouting could phase Senator Sanders. Despite the repetitive chanting of his name (to which the woman behind me always joined five seconds too late), he rarely paused to acknowledge it. No one cared. They shouted anyway.
Despite feeling so deeply the truths Bernie Sanders illuminated on the podium, I did feel just a little torn. At the same time that Sanders seemed so familiar with our nation as a whole, there were moments when I questioned his familiarity with individual states like my own. Despite a neat shout out to Marcy Kaptur in the middle of his speech, things got a little weird when, at 7:54pm, he tried to make a joke about The University of Ohio.
(There is no University of Ohio.)
More importantly, I felt decidedly unknown as an Ohioan when he spoke of racism and police brutality. Don’t get me wrong. He knew the names and the stories many victims of institutional violence. “Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown…” I held my breath and waited. Please, I thought. Please don’t forget him. A few other names, and then he said it: Tamir Rice. I sighed with relief, but I still felt uneasy. Perhaps it was because he was speaking in Cleveland, where I live, and where the life of that 12-year-old boy was needlessly taken by police one year ago (almost to date). I appreciate with all my heart that Bernie Sanders is listening to Black Lives Matter organizers and that he is updating his platform as he considers their concerns. I am thankful that he has made these issues a part of his campaign. But, at the moment, what I took away was that Tamir Rice’s name was mentioned last, when, in our city, it should have been first.
Around 8:30pm, despite Senator Sanders’ captivating speech, I found myself distracted by an adorable baby, such that I even texted myself a reminder for my records. Her mother was walking her around the empty space in the standing section. The security guards were bending to make faces, even the media put their cameras aside to wave to her. I could hear her giggles from where I was sitting far above the fray. Every time the crowd would cheer, she would clap her hands and shout along, but she had no idea when to stop. I started to laugh and realized that nearly the entire arena was laughing with me. We were all distracted.
(“Sorry, Mr. Sanders. You just can’t win against a happy baby.”)
The baby went away with her mother right before Bernie Sanders began his inspirational conclusion, and I was a rapt spectator once more. As he professed his confidence and pride in the United States, he refused to put limits on our capabilities as a nation. “Don’t tell me we have to have high rates of childhood poverty,” he rallied. “Don’t tell me we have to smother our young people in debt.” The more he spoke, the more inspired I became. I let go of many of my misgivings, and I even forgot how much I hate his hashtag. I forgot how worried I was that my coworkers would make fun of me for going, or that I might somehow alienate my more conservative friends. I walked out into the night, chased down my bus, and, for the first time in a long time, I was proud and confident in the United States, too.