Words and Photograph by Sebastian Uchida Chavez
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
It was a cold Saturday morning in New York City; the snow that had fallen the night before, and that which crept onto the morning, was building-up on the streets and sidewalks. Hundreds, thousands, and finally tens of thousands of people gathered: young and old, black, white, latino, Muslim, Christian, agnostic, veterans, students, workers, whole families, and groups of friends. That Saturday morning, the snowy roads from across the city had been traversed by an America that is unlike the rest of the world, an America forged by the histories of the world, an America that came together looking for a future to believe in.
Outside the gates of Brooklyn College, lively voices filled the frigid air. As the mass of people waiting for the doors to open grew, so did the variety and depth of conversation between strangers — united not just by wait, but by the themes of material grief, outrage, and hope that strung through their lives and which they sewed together with words. By the time the doors opened and everyone made their way into the quad, there was not a stranger in the crowd, only a class bound by a shared experience and a vision of a better tomorrow.
It’s easy to think that what brought 13,000 people together that morning was one man. It is also easy to think that what mobilized millions of politically unaffiliated and disenfranchised people to the polls in 2016 was a campaign. How can one help but think that anything other than Bernie Sanders moved one million people to commit themselves to volunteer for his presidential bid this time around?
When Bernie walked up to the podium that morning, in the historically public, working class campus he once frequented as a student, he spoke of himself not as a messiah, nor as the man who would bring into fruition the world we desperately need. No, Bernie spoke of his upbringing in Brooklyn, of his childhood in a rent-controlled apartment a few miles away from where he stood that day. He spoke of his family fleeing the Holocaust and coming to this country, of his parents’ restless struggle to make a living, and of losing his mother before they fulfilled the American dream of having a house of their own. Bernie spoke of moving from Brooklyn to Chicago in the 60s and seeing the ugly face of racism at the height of Jim Crow, of fighting, marching along Martin Luther King Jr., and putting his life on the line to combat housing segregation.
Bernie’s story spoke to the frustrations of the people in the crowd and beyond, to working class Americans as a whole, because it was imbued with a broader message of social and economic injustice. Although it was Bernie’s story that brought people together in 2016, it was the fundamental truth of his message that resonated with a then-latent movement that continued to grow after the election, and which made itself present that Saturday morning.
That Saturday morning, the crowd broke into chants of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie! Ber-nie!”.
That Saturday morning, he replied: “Not Bernie, YOU! Not me, US!”
I didn’t get involved in politics because of Bernie Sanders. Like many others, I hadn’t heard of Bernie before 2016. Before then, I was moved into activism by the gut-wrenching poverty and misery I saw, and the gross opulence that existed alongside it. I became active in my community not out of admiration for a personality or figure, but out of fear that unless radical, mass action was taken, the select few who control the economic and political life of society would beckon the deaths of all the innocent, the crippled, and the wretched of the Earth.
In 2016, Bernie spoke to millions of people who, after the election, remembered his message every time they suffered or saw their loved ones suffer under a system predicated on suffering.
That year took me from activism to organizing because I learned that I was not alone in my frustration and that, in union, it was possible to change the world.
That Saturday morning I was reminded of the strength of our movement; familiar faces reminded me of its endurance, new faces reminded me of its expansive nature, and the tears and smiles in the crowd reminded me of its most powerful virtue: solidarity.
The fight to expand democracy in every aspect of our lives, from the polls to our schools to our workplaces, is long and in many ways grueling — but it is a fight we must give and one we intend on winning.