Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Feeling the Bern

As part of my continuing support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, I attended his rally at RiverCentre in downtown St. Paul last night. I drove there, which was not really in keeping with the environmental theme of the movement, but I had many accomplices in that heresy.

There were lines snaking through the skyway into RiverCentre. I parked several blocks away and walked to the eastern end of the center, next to the Ordway on Rice Park. The queue at that end wound around the corner and stretched west for about two blocks. 

In classic Minnesota style, I thought about asking if this was the Bernie line but didn’t. I just went to the end of the line and picked up from the conversations that it was, in fact, the Bernie line. Breaking out of my Minnesota habits, I spoke up when a girl behind me said she hoped Trump’s candidacy was just a media stunt. I said that was probably “wishful thinking,” although it did feel like a “terrible dream.”

The line lurched forward a few times, but, like the girl said, we didn’t know if anyone was in charge or if they would tell us whether the place was full and they had stopped letting people in. The girl was a college girl studying singing at McNally Smith. I answered her questions about how caucuses work, based solely on the Bernie campaign training session I’d attended a month before.

We eventually filtered in through the doors and headed for The Legendary Roy Wilkins Auditorium. People were streaming in to the main floor or climbing stairs to the balcony. A young woman in a lanyard and Bernie t-shirt briefly shouted instructions for us, which was the extent of the crowd control I saw. This was a very well-behaved Minnesota crowd though, so no draconian tactics were called for.

I went to the main floor and found, luckily, a lot of room to move around. There were tons of people sitting in the balcony. Somebody said this was the overflow room, which was pretty impressive. I’m horrible at guesstimating, but they said it was 5,000 in Roy Wilkins and 10,000 in the main hall. I can buy that.

It was already 7:45 by then, but before the stroke of 8 Bernie showed up in the Roy unexpectedly. A rock concert-like scream rose up from the mostly college-aged crowd, alerting us to his arrival. Keith Ellison took the stage, followed by Bernie and his wife. “This is the overflow?” Bernie asked incredulously to a roar of approval. He favored us with a few remarks before moving on to the main hall.

The official program started with a five-minute speech from a Somali-American college girl wearing a hijab. Then came a brief intro by Keith Ellison before we got to the main course.

There was nothing incendiary in Bernie’s speech (unless you belong to the Mainstream Media, or “MSM,” as I like to write). There was no palpable anger in the crowd, aside from the occasional, emphatic exhortation from a lone person punctuating some of Bernie’s more “radical” opinions. There were many smiles on the faces of the people there and laughter originating thence. 

Yet still, as Bernie launched into his spiel, I had a sense of foreboding, as if I were attending just another political rally, just another group session of yearning for someone to save us from ourselves. I couldn’t help but think: “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. This isn’t how democracy works. We’re not supposed to wait for a savior to bring a preordained platform down from Sinai for us to rubber-stamp. He’s just a politician; he’s not an avatar of our hopes and dreams whose soaring oratory can lift us above this mortal coil to an astral plane.”

It also kinda felt like a late-era Roman emperor promising to keep the barbarian hordes at bay for a little while longer. We’ve listened as the Republicans’ rhetoric has become monstrous in its ignorance, violence and hatred. Perhaps we’re finally reaping the harvest grown from the seeds of death and destruction we’ve sown around the world. How much longer can we hold back the blood-dimmed tide?

My anxiety was eventually eased by Bernie’s repeated calls for a mass movement to enact his platform. As he kept saying, millions of us will have to “stand up” and “come together” to implement the social democratic (not technically “socialist”) policies he’s proposed. The Washington Consensus, funded by the wealthy and constantly reinforced by the MSM, considers these ideas radical and even dangerous, and the Establishment will fight tooth and nail to keep them off the table.

There was a big sign waving in front of the stage that had a painting of Bernie with fire for hair. It was a fitting tribute to this man whose hair often seems to be on fire. I'm sure that's central to his appeal in these days of fear, anger and economic insecurity. 

The crowd cheered and booed at the appropriate times, although we sometimes cheered for lines that sounded like boo lines, which I found a bit confusing. I clapped, “whoo”-ed and booed a fair amount; he was, after all, saying things I agree with. He went on for about an hour and managed to keep it pretty interesting without coming off like an “angry old man.” 

After it was over, we exited to the strains of David Bowie’s “Starman,” an apropos tribute to the recently deceased musician. It reinforced my perception of this as a typical political rally, but I was too encouraged by the happy college kids surrounding me and my fondness for the song to worry anymore. 

On the walk back to my car, I overheard a woman saying that she felt an opportunity to really engage people that night had been lost. I had to agree with her as 15,000 like-minded people returned to our daily routines. If we want this night to mean anything, we’d better take Bernie’s message to heart and stop treating politics like a spectator sport.