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A Firsthand Look Inside The Bernie Sanders Movement

Bernie Sanders Rally
Image: Bernie Sanders Facebook

We drove past the office, despite the dozen or so Bernie Sanders campaign signs in front of the decommissioned middle school. After a quick U-turn, my husband and I made our way back to the Bloomington, IL Bernie Sanders campaign headquarters.

The building was old and smelled of decades worth of use; it was the oddly comforting. What was once the city’s middle school was now a multi-use community building, and it was home to the humble campaign machine chugging along to get Bernie elected President. The office definitely lacked polish, but the life buzzing around it was electric. Bernie signs hung in every window and a diverse group of volunteers were busy chatting away with supporters over the phone. Half-eaten plates of food sat next to the folks manning those phones, presumably revisited only in-between calls. Priorities dictated that getting Bernie elected superseded satiating hunger, and it took a minute or two before I was even noticed — which was perfectly okay with me. I was anxious to get started, but there was also some trepidation. Bernie Sanders’ Illinois campaign was partially in my hands, and I was in no hurry to rush out and ruin it. Then I was noticed and the work began. After a brief orientation, a clipboard was thrust into my hands and I was out the door.

The choice to campaign for Bernie Sanders was a spur of the moment decision. My state, Tennessee, had already had its primary. Bernie Sanders was defeated soundly by Hillary Clinton, but a big win in Michigan a week later reinvigorated even the most dejected Berners. Since I was never dejected in the first place, the victory did more than just reinvigorate me; I was jonesing for the high that came after Michigan, and I was prepared to do everything I could to keep momentum going, so my husband and I decided to pack up our car and make the seven hour drive from Murfreesboro, TN to Bloomington, IL.

The finer details of the weekend are a bit boring, really. Ring a doorbell, knock on a door and wait two minutes before leaving. Ring another doorbell, knock on another door, and hope someone is home this time. My husband and I were out together, finding success at house number one. We were looking for two young adult males according to our clipboard, but instead we were greeted by a middle-aged gentleman named Robert. He’d been working in his garage but was happy to stop and allow us to chat off his ear about the gospel of fighting income inequality and providing valuable social services to all citizens. Luckily for us, his sons had already done most of the hard work; Robert was already a Bernie supporter. We were 1-0. House number two was a similar situation, only this time a young Berner’s mother closed the door it our faces.

Door to door, house to house, street by street, my husband and I canvassed until 9:00pm Saturday night. We mostly met amazing people who were eager to share their stories. We had a lot of success, meeting more Bernie supporters than supporters of every other candidate combined.

But that’s not the narrative that needs to be told. We went into the weekend thinking only about helping Bernie win Illinois, but by the time we started driving back home on Sunday, we realized that the story waiting to be told from the weekend was far more visceral. The Bernie movement isn’t about becoming President. It’s not about getting more delegates than his opponent. It’s not about winning. The Bernie movement is about Americans having a say, and it’s about hope.

We met many truly inspiring people, all with their own stories to tell and motivations for supporting Bernie, but there are a few people that really stood out. I’d like to share some of their stories with you, to give you a bit of insight into what’s behind the phenomenon that is Bernie. He’s defying odds by going toe-to-toe with the most powerful political machine the earth has ever seen, breaking Nate Silver’s algorithm that’s been so successful in predicting political races. By all measures, the democratic socialist from Vermont should have been knocked out of the Democratic Primary a long time ago, being crushed by the Clinton campaign like Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb and Lawrence Lessig. But he hasn’t, and we’re heading into the tail end of March with Bernie growing more popular every day.

That’s because of people like Minh, a 25 year old man from Houston who’d been working for RESULTS, a nonprofit that’s better described as a movement of everyday people trying to effect political change on the global scale to end poverty. Minh is an activist at heart, and as a member of RESULTS he was applying pressure on each of the presidential candidates to commit to ensuring that the U.S. would do its part in the fight against poverty. He had a chance to go work for the Clinton campaign as a paid staffer, but instead he chose to volunteer for Bernie. He gave up a paid gig to do grunt work for a candidate most people had written off. For him it was a simple decision, too. If his goal at RESULTS was to end poverty in the United States and beyond, then it stands to reason that he’d support the candidate he believed would have the best chance of helping achieve that goal. He chose Bernie Sanders.

Minh’s energy knew no bounds when I was in Bloomington. He was the one who gave me my initiation into campaigning, helping organize the staff of mostly volunteers in their canvassing efforts. Toward the end of the day, well after most folks had hung up their boots, Minh was dragging some of us out to continue to work, well past dark. He’d run from house to house, desperate to knock on as many doors as possible, the reflective safety vest a blur in the dark of the poorly lit Bloomington streets. His example is what motivated the rest of us to keep going, long after our feet ached and calves tensed up. Bernie’s campaign is alive because of people like Minh.

Minh the activist had his own reasons for supporting Bernie, and then there were people like Elsa. We knocked on her door looking for someone else, a mid-20s female, but instead were greeted by a woman whose hair had already turned mostly grey. Despite bothering her on a sleepy, lazy and wet Saturday afternoon, she was incredibly warm and eager to listen to what my husband and I had to say about Bernie. She was on the fence, teetering between Hillary Clinton and Bernie. A lifelong Republican, this was the year that finally caused her to turn her back on the GOP, what with their fiery racist rhetoric, childish and petty name calling and religious hate mongering from very unchristian Christians.

For Elsa, the decision was about who would best serve her four adopted children as President. Her concerns were simple: who was going to protect the rights of her gay son and who would best work to ensure that her daughter would be able to get affordable treatment for mental illness. Oh, and her kids were all different ethnicities, so race relations were pretty high on the list of concerns as well.

Within minutes, Elsa, myself and even my husband were crying together on her front porch. I shared my story about struggling with depression at times in my life, and we connected over the desire to make sure that no one in need should have to suffer because he or she can’t afford to go to the doctor. We also spoke about LGBT rights, and Elsa had no idea that Bernie had been supporting equal protections for LGBT people as far back as the 70s, and she definitely didn’t know he went to battle for them on the floor of the Congress in 1995, tearing down a GOP congressman who was spewing hatred about gays in the military. Being gay myself, that’s part of what made me a Bernie supporter, and sharing my wholehearted endorsement of Bernie on that front really hit home too. She also appreciated his record as a civil rights activist, and the fact that Bernie was willing to be arrested while fighting to end segregation in Chicago resonated as well. Now Elsa is a Berner too.

While out walking around a working class neighborhood, a man driving past my husband and I slammed on his breaks and got out of his car. What seemed like a contentious confrontation just waiting to happen turned into a deep and meaningful political discussion with a Donald Trump supporter. After a brief bout of condescension from this guy, wherein he though the hubs and I were just two college kids looking for free stuff (we’re both in our 30s and working professionals), we really got to the heart of his problem with politics in the United States and why he was a Trump supporter. Ultimately, this guy believes wholeheartedly that the entire political system is rigged by the top 1%, and that’s why he was supporting an outsider like Trump. He’d have been a Berner too, if not for that pesky socialist/communist label being tossed around by Trump and other Republican candidates.

We talked for a good 30 minutes, and it became pretty clear that this guy had no real clue what Bernie’s brand of democratic socialism looked like, but he finally relented and admitted that Bernie’s the type of outsider he’d support. If Trump isn’t the GOP nominee and Bernie makes it to the general election, I think we might have convinced him that Bernie is a good plan B for him. He’s just so tired of the influence lobbyists and large donors have on candidates, and he’s especially fed up with laws being created that serve only to protect the financial interests of those who already have more money than they could possible spend. He’s ready for a political revolution.

After that and before our final round of canvassing, I met two union guys from Indianapolis who’d driven to Bloomington to campaign for Bernie. These were grown men, probably a good 15 years my senior. They had decent jobs with decent benefits, and they were taking time out of their weekend to stump for the candidate they felt best represented them. More importantly, however, they were irritated by their union leadership for trying to push Hillary Clinton on the workers. In a show of solidarity, everyone in their union signed a petition telling leadership that they wouldn’t support the Democratic Party in the future if the union backed Hillary Clinton. Everyone knew that the union leadership was being pressured from higher up the food chain to go the pro-Clinton route, but the actual workers weren’t having it. Support for her, at least by their telling, was nonexistent, and the leadership’s hand was being forced by the Clinton campaign itself. They rebelled against the idea of falling into line and voting against their best interest, and they were putting their boots to the pavement to make sure Bernie got the Democratic nomination. To hell with what the Democratic party wanted. They were determined to let the voters decide.

Lastly, I’d like to share the story of Callista. She’s a young mother struggling very much to provide her son with a better life than she had. A product of generational poverty, Callista doesn’t believe in the American dream. It’s a myth as far as she’s concerned, and the idea of upward mobility seems like a fantasy that very few people get to experience.

Callista is in a complicated relationship with the man who fathered her son. He struggles with a truly crippling health issue and can’t afford the expensive treatment, which has made working difficult. He does what he can to earn money, down to selling their own possessions to pay the bills. Due to the prohibitive costs of childcare, Callista watches others’ children for money while watching her own son. They do receive aid in the form of SNAP and other programs, but it’s impossible for Callista to feed her son nutritious meals regularly, and it definitely doesn’t afford her the opportunity to get out of the hole she was born into.

The shame of Callista’s situation isn’t that she’s not capable of the proverbial “more.” She’s incredibly bright, often bringing insights into conversation that my college-educated mind couldn’t have even thought of. She knows the issues surrounding the election, and she knows how to share that information in a passionate way that everyone can understand. It’s what makes her such a great campaigner for Bernie Sanders.

My husband and I spent Saturday evening with her and Minh, canvassing until 9:00pm, desperately trying to share Bernie’s message with as many people as we could. Along the way we met two guys who were pretty much wasted beyond belief, and I sat back in amazement listening to this powerful young woman explain complicated political policies in a way that even guys deep into their cups could understand. She was brilliant, outpacing me in the progress she was making. Her intuition and insight into how humans think left me speechless. Where I struggled to hit home on the important issues, unable to get past the alcohol-induced blockade, she easily navigated the conversation and won over a convert. 

What was really impressive is that the guy she won over, Casey, had pretty much said “f**k politics, and I’m not voting.” He was so disillusioned by the belief that the political establishment was actively working against him and people like him that he wasn’t willing to fight anymore. He was angry that President Obama turned into another cog in the machine, bringing about no real change in his view. He was the type of person who would have easily voted for Bernie Sanders had he not already lost faith in politics. But that’s a vote Bernie had to fight for, because everyone before him has screwed up so much.

Callista has all the tools to be successful. She’s brilliant, energetic and can talk to anyone about anything. She’s also desperate to improve her life and the life of her son. That’s why she’s out campaigning for Bernie Sanders. She’s not getting paid, and while the lost income right now might hurt a little bit, she knows that getting Bernie in the White House is more important. It’s an investment in her future. All she needs is a chance. Not a handout. Not welfare. Not “free stuff.” She needs a simple chance. She just needs someone to break the political oligarchy that’s systematically marginalized people like her. She needs to find a way to help afford treatment for her son’s father, and a way to go to college without getting herself into debt. She needs Bernie.

More than anything, all Callista wants is to go to college, get a degree, and make a better life for herself and her son. With just a little help, Callista could turn her life around, break the cycle of systemic poverty for her son, and ensure that no one else has to suffer the way she has. A little help would get Callista off SNAP, into school, and ultimately into the workforce, paying into the social programs that she herself has received benefit from. But instead of the helping the Callistas of the country, we demonize them — which is the biggest tragedy of this whole experience, the driving force behind the desire to help our fellow countrymen and women. Bernie Sanders wants to help people like Callista — not the billionaires who are responsible for the situation that she is in by offshoring jobs and slowly gutting the middle class on their quest to consolidate weather and power at the top of the economy.

minh preston and callista campaigning for Bernie Sanders
From left to right: Mihn , myself and Callista

All those stories add something to the narrative behind the Bernie movement, but these aren’t the stories being told in the media. You’re being told that Berners are just young people looking for handouts, free college and free healthcare. You’re not being told of the people angry that the system is broken, fighting back against an oligarchy that stopped working for them after Dwight Eisenhower left the White House. There are union members who are fed up with their bosses for supporting the machine that’s shipping their jobs to China, mothers who are desperate to get an education to provide a better life for their children, mothers who don’t want their children to go without treatment for mental health issues or to fear bigoted racists and homophobes, and people furious that the already-rich are monopolizing wealth and power. You’ve got activists turning down jobs to support a candidate they know will effect real change, and you’ve got a writer trying to capture the emotion behind the Bernie Sanders movement. We’re all desperate for real change in this country, and that’s why we’re volunteering to get Bernie elected President.

The Bernie Sanders campaign is being pushed forward by everyday Americans who believe in their country and in the power of democracy. They’re just fighting for a chance to be heard. It’s a campaign for people who don’t want to be marginalized anymore, or who want to end the marginalization of others. It’s a campaign of activists, adoptive mothers, union members, and those who are done accepting a broken political system. Bernie supports won’t support homophobia, racism or corporate greed, and they won’t be defined by the labels the media is attaching to them.

If I learned one thing about the Bernie Sanders campaign, it’s that it’s being powered by real life humans. It’s a human campaign for other humans, and it’s substantive, it’s real and it’s visceral. I walked into an old middle school not knowing what to expect, and what I found was a campaign with a real live pulse, made up of people I’m now proud to say I’ve met. Bernie’s campaign isn’t about free stuff, folks. It’s about people, and making the lives of those people better. I’ve never been around so many strangers who felt so much like friends.

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