Feeling the Bern: Bernie Sanders is hot in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — Imagine batting practice: A pitcher throws the ball every 15 seconds and the player at home plate lobs every single one of them far into the outfield, each one a home run.

That’s what it felt like last night at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, adjacent to the University of Southern California near downtown Los Angeles. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, and now candidate for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination, pulled out 27,500 wildly enthusiastic listeners, both in the arena and in the overflow crowd, to hear Bernie hit a never-ending succession of hard drives on issue after issue.

Each one drew a storm of applause, cheers, and chants.

I remember when I was a teenager meeting Virginia Epstein – in her 90s, blind and in a wheelchair – who mesmerized me with her recall of hearing Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs at Union Square a century ago. She pointed a finger into the air, as Debs did, and transported me into history.

Sanders’s campaign is likewise history-making: Record crowds, record support, and still a year out from the nominating convention – and all for a guy who says he’ll refuse all corporate cash. This is a people’s campaign.  

Before Bernie came out on stage, several speakers verified his bona fides. First up, the campaign’s national press secretary, Symone Sanders (no relation), a young, black criminal justice advocate and national youth chair of the Coalition on Juvenile Justice, who right off the bat referred to the one-year anniversary of Ferguson, and said a lot more work has to be done in this country to truly make black lives matter. We need someone in office, she said, “who will turn those words into action.”

The next speakers came from the environmental movement, the immigrant rights movement, the labor movement, the healthcare rights movement, and the actress-comedian Sarah Silverman, who played an important media role in the Obama campaign in 2008. She told the crowd that we need to take back such words as “morals” and “values” from the right wing. “Bernie is not for sale,” Silverman said. “That is so neat” (deafening applause).

“Working people matter,” said Donte Harris, president of the Communications Workers of America flight attendants unit in Los Angeles, currently working for United Airlines and waiting for a new contract. “Corporations are not people, we are people, and there is only one candidate who can’t be bought.”

All these speakers reflected the constituencies for major components of Sen. Sanders’s campaign.

A candidate in shirtsleeves

Sanders spoke for an hour in his shirtsleeves, hitting point after point, each one with a short exposition of the facts, and then a resounding commitment to make his a transformative presidency. But he reminded his followers: “I will need your help the day after the election as well…. No one person can do this alone.”

“This campaign is not a billionaire-funded campaign – it is a people’s campaign,” with “more individual contributions than any other campaign.”

“No president will fight to end institutional racism as I will,” said the candidate who 50 years ago as a college student went South to work in the civil rights movement. “I will push harder for fundamental change in our criminal justice system.”

Sanders spoke of the outrageous income and wealth inequality that has grown in the U.S. over the past 40 years, with the top dozen or so wealthy individuals controlling as much as the bottom half of the whole population. It’s “the great moral issue of our time.” “This country belongs to all of us and not a handful of billionaires…. We need a grassroots political revolution about transforming the United States of America,” and indeed, the t-shirts many in the audience wore showed their allegiance to that revolution.

“We have a message to the billionaire class,” Sanders told his audience: “You can’t have it all.”

The candidate spoke at length about the true statistics in this country concerning unemployment. The official figures are deceptive. They do not include those discouraged from work who have given up looking, and all those who are working part-time when they’d like to be working full-time with benefits. Among youth the numbers are frightening: For whites, 33 percent; Latinos 36 percent; and for African Americans, 51 percent.

Unemployment is closely related to the numbers of people in jail. “It makes a lot more sense to be investing in education and jobs than incarceration and jail.” Sanders has clearly absorbed the lessons of the New Jim Crow analysis.

Other points Sanders hit on to drive home his true “family values” agenda: pay equity for women, women’s right to control their own bodies and the right to acquire contraceptives, the defense of same-gender marriage, paid medical leave, 12 weeks of paid family leave after the birth of a child, paid sick leave, at least two weeks paid vacation, free state college and university tuition, and a massive federal jobs program to put people to work fixing the crumbling infrastructure.

Sanders stands unequivocally for a Medicare for all single-payer healthcare system that will finally cover every man, woman, and child in America as a right and not a privilege.

Sanders also criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Wall Street greed, recklessness and arrogance. “The kid who smokes marijuana gets an arrest record,” he reminded us, “while the CEO who destroyed the economy gets away with it.” “Restore Glass-Steagall!” he thundered.

Sanders is not profligate with campaign promises, but when he becomes president, he said, he will provide a litmus test for all Supreme Court nominees: They must vote to overturn Citizens United, the disastrous Supreme Court decision that essentially handed over the American political process to the billionaires.

And as for the Court’s decision two years ago on the Voting Rights Act, which reopened the door to widespread voter suppression targeting people of color, older and younger voters, students, he recalled a little of his own history, having both lost and won elections. “It never occurred to me that the way to win an election was to deny people the right to vote.” Those who do that today, he said, “are nothing more than cowards.”

Let us have, instead, automatic voter registration as soon as you turn eighteen. And let us “bring 11 million undocumented people out of the shadows,” people who are exploited and living in fear, without legal rights. Let us pass comprehensive immigration reform and create a path toward citizenship.

On issues of international war and peace, Sanders showed profound annoyance with his Republican colleagues who are always moaning about the budget. “How can they forget about the cost of war?” Sanders asked, citing figures of soldiers coming back dead, maimed and traumatized from futile wars in the Middle East.

Iran? By all means work to keep nuclear weapons away from further proliferation there, but “we have to do everything we possibly can without another war. War has to be the last recourse, not the first.”

“When we stand together,” Sanders wound up his captivating recitation of America’s woes – and of the hope we so desperately need – “there is nothing, nothing, nothing we cannot accomplish.”

“The reason we are doing well in this campaign,” Sanders said, reminding the audience of record-breaking crowds in city after city across the country, “is because we are telling the truth.”

The truth of one high fly after another straight into the bleachers.

A YouTube featuring Sen. Sanders’s Los Angeles appearance is here.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets his supporters at a rally, Aug. 10, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.