“Oh, he is such nice man,” a young girl on a scooter said while we were standing on Fifth Avenue. As with all the streets that lead to the park, the last stretch of Fifth Avenue was sealed off by the police. From where we were standing, we could see the park’s gigantic arch with a white dot underneath — that was Bernie Sanders speaking to the ocean of people in front of him. It was toward the end of his hour-and-a-half-long speech. Sanders’ strong but raspy voice was still echoing around the square.
The only people who seemed not to be listening were the policemen. With no particular need, they were moving their barriers around with hysterical gestures and, from time to time, hustling people to move back or forth a few inches. But my young neighbor was transfixed. Even when she talked to me, she was looking into the distance. So we sort of looked in the same direction — towards the arch — and talked about the 2008 campaign and the present one. That is, about Obama and Bernie. A theme buzzes in my head: similar to Sanders, Barack Obama rallied a huge crowd in the same square eight years ago. He, too, was competing with Hillary Clinton, who considered him — as she now considers Sanders — to be an intruder in her political backyard. But Obama in 2008 inspired people with hope for indefinite change. With the feeling that with the black president in the White House racism would finally end. It did not, as you might have noticed already. Racism has even been escalating over the last few years.
Sanders’ appeal for unity is more generational. I asked my new friend — who will vote for the first time this year — whether she noticed any similarity between Obama and Sanders.
“Obama did quite a few bad things,” she said, still facing in the direction of the arch. True. Who did not, I said. But in 2008, the enthusiasm for Obama was similar to what it is now for Sanders, I said, adding that she might not know it, because too young then.
Actually, there may be a difference, I tried to point out: the enthusiasm for Obama was strong even within Democratic party, I said. But then I turned around, and she was nowhere to be seen. She did not want to be disturbed in her decision to vote for Sanders. I felt sorry to impose my opinion on such an idealistic young soul in her first political experience.
The young lady was soon replaced by a group of skateboarders that stopped in the middle of the crossing, chanting Sanders’ name for a few minutes. After a moment they told us, “We are sorry, but we have to leave now.” And with that, they rolled away.
Like me, they were doing rounds around the square. I came to the park at six p.m. and got the Bernie sticker, almost the way one might get a ticket for an event. Then I got stuck. The police barricades were dividing all the streets around the square into endless, incomprehensible corridors surveilled by hundreds of police. All access to the square was blocked with police cars, while the participants of the rally — tens of thousands of them — were only allowed to move on the sidewalks, simply watching the fenced-off but empty streets next to them. That majorly slowed down access to the square, where Bernie’s stage was ready, and rock music was playing. Long snakes of humans of all age, colors, genders and religions were slowly winding around the buildings and back towards the square. There were two entrances equipped with metal detectors, but for some reason, the police only started to let people in half an hour before the event. I tried to cheat and get into the square by jumping the long line, but there was no way to do it.
I was the only one making silly remarks about how Mayor de Blasio commands the police — about how, since he is a Hillary Clinton supporter, he was doing a favor to her by creating obstacles for Bernie’s supporters. Aside from a few grins and smiles, there was no discussion. New Yorkers, when outside of their supermarkets, are the most self-controlled and civilized people on Earth. And from the moment they are born, they all know that it is not good to mess with the black-clad, heavily-armed and on average overweight New York police. Something that is very hard to learn for a person like me, who has trouble separating a person from his uniform.
Why am I saying this? To tell you that the police in the square were not some sort anti-terrorist force, but regular cops who were there to manage us, the Bernie crowd.
But the crowd was fun, very human and deeply politically religious. In other words, Bernie people mean it. They are not loud and violent, but very determined. With their non-violent manners, they evoke the early Christian community, from the times when their faith was still persecuted by the Romans. I moved around the streets on the side of the square and talk to these people. They were all on the same page with Bernie Sanders. Did they want to do something more than they were doing already? No — voting was still the strongest weapon they had. No punches, no walls, not missiles, no drones. They just wanted their lives back.
For them, there was no future, no hope. The moment was now. America has to catch up with the 21st century, has to start building up and taking care of its own people. And in order to move on, everybody has to vote. It does not matter if these primaries are rigged by the leadership of the Democratic Party, who protects their candidate by instating the rule that voters need to register six months before the primary vote. Many of the people who registered to vote independent due to previous disappointment in the party are now too late to register as Democrats again, which means that they cannot vote Sanders. Who knew Bernie would survive and create such a movement?
In a very short time, Sanders managed to transform the prevalently Democratic, but strongly status quo city into a Greek polis. After being left out of political process, New York is now at the center of the political debate surrounding the primaries. Can New York gather enough support for Sanders to reopen the race for the nomination — a nomination that mainstream media already ascribed to Hillary Clinton?
Next Tuesday’s primaries are fundamental for both Republicans and Democrats. “We’ve got no more time. Climate change is telling us that we have to move right now, and we need bold leadership to get us there. We are heading off the cliff, and slowing down is not the way. It’s about changing direction,” said actress Rosario Dawson, who was warming up the audience before Sanders’ arrival. Dawson called the New York primaries an opportunity to recognize the invisible.
“Bernie is not an obligatory progressive who will keep the left in line until the presumptive moderate emerges. Bernie is not a Democratic Party insider who would bow down to elites in the party. We are done with that. We are done with the compromises of our ideals. We are done with triangulation- and fear-based politics. Our moment is now,” film director Tim Robbins preached from the pulpit under the Washington Square arch.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movement like this before. Well, perhaps. If some people thought that Obama was a sort of prophet in 2008, then Bernie Sanders — with his age, with his warmth and experience — personifies a pope for many in this country. So when — around eight p.m. last Thursday — he came onstage, many people could not see him. They were too far away. Then, after a few moments of silence, the air crackled with that deep and reassuring voice:
“There are a lot of people here tonight,” said Sanders — and thousands roared, screamed, laughed happily. Habemus papam!
Also published on Medium.