by Laura Gildart Sauter
Despite the cold wind and intermittent rain, the lines at the Moda Center wind around the block several times. Hipsters in man-buns, graybeards and grandmothers; pierced, purple-haired twenty-somethings; young families; a clutch of elegantly dressed young women absorbed in their phones, a little boy sporting a gray-sprayed mop and heavy-framed eyeglasses all waiting for hours for the chance to hear and see Bernie Sanders. The primarily young, primarily white crowd is well-behaved and cheerful, happily signing petitions to protect wildlife, raise corporate taxes, stop a gas pipeline. They buy Bernie T-shirts and Bernie buttons and snap selfies. My hands go numb in the cold and I keep dropping my phone.
Inside, it is a little warmer. Security is tight: purse searched, belt removed, water taken away (perhaps the last not so much for safety: the Moda Center sells bottled water for $4.75.) My friends and I find seats with a good view of the podium. Down below in the “mosh pit” “Burn Baby Burn” (Disco Inferno; the Trampps) is playing on the loud speaker and some young women are rockin’ out to music that hasn’t been popular since their parents were little kids.
I can’t help contrasting this crowd to what we’ve seen of Donald Trump’s rallies. It‘s certainly not dull, but there is no rudeness, no anger, nobody getting punched. Money unknowingly dropped on the floor is picked up and returned, the police are friendly and helpful, folks have brought their little kids and babies in backpacks. The atmosphere is like nothing so much as that of a high-school pep rally. Competing sections of spectators are trying to out-shout each other, clapping and chanting “feel the Bern!” and “the revolution starts now!” Someone stars a “wave” which ripples around and around the arena for several minutes. I pop out of my seat and wave my arms in the air several times as the wave goes around, but I quit after a few circuits. It makes me uncomfortable in a way I can’t really define – something about shouting and arm waving and the madness of crowds.
We wait another hour and a half for the stadium to fill. Folks trickle in slowly. Since the rally was held, the mainstream media has estimated the crowd at 11,500, but the arena holds 20,000 and it seems at least ¾ full; only the nosebleed seats are empty – those, and the luxury “executive suites” – the private boxes of the 1%. Appropriately.
It’s 1:25. More 60s music – The Supremes, Neil Young – the audience seems nostalgic for a time most of them never knew. I’m reminded a little of the enthusiasm we felt for Robert Kennedy before …everything happened. Finally, a young woman gets up to the lectern to (I hope, it’s nearly an hour later than promised) introduce Bernie. She is urging folks to vote, telling the crowd that they have until April 26 to register as Democrats. She announces that she has never voted in a primary before. Oddly, there is a note of pride in her voice as she says this. I’m glad someone has finally inspired her to participate. She is speaking to “first time voters” and “out of touch people who don’t have the Internet.” Unimaginable to her. I have to laugh.
Finally, after a punky-folk group and a couple more speeches urging folks to get out and vote – “heeeers Bernie!” He takes the podium to thunderous applause. “Looks like Portland is ready for a political revolution.” The crowd loves him, it’s clear. They even forgive the unimaginable gaffe of pronouncing the name of our state “Ore-gone,” which he corrects to much applause.
It’s a really good speech, as stump speeches go. Bernie Sanders is relaxed, friendly, articulate, and shiningly intelligent. He calls out the differences between himself and the Republican front runner, but he doesn’t really need to. The disparity couldn’t be more clear. He talks about Citizens United, super Pacs and money. He points out that his campaign has not accepted one dime from corporate interests but is instead supported by 6 million individual donations averaging $27. “This campaign is of the people, by the people, for the people.”
He speaks of the “greed and illegal behavior” of big banks that resulted in millions of ordinary Americans “losing their jobs, their homes, and their savings.” He talks of a criminal justice system that comes down heavily on the poor and people of color, but allows Wall Street to walk away scot-free. He mentions how he voted against the Iraq War and vows to phase out fracking and protect clean water. A small bird is flying around the arena. It flies so close to me I can see its black and brown markings and its beady eye. It’s obviously terrified by the noise of the crowd, and has no idea how to get out. It lands, briefly on a guy’s head, then flies away.
I’m starting to understand why this white-haired septuagenarian appeals so to young voters. He’s the wise father, the favorite uncle, the guy who has the answers and has your back. His presence is safe, comforting. We can do this, he’s telling us. It’s not so broken it can’t be fixed. Other politicians refer to themselves a lot. “I will do this.” “Elect me, and I will solve these problems.” Sanders doesn’t say “I” much; he talks about “this campaign.” He says “we.” “This is your country,” he tells the crowd. “This is your future. Get involved.”
Some of the loudest applause of the afternoon greets his next topic: “free public education, free college tuition is not a radical idea. If our kids do well in school, we should be able to tell them, yes, you WILL get a college education.” Just then, the little bird files up on to the podium, and the folks sitting closest begin to laugh. Sanders looks around for the source of the amusement, spots the bird, and smiles. The bird hops up on the lectern and stares at Sanders. Sanders stares back, chuckling and shaking his head, speech forgotten. Something seems to pass between them; they gaze at each other for a moment then the bird flies away across the arena. The crowd erupts with joy, shouting and stamping. It is a heartwarming moment, impossible to script, unplanned, human, revealing.
The speech continues; Sanders hits all the high notes: taxing Wall Street to help pay for college education, three-months paid family leave, immigration reform by executive order if necessary, reform of the penal system, an end to the war on drugs, a revolution in mental health treatment, single-payer health care. I wish he would say more about the concerns of African Americans, say something about the country’s need to address the largely-ignored legacy of oppression, the need to at least explore the idea of reparations. Still, I agree with everything he does say, as do the vast majority in attendance – Sanders is preaching to the choir here. But the reason folks want to vote for him, the reason he inspires the young and stirs the old is not so much what he says – politicians say many things – but has been revealed by the bird – his warmth, his humanity, his genuineness. He is a good man with good intentions. How far that will take him in becoming a good president is yet to be seen. I, for one, intend to give him that chance.