I drew a heart next to Bernie Sanders. I almost wrote, “All Power to the Soviets” or “Bern Baby Bern” but didn’t and just danced in the voting booth. I smiled, kissed my ballot and cast it.
While leaving, a poll worker stared at me, “Having a good time in there?” I ducked her eyes, but outside, raised my hands as if touching clouds and wondered, what if he wins? What if this elderly man, who looks like a crazy hair pencil, who collects the agony of the poor and yells it at the media, what if he wins?
I did a silly two-step and just felt it. This hope. Felt how rare it was. Felt how it flowed from a clenched place under my navel. A year ago, I barely spoke about the campaign and now I was drawing hearts on ballots. Foolish? Yes, but millions had let that feeling free and it moved the mountain of No, inside us. No from the liberals saying we can’t win. No from the conservatives saying we were communists. No from Marxists saying elections are a trap. No. No. No.
Now we had a self-described socialist within spitting distance of the American presidency. The world was watching, because when you peeled off the ideology, what was left was a simple thing. We wanted to love our neighbors. We wanted everyone to have enough because we’re tired of hurting each other to get it.
Strangers wearing Bernie stickers walked by me. We waved at each other. And then one of them thrust his arms in the air and shouted, “BERNIE!” I pumped my fists and shouted back, “BERNIE!” We kept yelling and raising arms, just random strangers, reaching above ourselves for something higher, something better.
“He’s an idiot.”
“Why?” I flinched on the phone.
“You see his Facebook post?” my friend Eric chortled, “He’s all in for the Sanders campaign.” I bit my tongue, not wanting to debate someone who can make an airtight argument even when he is wrong.
But it was strange, I thought, why would Yotam do that? He was a well-known New York organizer, the kind who kept his chin up when being arrested. He was so eerily handsome that he looked like a movie star in handcuffs. He’s ballsy too. Half the fun of protesting was seeing him stare at cops with so much contempt you’d think their guns would melt.
“No theory,” my friend said, “He’s got no theory. He can’t see Sanders is a sheepdog, his role is to get the Left excited then have them fall in line to the Democrats for the election. Jesse did it in ’84 and ’88. Dean did it in 2004. Same bait-and-switch. Same hustle.”
Months ago, I remembered a news clip of Sanders telling a few reporters he was running for president. He announced it on his lunch break then hurried back to Congress for a vote.
I forgot about the senator. I forgot about a lot of things when Black Lives Matter ebbed from the streets. I forgot how to see other faces as mirrors of my own. And how the weight pressing on me was also what caused my neighbors to drink hard, fight hard, yell hard. It was the same one that made friends burst into tears as they talked of dreams being blown away like kites in a storm.
I was going numb too. I hid inside earphones and my cell phone. Got lost in the Internet’s endless maze of glowing worlds. Inside this virtual life, I became like a Russian doll, shrinking into tinier versions of myself until I was a pile of empty shells, rolling out of my hands.
Once in a while I saw Sanders on TV at a rally, where mostly white, mostly young but adoring crowds chanted his name. Sure, it sounds good, I thought. But who cares, he’s never going to get the nomination. Nobody serious, nobody smart thought he would. The world is what it is. A heavy mountain of No.
“Hey you still there,” he asked. The phone had been quiet.
“Oh. Sorry,” I stared at the ceiling, “Am I here? I don’t know. I don’t know where I am.”
My phone buzzed, I got a text, opened it and saw a photo of a guy in a crowd, smiling as he held a banner that read, “Bronx is Berning.” My man Ziggy sent it, so I walked outside, called him.
“Yo, Nick,” his voice was blurred by the roar of people cheering, “You still in California? When you coming back?”
“You at the Bernie rally,” I shouted. He said he was, he said it was massive and that all this love electricity made his dreads tingle; he said fuck Hillary and that we can change the world. I was feeling him.
We talked about the accidents of history. The Republicans had imploded and Donald Goddamn Trump was going to be their nominee. America was looking left for a sane choice. And there was Hillary shuffling back and forth like a soccer goalie in front of the White House as Bernie kept weaving around her. It was funny. It was sad. But it was dangerous.
We talked about Bernie winning and Team Left stepping up. The ruling class would come down hard. They’d cut a deal with whomever they could. If Trump won because we couldn’t get our shit together, Nightmare America would be very, very real. I was scared. But I was hopeful because the prize, if we won, was our lives.
We talked about what it could mean. Free health care. Free college. A jobs program, a New, New Deal. I told him how Mom struggled caring for me as a child, how Reagan gutted programs left and right and we fell through the shredded safety net. Sometimes, I saw her crying on the couch, sifting through bills on the table as if they were strange, unreadable Tarot cards. I told him how scared I was of poverty. Even now, on my street, I saw folks begging on corners or who died before hitting 50 years old, wheeled out on stretchers. I just wanted all this useless pain to stop.
“Amen, brother,” he said. “Amen.” He told me to get my ass back to New York, and we hung up. When I tilted the screen, it reflected a tiny plane flying overhead that left chalk lines of smoke across the sky. Tilting it again, I saw again the man holding the banner for Bernie. I toggled it back and forth. Man. Plane. Bernie. Clouds. Man. Plane. Bernie. Clouds.
At 36,000 feet in the air, America was a patchwork quilt of land. Forehead on window, I stared at my nation, my home and wanted to feel “the Bern” but we’ve been here before. Hope and change. That whole thing.
Far below me, Democrats and Republicans were crisscrossing the states, waging internal battles for their base while fighting each other for the undecided voter. I imagined the red state, blue state political map over the earth. Here lived the voters they wooed. Some were loyal to a vision, many were undecided, many just fucking ignorant. Half didn’t even vote. Which pissed me off. But a lot of non-voters were, I knew, poor, they worked too many hours to go vote or if they were free, couldn’t find transport. They move a lot and couldn’t register on time or afford ID. They can’t wait in line for hours. They are exhausted by the lies.
Night came and swallowed the land. Cities looked like tiny glittery anthills in space. All the light we create, I thought, with our media, our stories. And yet most people live in the darkness outside.
Unite the Hood
I was a near the podium Bernie Sanders would use to address the growing crowd. It was the Prospect Park rally and I came to see his face in real time, pick up all the subliminal bodily cues obscured by cameras and microphones. He will sweat right in front of me. Maybe even spit. It could be a baptism.
Friends called me over, we talked, caught in the rising joy. People held signs, wore “Bernie 2016” t-shirts. Smiles multiplied with every hug. We stood under the bright sun, laughing at the smell of marijuana, at how stupid Trump was, how wild it is that a socialist got this close and again how stupid Trump was. But I felt it was time to leave, even if I missed Sanders, I had to go.
I took the 3 train, got off at the Van Siclen stop and walked around the projects aimlessly, blindly, compulsively. Not knowing why. Maybe thinking how New York has very low voter turn-out and the poorest areas like this one, filled with the most people, are barely seen on election day. Maybe it’s (was) because from 36,000 feet in the sky most of America looks like it lives in darkness.
I replayed the memory of the mostly white crowd at the rally and imagined them cheering Bernie in this public housing plaza. And laughed. Wow. That’d grab attention. But to do that they’d have to leave their roles in the invisible story they told themselves about race and class. One that goes, I’d be robbed, raped or killed. Or I’d be wasting my time because they’re too fucked up, too poor to vote. They’d have to leave that story and create a new one with the people here.
A young man passed by me, rapping to himself. I remembered a documentary on the rise of Hip Hop in 1970s New York. Just as bad then as it is now. Gangs cut neighborhoods apart. If you crossed the line, you’d splash in your own blood. But those young men, under pressure from the cascading grief pouring from every face they knew, held a gathering and signed a treaty. In the early fragile peace, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc plugged sound systems into city streetlights and blasted the pain from people’s bodies with giant speakers booming planet-sized beats.
How we needed that now. I stared at the projects and imagined all of us together, the white people from the Bernie rally dancing alongside everyone from the Hip Hop documentary but those ‘70s Black and Latino New Yorkers were old and dancing with their adult children who now had kids of their own. Some of whom were trapped in these same buildings today.
It was fun to think. All of us rewriting with our limbs, a new story for us to live. And driving the music was fucking Bernie, one hand on his headphones as he leaned over his DJ laptop, toggling knobs, yelling as his white hair flew, “I’m about to drop a YUGE BEAT!”
Since it was an impossible act of imagination, I let myself see my mom, young and wide-eyed, dancing as she threw all those unpaid bills in the air. God, we could have used Bernie in the ’80s.
Then I laughed and came back to -reality. Dream on, nigga, dream on. I went home and, the next morning, saw a report of Sanders visiting the projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “It is absurd,” he said in his earnest raspy voice, “that 35 percent of African-American children are living in poverty.”
He’s so sweet. It’s like he heard me yesterday. I kept saying where’s your DJ equipment, Bernie, where is it?
“You voted for Hillary, right?” the older Black woman teased the hipsters walking down the street. One turned around. “I’m with her,” he beamed as they cheered. Gritting my teeth, I called my friend Lady Dragonfly.
“Yo the craziest reverse racial condescending just happened. An older sistah, grandma level, just hollered love at white hipsters,” I was nearly panting from walking fast, “For — get this — voting for Hillary!”
“What,” her voice nearly broke, “Oh checkmate. They must be so happy. They got a seal of approval. Whatever. Just cause she’s an elder don’t make her right.”
“I know,” my free hand was pulling at my hair, “They act like she’s fucking Maya Angelou. What the hell does she know? Really? Did she do the research before going for Hillary? Grandmothers don’t even know who got molested in their families, how am I supposed to trust their political judgement?”
“Oh. My. God,” she laughed, “You went there.”
“Who’s driving the ice-cream truck grandma,” I said, half choking on giggles, “Who’s driving it?”
“He’s an idiot.”
“Oh, come on now,” I pushed back, “Bernie Sanders is not an idiot.”
“If he really believes that political revolution shit he’s peddling,” my friend Chris said, “He’s an idiot.”
Again, I bit my tongue, he’s older and I look up to him, even when he’s wrong. Leaning back in the seat, I listened as he said Sanders had tapped into a hunger go beyond normal politics but all he was going to do was funnel it, right back into electoral politics. It was a farce.
“Hmm, that’s an uncomfortable thought,” I said, “You’re saying Bernie is a more successful con man than Trump.
“All Trumps got is bigotry, nationalism and steaks,” I mouthed the words numbly, “Bernie has the Revolution.”
He laughed again.
“If Bernie won the election,” he said, “Everything he promised would be left behind. When people get into positions of power, they magically transform into the institutions they opposed.”
I sighed, “How does any of this change.” The question was too big. It dropped inside me and pulled thoughts into a place I couldn’t reach. This is it. This is all that will ever be. This world.
I looked out of the window, watched a Black man with plastic bags on his feet, holding a sign, begging for money on the side of the highway. And another man stood between lanes, holding his hands out as cars sped by.
This is all.
Planes flew like giant dark arrows shot across the sky. Evening had come and I was on the roof, pacing back and forth, cellphone next to my ear.
“There’s this joke on the Left that if voting changed anything,” Bill Fletcher, my long-time friend, said, “They’d make it illegal.”
“I remember that.”
“I never liked it,” his voice sharpened, “If voting wasn’t important, why suppress it? For many people it has been effectively abolished; felons, in practical terms, the poor and homeless.”
His words reeled in a memory of Sanders being interviewed the day after he lost New York’s primaries. He was chastened, sad eyed. When asked what happened, he said, simply, “Poor people don’t vote.”
I thought of my fantasy, revolutionary dance party in the Van Dyke Houses’ public housing plaza. Nothing changed in the real world. Young men were killing and being killed. I could leave and come to my rooftop, call my friend and talk about poor people as if they were echoes.
“My mom was on welfare in the ‘80s,” I said, “Not long but long enough to feel shame. If Bernie had been president maybe our family could have stayed together. So when I hear them say voting doesn’t add up to much, I get heated. You gotta be coming from a serious place of privilege to say reforms that save lives don’t matter. And reforms don’t even get people what they need, you know, we survive without it but damn … just vote, please.”
“I think that’s a good line,” he assured me, maybe he sensed I was wrestling with myself because his tone was saying, yes, keep your heart turned toward others, keep open to all forms of struggle.
We said goodbye and I felt the heaviness of Bernie not winning the Democratic nomination. But I was grateful to this man. He made socialism a clean word. He reconnected a fractured Left. He showed us a new, small donor model of challenging the establishment. He made us visible to each other.
A chill was blowing across the sky. I walked to the rooftop door when in the Louis Armstrong Houses, a light when on and I saw a blue sign in the window. Squinting hard, I saw it was a Bernie Sanders poster.
Putting the Soul in Socialism
“What if Trump wins,” I asked the class.
“Someone will assassinate him,” a voice shot out. Everyone broke into laughter, turned and saw one of the shyest students in the class, covering her mouth.
“Where did that come from,” I asked but she waved me to let it go. Over the chuckling, I wagged a finger at her and mouthed “stop it”.
“What’s your ideology,” I spread my arms, “You have to figure that out to navigate the world. On one hand, conservatism holds that inequality is good, whether because it is seen as natural or traditional.” I swung my hands to the other side, “And liberalism holds that inequality is wrong and not justified by nature or tradition but enforced by the powerful who profit from it.”
“That’s why Bernie was in the projects,” a student said from the back row, Kango hat slid sideways, “His whole rap is how inequality is wrong. I was feeling him. I was like check out this old white man strolling in the hood. One of the guys with him said he was the first, the only really, presidential candidate to visit Brownsville.”
Questions flickered in their eyes so I called up the video. The screen lit up with him in the projects, squinting in the sun, breaking down point-by-point why poverty was absurd. Some of my students are on Section 8, some live in public housing, they nodded their heads to his words as if some inner tide was moving through them.
“Professor,” a student said, “Can you click on the one where he talks about his spirituality?”
I did. The class leaned in, listened, sifting his words and tone to map out his truth, working class people do that a lot, use a kind of radar to search for sincerity. It’s a survival mechanism when you grow up around desperation. I have it too.
“At some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt,” Sanders raised his eyebrows and pointed to himself, “I hurt.” He circled his hands. “When we say that child who is hungry is my child, I think we are more human. That’s my religion. That’s what I believe in.”
I saw the light from the screen reflected on their eyes and glasses. I felt what they felt. The need to believe that someone hears us. That our needs can be answered. That we are not alone. And here was this man who said we were in this together. Needed that feeling. And I was scared of hope dying in the cold machinery of politics.
“Bernie! Bernie!” the chant came from the screen. The video had ended and went to a new one of a stadium filled with chanting people. “Bernie! Bernie!” a student from my class joined in and then another one, smiling. A wildness lit the room. Another joined in. “BERNIE! BERNIE!” Then another. And then another. And then I joined.
Nicholas Powers is a professor of African American literature at SUNY-Old Westbury. He is the author of The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street (UpSet Press).
They Lit the Bern, What Comes Next?
By John Tarleton