One of the loudest roars of the night came when Bernie Sanders proposed that marijuana be removed from Schedule 1 of the Federal Controlled Substances List. The exuberant cheers from the crowd complemented the unmistakable scent of the weed’s smoke that periodically drifted across the cordoned press section at Saint Mary’s Park in the South Bronx, where Sanders launched his New York campaign on Thursday night. It was an appropriate backdrop for what could just as well have been a 1960s music festival, albeit with a 74-year-old Jewish senator with a Brooklyn accent as its rock star.
There were some grey-haired old timers in the crowd who, like Sanders himself, might have been graduates of fabled venues such as Newport, Monterey or Woodstock, but the overwhelming majority were people whose parents may not have been born at the time. This was one of the most striking differences between Sanders’ fans and the people who came to Hillary Clinton’s kickoff event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem the day before: the former were half the age of the latter. And there were many more of them. And they seemed more genuinely enthusiastic.
Perhaps their excitement was fueled by a sense of growing momentum. Sanders is still the underdog in the April 19 New York primaries, but far less than he was a week ago, before his clean and unequivocal sweep on Saturday of the Western caucuses in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. The latest poll had him trailing Clinton by a bridgeable 12 per cent instead of the daunting 25-30 per cent they showed before.
For both candidates, New York is make or break. If Sanders’ falters here, his candidacy will be effectively over. If Clinton shockingly loses, it will be a whole new ball game. And With Clinton hurting, Sanders surging and Donald Trump faltering, the November 2015 prediction by the hitherto infallible Western Illinois University that Sanders would be the next president seems far less far-fetched today than it did back then.
If you are a Clinton fan, however, the still remote possibility that Sanders might win this thing wouldn’t be your most disturbing takeaway from his South Bronx rally. Rather, it would be the corrosive effect of Sanders’ ongoing efforts to taint Clinton with corruption by means of insinuation, the outright hostility of some of Sanders’ warm up speakers towards the Democratic frontrunner and the nurturing of a nascent conspiracy theory that would provide a ready explanation for a Clinton victory. We didn’t lose fair and square, many of Sanders’ followers will tell themselves, we was robbed: by the media, by the Democratic establishment and even by the Illuminati, according to some of Sanders’ wilder-eyed admirers.
“This thing is rigged,” actress Rosario Dawson told the crowd. “Shame on you, Hillary.” she then cried, halfheartedly asking the audience not to boo. A popular, effective and often venomous speaker, Dawson blasted Clinton for implying that Sanders didn’t care about women and then lacerated her for other alleged crimes and misdemeanors. She unabashedly asserted that Sanders’ fans share many anti-establishment sentiments with Trump’s followers, quipping that the main difference between the two candidates is that Trump would say “You’re fired” upon entering the White House, while Sanders’ slogan would be “you’re hired.”
But Dawson’s fiery tirade against Clinton was tame compared to the blunt message of popular Puerto Rican rapper Residente who told the crowd “it would be an insult to consider yourself a Latin American and vote for her.” Residente didn’t qualify his admonition to the primaries alone, providing further grounds for Democratic apprehension that many of Sanders’ supporters, and not only Susan Sarandon, won’t show up to vote for Clinton in a November ballot. One can hardly blame them, really, given that the “Democratic establishment” is constantly depicted as their sworn enemy, the media as their eternal nemesis and Clinton as a corrupt lackey of Wall Street who will come to no good.
Dawson and Residente were joined on the stage by the much milder talking, New York-based film director Spike Lee, completing the roster of Sanders endorsers who may have been chosen, in addition to their popularity, in to rebuff claims that the Vermont senator is supported mainly by middle class, liberal whites. The same logic most likely led Sanders to launch his campaign from South Bronx, a neighborhood still suffering from crime and poverty. The audience, in turn, was more varied than in most previous Sanders’ campaign rallies, though there were nonetheless more whites who made their way up from Manhattan and Brooklyn than Hispanics or African Americans who live nearby.
Sanders made a point of addressing his “brothers and sisters in the Latino community” and “brothers and sisters in the African American community.” He played up his own Brooklyn background, growing up as a child of immigrants in relative poverty. He got rousing cheers when he called for “revolution,” a prospect that some of his listeners seem to take more literally than Sanders intends. They want true upheaval, not just political reform.
For anyone who’s heard Sanders before, it was not an inspiring speech, though the cheerful audience didn’t seem to mind. Sanders, his voice strained by too many campaign appearances, repeated all of the slogans that form his staple message, and then some. By the time he was finished, a large chunk of his audience had heard enough, or was simply eager to beat the crowds and head home. It was getting chilly, the buzz was gone and the show was all but over.