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Feeling the Bern: How a socialist senator took Los Angeles by storm

Bernie Sanders is reclaiming Republican talk of ‘morals’ to champion universal healthcare and pay equality, explains ERIC GORDON

IMAGINE batting practice in which every single hit is a home run.

That’s what it felt like on August 10 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in downtown Los Angeles. Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, now a candidate for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination, drew 27,500 wildly enthusiastic listeners, both in the arena and in the overflow crowd.

Each point he made 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 mesmerised me with her recollection 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 also making history: record crowds and record support while 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 addressed the crowd. 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 for 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, immigrant rights, labour and healthcare rights movements, 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. “Bernie is not for sale,” Silverman said to deafening applause. “That is so neat.”

“Working people matter,” said Donte Harris, president of the Communications Workers of America flight attendants unit in Los Angeles. “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 Senator Sanders’s campaign.

Sanders stood in his shirtsleeves and spoke for an hour 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 US over the past 40 years, with the top dozen or so wealthy individuals controlling as much as the bottom half of the whole population. He called it “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.” 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.”

He spoke at length about the true extent of unemployment. The official figures are deceptive. They do not include those who have given up looking, and all those who are working part-time when they’d like to be working full-time. Among youths the unemployment numbers are frightening: for whites 33 per cent, Latinos 36 per cent and for black US citizens, 51 per cent.

Unemployment is closely related to the numbers of people in prison. “It makes a lot more sense to be investing in education and jobs than incarceration and jail,” said Sanders, who has clearly absorbed the lessons of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.

Other points Sanders hit on to drive home his true “family values” agenda include pay equity for women, women’s right to control their own bodies and the right to acquire contraceptives, the defence of same-sex 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 programme 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 person in the US as a right and not a privilege.

He also criticised TTIP and 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, referring to the now defunct Act which regulated banks.

He 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 US 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 targetting people of colour, older and younger voters and 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 18. 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 migration reform and create a path toward citizenship.

On issues of international war and peace he showed profound annoyance with his Republican colleagues who are always moaning about the budget. “How can they forget about the cost of war?” he asked, citing figures of soldiers coming back dead, maimed and traumatised 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,” he opined “there is nothing, nothing, nothing we cannot accomplish.

“The reason we are doing well in this campaign is because we are telling the truth.”

  • This article first appeared at peoplesworld.org.

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