NYC, Saturday afternoon around 4:30. I’m walking along Houston Street in Soho with my 11 year old granddaughter Paloma as we make our way home from an outing. Nearing the intersection with Broadway, I notice the normal cacophony of traffic is being broken by the tell-tale rhythm of a chanting crowd, punctuated by cheers.
As we reach the corner, I see a large crowd filling the street as far as I can look northward. At its head a huge banner proclaims “#Feel The Bern.” Under it, a line of people carry another banner that simply says, “Bernie Sanders.” The crowd is diverse: young, old and middle-aged; black, white and brown.
Preparing to cross the intersection, the throng masses and I have a chance to take it all in. Messages are held aloft: a rainbow-hued peace flag, “Bernie’s Not For Sale,” “Let’s Make A Political Revolution,” “Earth For Bernie,” (with the globe painted on it). People are chanting, “Feel the Bern!” and “Black Lives Matter” and “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Corporate greed has got to go!” (another tagline is “Corporate Democrats got to go!”)
Paloma and I look at each other in delight and jump right into the crowd as the light changes. We all surge down Broadway. Suddenly, amid the chanting I hear my name being called. There, marching to my right is the middle-aged couple, Greg and Janet, who came to my house a week ago for a Bernie Phone Banking party.
Note: I say “middle-aged” to counter the dominant narrative that this is all about young people — the implication being that Bernie supporters are unrealistic “idealists” who have no experience about how the world really works. The older, wiser ones are supposedly accepting the sober reality, i.e. that Hillary Clinton is the only realistic choice. But the real divide is that between the 1% and the 99% — something the crowd gave lusty voice to, chanting “We. Are. The 99%!”
Greg and Janet were also on their way home when they ran into the march and decided to join. We learn that the march, a grassroots organized affair, started at Union Square and is headed down to Zucotti Park in the financial district. (Today I found out similar events happened around the country.)
“What’s Zucotti Park?” Paloma asks me and I remind her that’s where Occupy Wall Street was based before Bloomberg’s goons smashed it up and hauled it all away — Occupiers along with the vast library of donated books, the bicycle-powered electrical charging station, and the tents and tables where free food was served and people could spend the night in the company of their fellow 99 percenters after a day of stimulating conversation, sing-alongs, drumming sessions and speeches. Paloma — then 7 years old — and I had spent some cheerful hours there, wandering around and talking to people.
As we march down the outdoor shopping mall that is Broadway between Houston and Canal Street, shoppers stop and hold their phones high to take photos. I am struck by all the wide smiles and the palpable air of excitement I feel from the onlookers. A double-decker tourist bus edges down the left side of the street alongside the march and some of the riders cheer from the open roof and give us thumbs up.
Even the cops pacing us as they keep a narrow strip of street clear for one lane of traffic seem to be in a good mood. I thanked one for “letting us do this” — remembering how belligerent the NYPD was during the marches for Occupy Wall Street — and he said, “Of course! It’s your first amendment right!” When the NYPD is asserting my first amendment right to take over traffic for political speech, I can’t help but feel that change is in the air.
As we near our destination, I contemplate the meaning of the march. The first time I voted, it was for George McGovern. That was 1972, in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember going to the polling place with a small group of friends, fellow SDS’ers. We walked down the sidewalk in a kind of impromptu march, but we held no signs aloft nor shouted any chants. Until yesterday, I have never seen a march in support of a political candidate, much less a progressive one.
I don’t think the significance of this should be underestimated. It is a sign that, unlike the hope that thrilled the grassroots support for Obama’s campaign in 2008, people now understand that real change won’t happen without the political revolution Bernie has called for, a revolution that requires ongoing mobilization and organizing from the grassroots, no matter what the outcome of the Sanders campaign.
President Obama manipulated the popular yearning for real progressive change only to undermine it when he became President. He actively suppressed the movement that was created around his candidacy when, frustrated by the continuing corporate domination of government that he aided and abetted, Occupy Wall Street flowered and spread across the nation and the globe.
It was a profound learning experience for that movement. I remember the same warnings being made during Obama’s campaign that are being made now about the Sanders campaign: that all that youthful enthusiasm for social justice would wither into cynicism once the presidential betrayal of it would occur — either because Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t carry out his promised (vague) agenda of Hope and Change.
But the enthusiasm for social justice didn’t wither — it became stronger. It put income inequality and corporate greed at the forefront of the national (and global) conversation. It sparked the Fight For Fifteen movement that has already seen important victories in cities and states around the nation. It galvanized Black Lives Matter into being, a movement that has politicians scrambling to catch up as the long arc of the moral universe Martin Luther King spoke about bends toward justice. Marriage equality became the law of the land. And young undocumented immigrants called Dreamers are standing up in increasing numbers to end persecution and make their dreams a reality.
The Bernie marchers are part of that movement for social justice. They know that Bernie owes everything to them —that his campaign wouldn’t have been possible without them, not the other way around. As the marchers reached the towering red sculpture at Zucotti Park, and the cries of “mic check, mic check” went up, a speaker said it succinctly:
“We are here because we want Bernie to win the nomination and then the Presidency. But it is about so much more than that. We are starting a revolution against Wall Street and the billionaire class. Remember in 2011 brave people came here to Zucotti Park. We are carrying on their struggle.”
His words echoed out throughout the throng, repeated by all of us who stood there as we made them our own.