Bernie’s People: Inside A Sanders Rally In The Heart Of Dixie

The most powerful statement Bernie Sanders made all night came during the 10 minutes that he didn’t speak at all.

A little over three-quarters of the way through his usual stump stop rundown at a rally in Birmingham, AL, Sanders suddenly halted mid-sentence and swung to his left, peering into the crowd at a cluster of mild commotion about 20 feet away, where a woman had collapsed from heat exhaustion.

“Stop. Wait. Somebody needs a doctah over here. Is there a doctah or nurse in the room? We need a doctah.”

His right hand thrust into the air to subdue the 7,000-person assembly into near silence, Sanders leaned out from the stage and scoured the crowd for hands raised in offers of assistance. He thanked one lady as she popped up from her seat and clambered down from the bleachers, then another as she hurried down the steps from the balcony.

Sanders stood peering from the stage’s edge for several more minutes until staffers relayed confirmation that paramedics were en route. Only then did he quit his vigil and return to the podium.

“Paramedics are on the way. We think she’s going to be just fine,” Sanders said.

Then, he did something unheard of in the realm of contemporary political campaigning, an exercise typically designed for the self absorbed- Bernie Sanders actually stopped talking.

His words would wait until the health and safety of one person among 7,000 had been ensured. He stepped back from the podium, and he walked over to talk with the 80-odd people arrayed along the back of the stage as a backdrop for the television cameras.

He ended up staying back there talking to people, well out of range of any microphone, for the next 10 minutes as the ailing woman was tended to.

Bernie eventually got back behind the podium, updated the crowd that the woman had recovered and had been able to walk out of the room on her own volition, and steamrolled his way through his remaining talking points.

But in those ten minutes of patient, respectful silence, Sanders contributed further evidence to the mounting body of proof that he just might actually care about his supporters every bit as much as they do about him.

But in those ten minutes of patient, respectful silence, Sanders contributed further evidence to the mounting body of proof that he just might actually care about his supporters every bit as much as they do about him.

And, boy, do they care about him. The crowd held a smattering of graying longhairs and old black ladies in their Sunday Best, but assembled here were 7,000 math majors, whitewater rafting guides, and junior attorneys who had been in middle- or high-school at the onset of the Great Recession espousing, with a fervor historically reserved for the likes of Mick Jagger, their ubiquitous love for a thin-haired, slump-shouldered, 74-year-old man in a suit.

There were handmade signs galore. One posed the rhetorical question “Bern Down for What?”

Another one superimposed Sanders’ campaign logo over a vivid, hand-painted pastoral scene, complete with a gleaming rainbow, rolling hills, and a bubbling brook.

One woman wore a black T-shirt bearing Sanders’ face and the words “Feel the Bern – Enter Sandman” in the jagged, iconic Metallica typeface.

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These people hadn’t packed into an auditorium to be talked at by Senator Sanders of Vermont. They were here to meet Bernie.

The last time I was in Birmingham, it was to attend a Donald Trump rally with my girlfriend Maureen and my friend Cristian.

Before we were allowed into the auditorium, we each had to get past a security screening – metal detector, bag search, and pat down – administered by flak-vested police officers and overseen by suit-clad hired toughs.

Once we eventually worked our way inside, a goon-patrolled fence line maintained a 15-foot One Man’s Land between Trump’s podium and his nearest supporter. The only signs dotting the landscape of outstretched hands were the white standard issues reading “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump.”

A significant portion of Trump’s speech was devoted to making sure we understood that he – unlike anyone else in the field of candidates or in that room – had spent a lifetime attending prestigious schools and purchasing expensive things.

Read More: Trump People: A Rise Reporter Spends The Day At An Alabama Donald Rally With His Liberal Girlfriend And Mexican Friend

With the Trump security detail serving as our only gauge on how these kinds of things worked, Maureen and I made sure to slough any unnecessary metals and auxiliary items from our pockets before leaving the car in order to expedite the inevitable search process ahead.

But instead, a bunch of pimply, earmuff-wearing volunteers herded us all inside the Sanders rally en masse without any question, and the rally-goers around us clearly had not even considered the notion that the things they wanted to bring with them might be screened at the gate.

One woman with a little gray in her hair and an enormous grin on her face scurried busily through the crowd, asking everyone she met to pose behind a cardboard box with a heart-shaped cutout and hand-lettered “I ♥ BERNIE” while she took their picture.

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Another dude slapped a Bernie 2016 sticker on his longboard and thrust it into the air, and somebody else taped a porcelain doll to a pole.

A few feet ahead of me, a white girl kissed a black guy, and everywhere you turned, people were hugging and smiling.

No one at the Sanders rally hurled a hateful racist slur at another person, nor did they pull a person to the ground and repeatedly attempt to stomp on his throat.

Nor, for that matter, did they scream with approval at the prospect of establishing a list that would register and track the names of U.S. citizens who choose to practice one religion instead of another.

At the conclusion of my account of that Trump rally, I described Trump’s supporters as “hungry, disgusted, and upset.”

Bernie’s people, too, seem to be linked by a common discontent with many factors that define the present state of American affairs, and at the surface both constituent groups seem to express their restlessness in similar ways: edit out the name being chanted, and you’d be hard pressed to differentiate the roars of applause at each pause or the frothy parroting of catchy mantras at one candidate’s rally from those at the other’s.

But there is a subtle and fundamental distinction between the two factions, and I couldn’t see it in full until we were driving home: Bernie’s people have the naïve audacity to believe that they can help do it.

Some of them are only four to eight years removed from high school civics class and its accompanying fairy tale of a world in which checks and balances reign supreme and voting is something you can’t wait to do for the first or second time, not something you’ve actively chosen not to do since Nader in ’96.

They think that the system ain’t broke, it just needs a little fixin’

They think that the system ain’t broke, it just needs a little fixin’, and their conception of a heroic Washington outsider is one who will show them how, one whom they feel like they know and one who pokes fun at his own wispy hair and lack of style, not an untouchable Visigoth who promises scorched earth and brags about wielding the bigger stick.

By their measure, the whole point of packing into an auditorium together on a Monday night is to take a step forward (even if it is just a symbolic one) into a more hip tomorrow, not whip themselves into a collective, anger-fueled mope-fest for the decayed and irretrievable Glory of America Past.

But peace, love, and hopey-changey stuff have not consistently demonstrated a formidable knack for self-sustaining longevity.

For some, it didn’t even make it out to the parking garage after the program – the queue stalled for more than 40 minutes as people raced to get out onto the street ahead of each other instead of alternating for spots in line.

And getting up on a Tuesday morning to go vote can prove a lot less exhilarating than getting swept up in an effervescent throng at the end of a three-day weekend – realities that Sanders did not lose sight of in his speech.

“This isn’t about Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, although I appreciate it. This is about You, You, You,” Sanders said. “I need you on Election Day, but I really need you on the day after.”

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. Anyone can write for you us as long as you are fiercely interested in making the world a better place. 

Photo Credits: Jordan Cissell/ RISE NEWS

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About the Author
Jordan is a graduate student in geography and natural resources conservation at the University of Alabama, where he earned his undergraduate degree in accounting in 2015 and operates a weekly Americana radio broadcast for the school's student-run station.

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