Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign went to ground zero on Wednesday night with a rally in Greenwich Village that brought out hordes of his most ardent supporters, college-age young adults who are drawn to the Democratic candidate’s unabashed idealism and fiery message about battling the evils of corporate greed.
Director Spike Lee and actors Tim Robbins and Rosario Dawson were among those on hand in Washington Square Park to help Sanders pump up the faithful to get out the vote for New York’s April 19 primary. On a stage erected in front of the park’s iconic arch, Sanders and others didn’t hold back on criticism of his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite calls by some Democrats for Sanders to tone down his rhetoric in the name of party unity with an eye toward the general election.
Sanders painted Clinton as part of the entrenched political establishment beholden to big money donations from “the billionaire class.” Sanders and Robbins in particularly took aim at the media. Robbins bashed the “mainstream media,” citing CNN and the New York Times specifically, for delivering “a steady stream of propaganda” discounting Sanders’ chances of winning the Democratic nomination and positioning Clinton as “the presumptive nominee.”
“Times have changed. Bernie is not the obliging progressive candidate who will keep the left in line until the (mainstream) nominee emerges,” Robbins said. “We are done with that.”
Moreover, Robbins warned the overflow crowd: “Change will not happen if by choosing candidates who are entirely entrenched in the dysfunction of the past.”
Health care activist Paul Song went even further, decrying “corporate Democratic whores who are beholden to big pharma and the private insurance industry instead of us.” (Song later apologized via Twitter for using the term after the Clinton camp called on Sanders to disavow his remarks.)
Dawson echoed Robbins’ distrust of mainstream media coverage, or what she called “a culture of propaganda.” She was critical of Clinton, although not by name, for her track record on overseas military operations. “Too many people have already died because of the policies (promoted) by some of the people who are running” for president, she said. “Do we reward that with the White House?”
Dawson and others hammered home the message that Sanders’ youthful fans need to be sure to go the distance for the candidate by casting ballots. She urged her listeners to disprove the conventional wisdom that younger people don’t actually vote. Sanders’ detractors are banking on the fact that his young adult base is “just going to like this on Facebook but you ‘re not going to get in line to vote.”
Lee kept his remarks brief before introducing Sanders. “The status quo has got to go,” he said.
Sanders’ campaign estimated the crowd at about 27,000. The scene before the rally began looked like a rock concert at times with enthusiastic attendees, many of them NYU students given the park’s proximity to key school building, packed shoulder to shoulder on the streets before crowds were let in to the park. Girlfriends were hoisted on boyfriends shoulders. Numerous people came with homemade signs and props — including a lifestyle Sanders puppet complete with stringy white hair.
Desperate Sanders campaign volunteers hung from the sides of street lamps as they tried to direct the pedestrian traffic to the park’s various entrances. The bars, vegan cafes, thrift stores and vape shops in the immediate vicinity appeared to be doing brisk business.
The crowd was noticeably multicultural and multigenerational, with everything from dreadlocks to yarmulkes on display. The event was clearly a date-night outing for some youth. Older participants shared memories of demonstrations and political rallies from years gone by in the square. Chants of “Ber-nie” and “Feel the Bern” were frequent even before the speechifying started.
Clinton maintains a solid lead over Sanders in statewide polls. But the support among the younger generation for Sanders has been palpable in the streets and subways of New York City as Tuesday’s vote approaches.
“If he beats (Clinton) here it sends a very strong message,” said Chis Lane, 30, of Jamaica, Queens. He held a homemade paper banner spelling out “Bernie 16” in New York City’s subway icons. Sanders’ position on climate change and cracking down on damaging energy efforts such as fracking has made a big impression on Lane.
“He’s continually playing the chords of my heart,” Lane said.
Rockers Vampire Weekend opened the rally with a four-song set. Sanders took the stage nearly an hour later, and he spoke for a full hour.The atmosphere as the sun went down and the lights went up on the arch made for a dramatic backdrop for an impressive crowd. But as Sanders’ stump speech wore on and the temperature dropped, the lure of craft beer and artisanal appetizers was too strong for some to ignore.
Sanders’ speech sketched out his vision for ensuring health care for all, free tuition for public colleges, reform of criminal justice system, easing the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans and his plan to assess a “speculation tax” on Wall Street to pay for his agenda. He hit Clinton hardest on the issue of campaign fundraising. He noted that the Clinton campaign has raised millions from Wall Street sources and he again hammered her for accepting $225,000 speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and other financial behemoths for delivering “closed-door” speeches. He called on Clinton to release transcripts of those speeches.
For a six-figure fee, “it must be an unbelievably extraordinary speech,” Sanders said. “It must be written in Shakespearean prose.”