Bernie Sanders kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign on Saturday with a speech at Brooklyn College in New York City. It was a homecoming: Bernie was born in Brooklyn to working-class immigrant parents, and he began his undergraduate study at Brooklyn College before moving to Chicago.
The crowd of about thirteen thousand was mostly young and working class. Roughly half of the attendees were people of color, and roughly half were women.
Bernie’s speech hit the usual notes about economic inequality, social justice, and the need for unity across lines of difference. But there were some unique additions, including an interlude about the working-class values of fairness, compassion, and solidarity that his Brooklyn upbringing instilled in him.
He contrasted this upbringing to Donald Trump’s: Trump was handed a $200,000 a year allowance, even as a child, while Bernie was given 25 cents a week. As a young man Trump built a fortune on housing discrimination, while Bernie protested it. Trump became famous for going on television and telling workers, “You’re fired,” while Bernie grew up in a house and community where people understood the extreme and unfair power that employers have over their employees’ lives.
“I know where I come from,” said Bernie. In my conversations with attendees, his story seemed to resonate deeply.
Miar Elaskandrany and Minahil Khan are both twenty-year-old Brooklyn College students who were raised in Queens. “I come from a low-income household,” said Khan, “and just the other day I had to walk out of a dentist’s office. I have insurance, but I couldn’t afford the co-pay. So I just left.”
Elaskandrany said she chose Brooklyn College because she had a scholarship. “When I was making my decision, tuition was a really big deal. I got other offers … But it didn’t matter because I knew my family couldn’t afford it.”
Attendees mentioned the Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, and a $15 minimum wage to me, but free college and Medicare for All came up over and over again.
“I’m turning twenty-six in December, and I’m gonna be kicked off my parents’ medical insurance,” said Keyian Vafai, a volunteer who lives in Brooklyn. “I’m scared for my own birthday.”
Jarret Bodo, a volunteer from Huntington, New York who is also turning twenty-six this year, said Medicare for All is his top concern. “I have family members and friends who have gone into atrocious amounts of debt for just being sick and not being able to pay off their hospital bills. I’m about to lose my own coverage.”
Bodo also told me that he and his girlfriend together are facing up to $200,000 in student loans. “Tuition and debt constrain economic freedom,” he said. “We can’t move out right away from our parents’ place, we can’t buy or even lease our own car, and we’re gonna spend our next thirty years trying to pay off these loans.”
In the line for the event, which wrapped around an entire city block, I spotted a teenager holding a sign that said “College for Everyone.” Ellie Gates is seventeen, and was there with her father Alan.
“We say we live in a country where everybody has a chance to be successful, but when not everybody can afford a college education that’s obviously not true,” Ellie said. “You can’t be free to do what you want if you can’t have a college degree, and that is something most of the country can’t afford. For those who can, many are buried in debt for the rest of their lives. That’s not freedom, those are restraints.”
Miar Eskandary echoed these concerns. “Especially at Brooklyn College, we meet a lot of students who are parents, and they work jobs and they also go to school,” she said. “I have no idea how they juggle all that stuff … It’s such a struggle, and no one should be stressing about how they’re going to pay tuition when they’re already are trying to further their education.”
“As a college student, I like the idea of free college education,” said Sarah Patt, a nineteen-year-old New York University student from Chicago.
“A lot of things like tuition-free college and universal health care are the norm in other parts of the world,” Patt continued. “Our politics are very heavily influenced by corporations and people with a lot of money.”
“I love the way Bernie talks about income inequality,” said Phil Wynter, forty-eight, of Queens. “He directs the anger to who it’s supposed to be directed to, which is the people with all the money and all the power. I’ve been evicted before, and in New York that’s how it is … Growing up, I thought we were the greatest country on earth. But we have incredible poverty here.”
Raul Hernandez, a twenty-nine-year-old from Elizabeth, New Jersey, whose family are immigrants from Colombia and Cuba, told me, “With Bernie, I understand why he aims his critique at the top. Especially me being a minority in America, there are issues in our communities but they’re issues that could be fixed with money. And we don’t have a lot of it.
“I grew up in a black neighborhood,” Hernandez continued. “We struggled with getting books, with housing, with insurance, with education. Those are so many different issues that we faced that could have easily been fixed if the right money was going to the right places. So when I hear about Bernie’s anger being directed at the wealthier, I get that.”
I asked twenty-two-year-old Leen Dweik, who lives in Manhattan and whose family comes from Palestine, if she agreed with the liberal talking point that Bernie is unable to represent people of color because he’s a white man. “No, no, no,” said Dweik. “Policy over identity.”
“People who say he’s just an old white man and it’s more of the same are ignoring the importance of his policies for people of color,” she continued. “The people who will benefit the most from Medicare for All, for example, will be working-class people of color. When he talks about championing unions and workers’ rights, he’s talking about the well-being of working-class people of color. As someone who’s a person of color and an immigrant, not an American citizen, I would vote for him if I could.”
When I asked about the proposition that Bernie is uniquely bad on race, Vafai, whose family came to the US from Iran, responded that Bernie is “clearly just being targeted because he’s taking on the major institutions that have caused structural racism to occur and continue.”
Bryan O’Callahan shoveled snow as he talked to me. The thirty-three-year-old special education preschool teacher from Inwood arrived early for the event, mingled with volunteers near the entrance, and decided on the spot to become one himself. “I think Bernie Sanders providing a credible alternative to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy really showed the American public that after eight years of a very moderate center-right corporate administration under Obama, there was actually an alternative line of thought to the neoliberal program over the last forty years,” he said.
“Bernie tackles class head-on and isn’t afraid to bring it to the forefront,” said Dweik. “In most other candidates’ cases it’s a background issue at best. They’re not willing to stand up and say that we have to address the issue of the 1 percent owning everything and controlling everybody else’s lives.”
“There’s a corporate billionaire elite that controls the structural levers of this country while everyone else struggles,” said Vafai, “and there’s a delusional approach to politics where people don’t even talk about it. Bernie consistently phrases things in terms of class division and people latch onto it, because it describes their reality.”
Attendees also told me that Bernie inspired them to participate in politics themselves, to see themselves as powerful agents capable of affecting positive change.
Quanneisha Brown, a twenty-four-year-old Brooklyn native, said that her enthusiasm for Bernie got her involved in politics when he ran for president in 2016. “He showed me why I should care about politics when I didn’t. Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, getting money out of politics so that our politicians are actually representing us and not corporate interests.”
“I wasn’t always involved in politics,” said Eskandary, one of the Brooklyn College students. “I was afraid of it kind of. It seemed overwhelming. But over time I just started reading more and realizing that this affects every single human being alive. Everything that happens will affect me, even if it’s happening above and I don’t feel it.
“And meeting her,” she said, gesturing to her friend Minahil Khan, “it was really important. I’m not even joking, she’s very woke and she knows a lot.”
Eskandary then turned to Khan. “I never told you this, but you motivated me to get more active and to read more and understand more. I was like a sheep who would just keep on moving and following what everyone thinks. I had the mentality of like, ‘One person can’t change anything.’ But now I’m like, ‘Yeah but you can inspire other people and be part of something bigger.’”