Bernie Sanders has already been in New York for a few days. The New York primary of April 19 is close at hand, so his rallies are accelerating, far more frequent now and it seems that the Vermont senator is entertaining the possibility of a miracle, a surprise upset over Hilary Clinton in her own “home state.” Many friends are writing to let me know they will be at Bernie’s rally at Washington Square Park, the square of NYU, in the heart of Greenwich Village. I definitely won’t miss it!
Yet Sunday Bernie spoke at Coney Island, the historical beach and boardwalk of Brooklyn, that beachfront where as a child he made endless visits with his parents, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They, in dire straits of a hard-working life, believed in their son, who now at the age of 75, is living the American dream of becoming President – the oldest U.S. president ever, if elected.
I will be at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, but I decided it was worth my while to attend the rally in Brooklyn too, in the borough where he was raised. My dear friend “Jason” (a pseudonym; in order for me to write what he said, he asked that I not use his real name) accompanied me to the rally. Jason too is a Jewish American “non-believer,” born and raised in Brooklyn, in the Gravesend neighborhood, not too far from Flatbush where the Sanders used to live. Presently Jason, his wife and their daughter live in the cool ’hood of Park Slope. Ten years younger than Senator Sanders, Jason too was raised in a family of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, with whom he frequently went to Coney Island and Brighton Beach.
Waiting for the subway at the Union Street station, my friend warns me off: “Listen I’m not voting for Bernie, I’m a supporter of Hillary Clinton. But I’ll gladly join you in Coney Island where I spent much of my childhood. I feel like having a hotdog.”
Jason is an American Jew from Brooklyn who could pass for Bernie Sanders’ cousin – he has certain movements that are so similar, he speaks like him (though his Brooklyn accent is much less pronounced than Bernie’s), and he has that same facial expression of the American optimist with a trace of sadness in his eyes, a result of the tragic history of the Jews who fled Europe. Yet this same Jason tells me he’s not going to vote for Bernie but Hillary. Is it possible?
My account as a spectator at the Bernie Sanders rally in Coney Island is a conversation between two friends, between an Italian Sicilian who is also an American citizen and is leaning toward Sanders, and an American Jew, born, raised and still residing in Brooklyn, a non-believer (like Sanders) who is convinced that the candidate to support is Hillary Clinton.
On the N line (which this Sunday is actually a D line) that goes to Coney Island, Jason produces his first arguments: “Hilary provides me with more security, she’s competent, experienced. Then I must say: to choose between the first American of Jewish origin to become president and the first female, I think the latter is more important.” I try to provoke him: Well, a female president who has been already been the First Lady… really a Clinton oligarchy in the White House? “From Senator to Secretary of State, Hillary has demonstrated great abilities,” replies Jason “I feel safe with her.” Um, Jason is showing me that he’s going to be a tough nut to crack.
While the stops to Coney Island pass in quick succession, Jason tells me about his childhood: “Gravesend was a Jewish neighborhood, like many in Brooklyn. But there were also Italians and some Irish families. We played in the streets. We didn’t have any great desire to study, so every once in awhile someone would call the school and say there was a bomb so there’d be no school and instead we’d go have fun in Coney Island or Brighton Beach.”
We’re just about to arrive and I start up again: Why aren’t you voting for Bernie, someone who has practically lived your same childhood? His responds drily: “Look, if I think back to my friends at that time, I can’t even fathom there would be one of them I’d want to see as president…”
I’m relentless. I’m convinced Jason will, once he hears Bernie Sanders in person, change his mind. We arrive at the station and Jason gives a start: “This stop, with my father and sister, how many times… It was that one treat my family was able to afford. For me they were very beautiful moments.”
We arrive at the entrance of Nathan’s, the most famous delicatessen in Brooklyn and we find such a long line that wraps around the building but not for the hot dogs: all those people are lined up for Bernie! We start walking to the end of the line and we realize that we’ll need to walk for at least a kilometer. We notice right away that they are almost all young, in their twenties and thirties. Almost 95% are white. Young men and women that speak with that New York inflection despite perhaps not even having grown up in NYC, but they came to study here or arrived immediately after college for one of those “cool jobs” in advertising and such. Some are wearing trendy ripped jeans, coming in from maybe Tribeca or Soho, but everyone is here to listen to Bernie. Behind us in the line is an older couple speaking with a foreign accent… it sounds like German!
“I don’t see any African Americans” Jason says to me and he’s right. I catch sight of a young attractive colored woman, dressed like she’s just stepped out of a boutique in Downtown Manhattan. Where are the blue collars? The workers? The unemployed African American single mothers? Who knows? “There are many African Americans who live around here,” Jason presses, “but they’re not here at Bernie’s rally. Still I’m struck by how many people are here waiting in this very long line.”
An hour and a half of waiting in line before we finally make out the entrance to Coney Island beach, next to the historical Luna Park rides. The security check point is the Secret Service deployed with metal detectors. We have to hold our wallets and cell phones in hand, while they pat us down and check to see if we have hidden weapons under our coat. Once inside, we find a crowd that is not as large as we had expected given the line that we waited through. There are perhaps six or seven thousand people, so why that impossibly long wait? Probably because security check slowed the line considerably. Before Sanders comes to stage, Michael Stipe of the legendary R.E.M. takes the stage. He does not sing, he speaks of politics…Jason finally smiles happily and exclaims: “Here are the musical heroes of my youth but to listening today are mostly young people, incredible!”
Immediately after Bernie takes the stage: “Thank you Brooklyn! Jane (my wife) is also a daughter of Brooklyn!” Senator Sanders beckons memories of that beach and of his childhood, then immediately moves forward to his favorite topics: the percentage of the wealthy leaving only crumbs to the rest of the overwhelming majority. And then Bernie took one of his best shots: the millions that Hillary receives from Wall Street while he supports his electoral campaign accepting individual campaign contributions from his voters. Wall Street, confirms Sanders, “may be greedy but they are not dumb… Hillary Clinton has received 15 million from Wall Street… Secretary Clinton has given a number of speeches on Wall Street behind closed doors for $250,000 a speech. Now that is a lot of money for a speech and I imagine… it must be one of the great speeches in world history, probably contains the solution to many of our world problems, probably written in Shakespearian prose. So I think if that speech is so great, Secretary Clinton should release the transcripts.”
Bernie affirms his desire to want to restart American democracy: “What this campaign is about is the need is to revitalize American democracy. I want this country to have one of the highest voter turnouts of any country on earth, not one of the lowest.”
And more on the Iraqi war that he voted against that instead Hillary voted for it; to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour; to provide health care for all “Canada does it” … and more on free tuition at public colleges and universities: “Germany has free college education, Scandinavia has free college education. I was at a meeting in Washington a year ago and I was talking about Scandinavia and higher education that was free and a guy jumps up and says…: “you’re wrong Senator, it is not free in Finland, they pay us to go to school.” The public applauds and chants “Bernie, Bernie!”
Sanders the Socialist’s favorite topics are repeated for about 45 minutes. A few feet away, police set up barriers and created to an area for protesters. There we see a character with a sign “Depart Socialists.” The temperature remains somewhat cold, but the sun is strong and at the end of the rally Sanders’ hairless head appears red, burning not only from passion. The Senator does speak passionately, coughs only once, and for his age demonstrates incredible energy. His most repeated statement? “We must think and act out of the box,” and not be afraid of ideas even if they appear revolutionary. Indeed, that which Sanders calls “a political revolution.” Applause, and at the end of this long rally even Bernie goes to Nathan’s for a hot dog.
Jason and I opt instead for a Brooklyn Lager at a beachfront bar and then take a walk along the famous boardwalk toward Brighton Beach. My friend continues to reminisce: “See where we are walking now, the boardwalk was not at the same level as the beach. It used to be elevated and as kids we would go under the boardwalk and get into so much trouble; how we partied, how we drank, we used to smoke…then at 11 p.m. the cops would come and send us all home.”
Who knows, maybe even Bernie had lived those youthful transgressions from Coney Island and Bright Beach. So, Jason? Did you enjoy Sanders? Will you vote for him? “I didn’t hear anything that I hadn’t already heard. His message remains effective, strong, exciting, but he doesn’t explain anything on how he’ll accomplish what he proposes. Will he break the banks? And how?” But what would Hillary do? “In my opinion Hillary has a very similar message but in a more incremental way. She proposes many of the same things, but has a more methodical and patient way to get there, surely with her more time is needed but with Clinton there’s a more likely chance of success.”
I don’t give up: forgive me Jason but the “political revolution,” as Sanders has just stated, can only be achieved when we stand together and push onward as it happened with a women’s right to vote at the start of the 20th century and with civil rights movements of the Sixties. “Look Stefano,” Jason says to me flashing an attractive smile that resembles Bernie’s smile. “If Sanders wins the nomination, obviously I will vote for him in November and at that time I hope he will become our president. But for now his are only punch lines. These are not enough to reform our country. I prefer Hillary who will take it more slowly and I think even further.” Slogan indeed. Like Barack Obama and his “Hope” and “Yes, We Can!” The young men and women who applauded Sanders had on their posters “A Future We Can Believe In.” For Jason this is only a punch line.
We walk past a series of Russian Ukrainian restaurants with the same name, Tatiana, on the Brighton Beach beachfront. Next we are at the subway station on the Q line this time, and go through the same commuter neighborhoods of Brooklyn where many generations of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish kids were raised with the American dream. For many of them the dream ended just a few stops before the beach of Coney Island. Instead, for one 70ish year old boy named Bernie Sanders, who at the age of 18 left for Vermont, the dream continues.
(Translation by Enza Antenos)