By Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
It’s hard not to feel energized by the future that presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, describes.
“We are fighting to save the planet…to end racism, and sexism and homophobia. In this pivotal moment…let us stand together,” Sanders told a diverse crowd of 4,500 Sunday at Schenley Plaza in Oakland. “Let us go together to become the beautiful nation we can become.”
Although Sanders spoke for nearly an hour, the crowd stayed invested the whole time. His speech reflected his 2016 platform: Medicare for all, tuition-free public universities, a livable federal wage, immigration and prison reform.
The Sanders “pre-show,” included speakers Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico, Ohio Sen.Nina Turner and a Pitt grad student who is looking to unionize the school’s grad-school workers.
The crowd was energized, cheering along with Yulín Cruz that Sanders was the only man that could “get the job done.” “Feel the Bern” chants erupted throughout the event and between speakers. Senator Turner lit a fire in the crowd when she announced that the campaign was “waging a war on a system rigged against working class people.”
As a young queer person, saddled with college debt, who lives paycheck to paycheck, it is empowering to be acknowledged by an outstanding Democratic presidential hopeful. To hear that a candidate wants to end rigged, money-based politics, focus on people power, and tackle income inequality is thrilling. Ending racism? Yes! Ending voter suppression? Yes! Stopping attacks on access to abortion? Yes! Abolishing private prisons and reforming an inherently racist criminal justice system? Yes! Yes! Yes!
When a fired-up crowd of hopeful people look on at the person they think can change the world and it doesn’t feel fraudulent, there’s some magic happening there. I’d argue that Sanders and those in his campaign would say it’s not just him, but all of those invested in the message and the goals who will change the world, and that’s why the campaign is so amped up.
That being said, there are tiny points here and there that felt a little incomplete. Sanders definitely peppered reminders of the persistence of institutional racism, and Turner called for a moment of silence for Antwon Rose II, but the event still began with the singing of the National Anthem.
The song was written by a man who was a slaveholder. There’s something itchy about the cognitive dissonance between the message of the campaign that a progressive, beautiful future free of “-isms” is possible and what America is and has been–racist, colonial, rigged. For me, beginning with the National Anthem can feel like blind patriotism to a government that has never truly walked the talk of equality. To not play the national anthem would be absolutely radical and unacceptable to anyone moderate, so I understand why politicians do it. It just feels odd. And like Vince Staples said, “The national anthem don’t even slap.”
Additionally, the campaign style of speech used a lot of binaries. Speakers used a lot of “brothers and sisters” and “ladies and gentleman,” which as someone who identifies as neither feels kind of strange, given that a strict gender binary is hardly progressive. Additionally, there was brief mention in opposition to the transgender military ban by other speakers, but generally people were “gay or straight” or the entire LGBTQIA community was lumped under the “gay” umbrella throughout Bernie’s speech.
Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t sound smooth or sexy if you stop and list every single oppressed group in the country, and I wouldn’t expect a candidate to list every single subcategory within the LGBTQIA umbrella, but if the campaign is hoping to go truly radical, gender-neutral language and an acknowledgement of the institutional violence against trans people is a great first start. After all, the campaign seeks to give dignity and financial security to people who live paycheck to paycheck or in poverty, and the transgender poverty rate is double the national average.
Ultimately it was a strong rally early in the campaign for Sanders as he seeks to help create Democratic support in the Great Lakes and Midwest region of the country. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the electoral cycle and the intensity and conflict it brings. It’s easy to be disillusioned by the whole political system–the mess that it is and the violence it inflicts. But when the sun comes out on thousands of smiling people with a shared dream of a better future on a day when it was supposed to thunderstorm, it’s hard not to feel a little hopeful.