This is What Democracy Looks Like

I. Getting to the Rally

At 5:00 yesterday I got a text that Bernie Sanders would be speaking at my alma mater, a half hour outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. The doors were already open, and the line stretched out from the Fieldhouse past the new Hall of Science and Marketplace halfway to the student center. Bernie was expected to speak at 7.

I was with a friend in her cozy office, curled up in an armchair while she finished a survey analytics project after work hours. We were going to eat tamales and catch up on the details of each other’s lives.

Then we were in her leased Nissan, picking up her boyfriend, who ran out to the car waving a large bag of pretzels. He jumped into the backseat and we sped off toward campus. We were each wearing several layers of pants against Michigan’s unfriendly 20 degrees.

We parked in an overflow lot outside campus to take the Campus Connector bus in. Grand Valley State University was a last minute stop on the Bernie Sanders “A Future to Believe In” tour, an add-on after planned speeches at Michigan State and the University of Michigan, but we were preparing for a crowd.

I was texting friends to invite them, only a few of whom knew about it. There was only a half-paragraph about it on the school website, ending with the statement that “This is not a Grand Valley State University sponsored event.” Then I knew why there wasn’t a livestream option being offered at the downtown campus, like there is for events that the university is invested in promoting. I was about to go to a rally for a candidate whose platform specifically criticizes the cost of higher education and more generally rests on the idea that the wealthy few with the most power in our society are crushing down on the opportunities and well being of the struggling middle and lower classes.This rally was going to take place at one of the biggest institutions in Western Michigan, whether in size, assets, donors, or influence. GVSU was formative for me, and I loved my time there, but I acknowledge the humor/difficulty of the situation, if you don’t zoom out to realize that Sanders’ call for affordable tuition comes from a respect for education and that universities are supposed to be the place to express and test the whole range of ideas.

Two local news stations had written articles about the event the night before, but they weren’t the top hits when I searched. I’d seen a group of Bernie supporters trying to get cars on Michigan St. to honk for the cause a week or two ago, and I’d seen sprinklings of yard signs.What I’d seen the most of, tucked into route maps at public bus stops across the city, were the small business-card-sized advertisements “This is Bernie Sanders. He is running for President.”

I found myself re-posting photo updates from my friend who was already there outside the Fieldhouse. I fielded messages, texts, and calls about carpools and line lengths and the possibility of getting inside if someone was to leave Grand Rapids right then.

“I am a citizen reporter,” I told my friends, laughing.”I can’t believe we didn’t hear about this.”

“I’m so glad you were both up for the adventure,” Noelle said. We hustled across the snowy lot to catch the bus we could see idling behind a red light.

A car rolled its window down and some students called out, “Ya’ll feeling the Bern?” Noelle, Michael, and I cheered and fist-bumped. The other trio waiting there smiled quietly. Once we got to the line of supporters, and especially when we squeezed into our standing-only space in the Fieldhouse, the energy would be electric. Right now it felt a little silly. It’s true what they say about a critical mass.

“Feel the Bern!” I told the half-empty bus as I climbed in. No one answered.

As we joined the line outside the Fieldhouse, I gave another goofy cheer: “Don’t feel the cold! Feel the burn!” I didn’t get much reply for that, either, but by then we could feel that people were excited.

Noelle pulled out a travel edition of the board game Settlers of Catan, with eensy pegs and the smallest playing cards I’ve ever seen. For the forty-odd minutes it took us to wind our way to the entrance, we rolled our dice for luck, collected raw materials, and built up our roads and settlements to see who could win the most victory points.

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Most of the crowd looked like college students, but not all of them were. There were a surprising number of parents and babies. I saw one friend I knew from the public library and my primary care physician.

“I have Obamacare, and my PCP is at the Bernie rally!” I cried.

My friends humored me, glad I wasn’t grumbling about how cold my hands were getting, trying to dominate that travel-sized world of Catan.

We knew we were close when we got to the Bernie Sanders snowman, with pine leaves on his head for that signature wispy hair.

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We also knew we were close when we could hear the campus police officer shouting about taking out all our electronics, aluminum foil, and anything metal to be scanned by the Secret Service. “Do what they say,” he said. “Make sure your electronics are on and working. Anything can be made to look like a dead cell phone these days.”

Noelle and Michael looked at me. “Put your phone in Airplane Mode,” he said. I’d just been talking about how it was at 4%, making a joke about how it was almost as bad as the statistics about wealth stratification in our country– and another about how I didn’t know if my phone would immediately charge to full capacity when Bernie started speaking or if it would get so excited it shut down.

My pile of phone, phone charger, keys, a USB, and a metal luggage tag didn’t warrant me a second look from the Secret Service. I didn’t get patted down or have to do the Superman arms familiar now from airport security. I did turn, though, and use some of the last of my battery to try and snap a shot of the travel Catan with the four or more body scanners in the background.

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“You’re going to get in trouble one day for your pictures,” Noelle said.

“I already said this day could end in prison,” I joked back, secure that I’m not the kind of person and this isn’t the kind of country where that kind of rebellion would be likely to send me even as far as the local jail. When I’d made that comment, it was when we were thinking of parking in a grocery store lot and getting a parking ticket.

It turns out, the loudest applause of the whole night would be when our next would-be President addressed two of the statistics that should make us most ashamed as citizens of a country we call “free”: 1 in 4 Black males will end up serving jail time, and we have more people locked up in prison than any other country does. “We have to stand with our brothers and sisters, especially in the African American community, to put ‘justice’ back into a badly-broken criminal justice system,” he would say. His next sentence would be lost in the shouts of agreement. We should be ashamed.

Before Bernie took the stage, however, there were three opening speakers. A woman from his campaign team asked for help getting a large voter turnout this Super Tuesday. A leader from the United Auto Workers union started a chant that’s still playing in my head the next day:

“I’ll say ‘What does democracy look like?'” he said. “And you’ll say, ‘This is what democracy looks like!'”

II. The Speech

Mr. Sanders said many things I agree with, and a few I don’t. His opponents like to depict his supporters as naive socialists without a strong understanding of economics. That’s at least as simplified as anything he might have said last night. They laugh at his “attacks on Wall Street” and goals like free college tuition. Some of these do seem more like sound bytes than full plans as outlined in the speech. I could go through all of his main points. I took notes on all of them, like a true (Bernie) nerd.

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But in the meantime, I’ve also read what I find to be a sensationalist and non-representative article in the local web media MLive, and I lost the desire to do a full play-by-play. My quotes are more accurate and less leading than you’d find in that article. Recapping the speech here might open up the experience to those who could not be there. Yet, this post is already long, and there is little I could say to convince any of you of much, if that was my goal. In this moment, I’d rather spend my time on the next project. You’re welcome to read as much of my notes above as you can or wish to.

What I’ll leave you with are my two takeaways.

I’ve learned that, whatever else is on the platform, my two priorities for politics right now are public engagement and empathy for everyone in our communities.

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Going to hear a candidate speak, determining to vote on Tuesday, talking with people in the crowds and watching them react to the discussion: this is what democracy looks like.

“Every person in this room is powerful, if you choose to exercise that power,” Bernie Sanders said.

“No President, even Bernie Sanders, can solve the problems of this country alone,” he said.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said, and he encouraged everyone to perform their civic duty of voting…and the long and largely thankless task of participating in their government after it’s elected.

“There are a few realities we have to address, that can’t just get swept under the rug. It isn’t pleasant,” he said.

“I believe we are all created equal and should start living that way,” he said.

“In America, what we grew up believing is something profoundly important–equal justice under the law,” he said.

Here’s the difference between the ‘American Dream’ America and the real America, I’d say, where large groups of the population do not have equal justice, equal power, or equal respect. In this election campaign, I’m seeing some of the most aggressive statements of prejudice and hatred I’ve ever heard from a public, national stage.

Here was Mr. Sanders’ closing statement, and it’s nearly mine:

“The American people do not want a President who insults Mexicans. Who insults Muslims, one of our largest religious groups in America. Who insults women. Who insults African Americans…

The American public understands that coming together and supporting each other trumps divisiveness.

The American people understand that community and the need to help each other trumps selfishness.

The vast majority of the American people, regardless of age, race, class, etc, understand that love trumps hatred.”

This might make me naive, socialist, or reveal my lack of understanding of economics. But, my, was it good to hear someone with a chance at our country’s (arguably) highest seat of honor speaking things that felt like my truth.

Whoever you might want to vote for, I hope you get out and do it. Whoever you might feel the need to speak out for, I hope you do. Whoever you might be afraid of or blame for any of our national problems, I hope you can get past the feelings of fear and even righteous anger to find compassion for all our We the People.

America is still an inspiring country in many ways. It is a place I feel safe and valuable, which is not to be taken for granted. There is great freedom and opportunity. It’s just not all the pretty story we (the majority, white, affluent powers) like to tell. Our own ideology of equality makes it painful for us to acknowledge even the most obvious inequalities. Our own ideology of individualism keeps us thinking everyone gets what they earn, because otherwise we couldn’t have that same hope for ourselves.

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I just think we’ll get further toward the good, in this two and a half century social experiment of ours, when we do the hard work to learn empathy for our fellow Americans. I’d wait on most of my other strongest political beliefs being enacted into policy, if I could get a President who at least acknowledges a lot of the pain I hear about every day from working in the community.

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4 thoughts on “This is What Democracy Looks Like

  1. I enjoyed this very much and it was great to hear your thoughts. Working in the community you meet people, hear their stories and get happy, sad or frustrated with them. We need the current system to change, for my children and theirs. We also need more people to get out there, vote no matter their party and get involved in their communities.

  2. That’s great. Coming from someone in Oregon it’s awesome to see people on the other side of the nation are just as enthusiastic about Sanders are some of us over here are.

    • Definitely! the first person on stage at the rally was from the campaign staff and said how great it was that people were organizing events and making signs in Michigan before the actual campaign made it here. It’s powerful to see people being leaders that way.
      (Thank you for reading and your comment, Tim!)

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