The Popular Underdog
One week ago, on August 9th, Bernie Sanders lured almost 30,000 people to Portland’s Moda Center, including the overflow exceeding capacity with 20,000 packed inside, making headlines as the largest crowd in any candidate’s election campaign so far. Converging onto the NBA campus at 6pm, hundreds unloaded from trains that were gridlocked, bikes occupied every pole and banister. Bernie signs rose and fell together in waves.
There were moments of his speech, especially when he denounced “the billionaire class” and their controlling influence of the political process with unsmiling firmness, “it’s time to bring morality back into politics,” that produced a heady rumble of collective stomping. When Sanders announced that the Portland turn-out was the greatest so far, the place absolutely boomed, probably not heard since Damian Lillard launched that clutch 3-point shot against the Houston Rockets, bringing the Trail Blazers into the playoffs for round two, last year.
The crowd was not without protesters, all of which had a progressive agenda. One fellow calls out Bernie’s border politics, and his silence on the matter in routine stump speeches. A small group called Jewish Voice for Peace want him to side with the Palestinians. Nothing was said in his speech about the Border, but he did come out mildly in favor of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, saying that “we have to give it a shot” and “war is a last resort.” This alone puts him at odds with Israel’s official position.
Last week, a social media buzz stirred around a Seattle incident, in which he was shut down by rogue Black Lives Matter activists, at a public gathering. That incident was diffused in Portland, aside from a lone voice screaming “black lives matter” at every applause break. She, a white woman, held the Don’t Shoot PDX banner, with two other white women, but her lone voice started to irritate supporters of their movement, and she was asked to tone it down repeatedly, even despite a passionate intro speech from Black Lives Matter activist and Bernie’s Press Secretary, Symone Sanders (coincidental name). When asked what she hoped to accomplish with this tactic, she replied with that uncertain inflection of a question, “to make black lives matter.” When asked, “Is Bernie against the movement?” she said no, “everything he’s talking about has to do with this.” It was strange.
A few weeks before, on July 29th, the Bernie Sanders campaign organized events and house parties across the country for a digital rally. Sanders spoke from a house party in Washington DC and it was broadcast live, reaching over 100,000 people. In Portland, venues hosting the broadcast reported sold-out status on social media, hours before the event.
Hosted originally at Watershed PDX, an industrial art space in Southeast Portland, the 700 RSVPs were moved over to Trackers Earth, a warehouse space. Thru Magazine’s Kate and Sean joined what washed out to 300 people, to listen to the senator speak about the direction and goals of his campaign, and to launch a nationwide organizing effort. Dozens of similar events were hosted across Portland. The closest to our neighborhood at the Mission Theater was “sold out” according to the marquee. Upon arrival, topical cards were handed out, such as “Workers Co-ops” or “Climate Change” and we were supposed to discuss the topics on our own. We watched the speech projected onto the wall, the light coming in from the open doors, washing out the screen.
Older folks took the chairs up front, and in the back, people of all ages stood. The crowd looked like a blend of those you see at farmer’s markets, Powell’s Books and Portland’s beer festivals, hipster to hippie, casual conservative style to scrappy, netted tank tops and ripped shorts, but for the most part, an evenly tempered group. We whistled at promises Bernie made or jeered at the mention of Citizen’s United and the current situation of rampant student loan debt. After, we headed outside to the parking lot where people stuck around, enjoying the free beer and the lingering energy of the rally.
We talked to a few people that night to get a sense of what the just-recently little known Bernie Sanders was evoking in people. He is drawing bigger and bigger crowds. The idea is swelling among many that Bernie’s progressive values, his candid demeanor, and his grassroots campaign are all symbolic of the changes his administration could make in the country. Here are a few brief interviews we conducted at the July 29th event, with a couple from Chattanooga, the Ramirez family of Portland, three self-proclaimed “Berners” new to the rally scene, and a young couple from Portland. We continued the conversation with two more interviews after Bernie’s speech on August 9th at the Moda Center rally.