"Apparently all of you are white," the actress Rosario Dawson said to a roaring crowd, as the sun set in the South Bronx. "That's crazy… there must be issues with my eyes."
In front of her were 15,000 people, maybe more, packed into Saint Mary's Park to await the arrival of Bernie Sanders on Thursday night. It was the Brooklynite-turned-Vermont senator's first stop in the Empire State, which will hold its Democratic primary in less than three weeks. Former New York Senator Hillary Clinton holds a dominant lead in the polls, but in New York City—as in many places across the country—it's Sanders who seems to have gotten voters' blood pumping.
When I hopped off the 6 train, I found myself in the middle of a massive line. People of color—mostly young, but some old—rubbed shoulders with white millennials who probably don't come to the South Bronx often. Signs of "Boricua 4 Bernie" and "Puerto Ricans 4 Bernie" peppered the crowd, while banners that read "Unidos con Bernie" hung all over. Before Dawson, Judy-Sheridan Gonzalez, the president of the New York Nurses Union, had yelled out to the crowd, "Yo siento el Bern!"
Clinton and her husband (who was once called "the first black president" by Toni Morrison) have traditionally been popular with the African American community, but some prominent black intellectuals—including Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander—have voiced their support of Sanders, or at least their dissatisfaction with Clinton. Speaking to his supporters in the South Bronx, it was clear that plenty of ordinary people agreed with the most common critique of Clinton: A vote for her would be a vote for the unacceptable status quo.
Outside of the rally, I spoke with Orlando Carabello, a 36-year-old Bernie supporter who lived in the housing project across the street from the park. He had a Bronx tattoo on the back of his neck and wore a "Super Bernie" T-shirt. "The people here, they don't care about the election," he told me, "because they don't see change.
"And under Hillary, it'd just be more of the same," he continued, sighing. "Nothing changes."
As was Clinton's choice to hold an event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem the day before, Sanders's showing up in the South Bronx was symbolic. The area has long been beset by poverty and crime; in 2010, it was the country's poorest congressional district. The symbolism is fairly obvious: A place a scant few miles away from Wall Street that has been abandoned by the American financial and political elite.
The high turnout indicated that plenty of South Bronx residents are receptive to Sanders's message that the country needs policies that raise the lower and middle classes up, but Orlando told me that older people weren't going to be convinced by his arguments.
"The older people around here know Hillary, and that's what they want: experience," he said. "She's been there, done that. She's a part of the politics." In 1997, he recalled, the then–First Lady visited nearby Longwood Avenue with her husband, and that's something many people here don't forget.
"But the youth are awake," he continued, "and they see the lack of opportunity here."
The youth—or the likes of Habeeb Shobayo, Israel McFadden, Jesse Dukes, and Kaivert Hazel, four Bronx teens I met at the Bernie rally whose parents are mostly voting for Clinton—agreed.
"Bernie got the young votes," Hazel told me. "What Bernie is offering the community is what we need. So many people I know can't afford college, or get a good job here."
Israel interjected: "He's the first person to even come to the South Bronx and campaign. He's not going to a fancy hotel somewhere. Like Trump, he'd go to Madison Square Garden."
I asked the group about the idea that black people don't know Sanders, or not enough about him to actually vote for him. "I don't know a person who doesn't know him," Dukes said. "Everybody knows Bernie."
"If you think Bernie's supporters are only white," Habeeb added, "come to the Bronx."
Watching from behind a barricade with her friends, Diana Ordonez, 20, said the Establishment is trying to push the notion that Bernie's support is monolithic. "They're trying to make him into a person with one single vote," she argued, "although he's been fighting for his whole life on these issues.
"Hillary has raised a ton of money from private prisons," she continued, "which have discriminated against and incarcerated blacks and Latinos."
Before Sanders appeared on stage, a stream of speakers appeared to warm up the crowd. Dawson hammered Hillary on some of her past remarks, particularly the time in 1996, she called gang members "super predators" who needed to "be brought to heel," or the 2002 interview when she implied welfare recipients were "deadbeats." The director Spike Lee appeared and told the youth in the crowd to talk to their parents. "The older generation," he said, "they're on this Clinton thing." And Residente, the former vocalist of the popular Latino group Calle 13, chastised Clinton for her friendship with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who, he said, supported the dictatorships that dominated Latin America for decades. "It will represent an insult to consider yourself Latin American and vote for her," he said.
When Sanders finally took the stage, he didn't slam Clinton but instead delivered his usual stump speech—"Does anyone know how much our average contribution is?" he asked the crowd; "$27!" they responded, in unison—with few exceptions carved out for the occasion. He specifically focused on access to healthcare, child poverty, education, and criminal justice, all issues that are front and center here.
"We are gonna reinvest in the South Bronx," he said in his raspy voice, to cheers from the massive crowd, "and communities all over this country!"
Sanders's speech ended just after 8 PM, and the event cleared out like a concert: the smell of pot still reeking in the air, fans chanting "Bernie!" all the way to the subway station. As we left the park single file, I overheard one supporter turn to his friend, and ask, "Who said that Bernie's fans are all white?" The friend shrugged.
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