Walking up to the Sacramento Bernie Sanders Rally, I was reminded of the Van’s Warped Tour—the punk-rock summer camp every 13-year -old kid wanted to attend in the early-to-mid 2000’s until it became as played-out as Coachella. This is not your average political rally. I’ve been here for nearly an hour, and I’ve yet to see anyone in a suit. Most supporters are under the age of thirty. Some have colorful hair; most have punk rock attitudes—‘like whatever, man.’
For a political junkie like me, who has been obsessively following the Sanders campaign for nearly a year, this is a landmark moment. In the era of digital journalism, you rarely get to attend an event. Most of the time, you have to pick up old stories from Politico or the wire and hope that you can conjure some opinion that makes your work interesting. Most of the time, you can’t. Nothing compares to being in a line with thousands of people who more or less share a common bond. I do look a bit square in my jean shorts and Acapulco shirt. The young Sanders crowd is into camo and piercings, leather and tattoos.
It’s a hot day in Sacramento, nearly 90 degrees, and as thousands of young supporters gather at Cal-Expo’s Bonney field, I can feel hope rising. At least, I think that’s what it is. If it is hope, then hope has many faces. On my right is a preacher who paid the 10-dollar parking fee to save young people from a roller coaster to hell. On my left are three 18-year-olds giggling about their plans to smoke pot and hang out all summer. Remember when 18 was old enough to go to war but not to vote? Yeah. Me neither.
“Are you guys registered to vote?” One bratty teen asks another.
“Ha! I don’t even know,” the other responds.
It’s 4:30 p.m. and Bernie Sanders is nowhere near the grounds. His motorcade is still parked at the hotel—wherever that is. Security dictates secrecy for the contending candidates. Sanders is still in contention, though it’s pretty clear he’ll need a miracle to overcome the former Secretary of State. Sanders doesn’t seem to like the type who’d be preoccupied with security—like Hillary probably is—but you never know.
The sun is hot, and the wait is long, but people are smiling and laughing. They’re talking about radical social change and connecting over the shared belief that all humans are created equal. There is no shortage of tie dye or legal pot smoke here. I would imagine this feels like a Bobby Kennedy rally, if I were old enough. A few who probably are old enough blend flawlessly with their millennial counterparts, including three twenty-somethings wearing matching red T-shirts with the word “socialist” on the front. They walk shoulder to shoulder. They seem fearless.
They’re eager to share their manifesto, but not for free. The magazine in their hands costs two dollars—and they’ve been peddling it to every doe-eyed kid in sight.
They aren’t overbearing like Hare Krishnas in an airport. They’re respectful. Most of the people here are respectful. I asked their opinion of Bernie.
“We disagree with him on some things,” said the woman, who happened to be a head taller than her male companions. “But largely we believe he needs to sever ties with the Democratic Party.”
I bid them farewell and kept moving down the line, which by now had no end in sight. I spotted someone selling some “Bernie” T-shirts and pins. Of course, when history is happening around you, you have to dig into your overpriced handbag and buy something.
It’s important to my mission that I fly under the radar. I have to blend. I can’t let the anti-establishment know that I’m a minor to the enemy. I glance at my yuppie-like exterior and grimace. Then, I decide it’s too late for disguises. So what if I stand out? It would be politically incorrect for anyone to point a finger.
At 5:10 p.m., I approach the entrance. Along the way, I’ve purchased a vintage-looking campaign button for five dollars. The line slows as metal detectors come into view, and the crowd murmurs about Secret Service, FBI and Homeland Security.
By now, all of the local TV stations have set up live trucks. I’m getting a sun burn.
Two hours of nothingness pass. The sun is going down. A muffled pseudo-political punk band plays as some of the last of the Bernie supporters funnel into Bonney Field. I am among them, my Acapulco shirt sticking like Saran Wrap to my sweaty skin.
It’s easily the hottest day of the first almost-summer I’ve experienced in Northern California. I can’t stand the heat any longer. I purchase a campaign shirt. It was attractive to me because it was a replica of the design chosen by The Sex Pistols during their “God Save The Queen” era. No self-respecting fan would have passed it up.
The crowd is now a strange mix of perfectly-curated style bloggers under 30, college bros and aging hippies. Upon further inspection, there are a considerable amount of freaks as well. Good people.
The amount of Urban Outfitters rompers in here—coupled with flower crowns—is almost making me sick, but then I step back for a second and concede that it’s all for a good cause.
I pop into a bathroom and change my shirt. Bad move. I’m a sober, non-partisan journalist covering this event for several news affiliates, yet I’m turned away from the press table. The security folks thought I looked like a possibly unstable Sanders supporter rather than a member of the media. So much for blending.
A bunch of people run past me at 7:30. They’re all wearing #FeelTheBern shirts. Some bear the fluffy-haired candidate’s silhouette, others just have a simple campaign logo. These folks are all in good spirits, sipping from bottles of water that cost six dollars each.
A group of girls wearing tie dye Bernie pins block my view around 8 p.m., Sanders’ scheduled time to speak. They look like transplants from Coachella. Their attire is disappointing and irrelevant, but I let it go. At least they’re doing their part as young people to include themselves in the political process. What am I talking about? They’re older than me!
Actor Donald Glover introduces Sanders at 8:15. Everyone stands, cheering and screaming and smiling like it’s Christmas. The Vermont Senator, who is nearly triple the age of most people here, is Justin Bieber. Okay, Bob Dylan.
It seemed like all 15,000 people are buzzing. Now they’re chanting, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” I’ve got goosebumps because no matter what happens in this election, this is history. Of course, Sanders hits every talking point: Minimum wage, student debt, the economy, the environment, and the American Dream—something that has fascinated and terrified me for as long as I can remember.
As a 2015 college graduate, with nearly 50,000 dollars of student debt that is accruing interest, everything resonates. I have indeed seen and heard everything this campaign has to offer. But I had never felt anything—until now. And what I feel surprises me.
I get up and walk off the risers at Bonney Field and look away from Sanders, whose rhetoric sounds the same in person as it does on TV—and I realize that this campaign was never really about him as person. It was about him as a person who listens. Bernie Sanders takes the time to listen to everyone – minorities, youth, seniors, immigrants and the disabled.
Bernie Sanders represents the idealism that we lose when we find ourselves in debt and we’re lost and we’re getting older and nothing is changing. He gives us the sincere and encouraging voice that has been lacking in every Presidential candidate since well before I was born.
I wade through thousands of people and I feel energy. Is it the crest of a wave that may never come again? The potential for change, for revolution without compromise?
All people want is to be heard and understood. To some, Trump fills that void. Others believe Hillary is the answer. The 15,000 who gathered at Bonney Field in Sacramento on a Monday in early May believe it’s Bernie.
When I ask the man who sold me a six-dollar bottle of water what he thought, who he believed in, he says, “I’m on nobody’s side.”
I shrug and say, “I guess it’s about picking the best of the worst. Right?”
He was already making change for his next customer as I coughed to hide my nervous laughter.