Saturday, November 28, 2015

Even in Frigid Weather, Sanders Supporters in Atlanta 'Feel the Bern'

A few days before Thanksgiving, thousands flocked to the Fox Theatre to hear from the Democratic presidential hopeful. Uncommon Journalism spoke with some of Atlanta's most ardent Bernie Sanders supporters to find out why the septuagenarian candidate has so many millennial voters stirred up.

PACKING IT IN: Columbia, South Carolina merchant James Quattlebaum, 50, made a mint off his assorted Pro-Sanders wares at the Nov. 23 rally in Atlanta - that is, until the APD reminded him of the city's street vending licensing requirements. (Photo Credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

ATLANTA -- At the historic Fox Theatre, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) began his Nov. 23 rally with what is almost certainly the first shout-out to a frequent Outkast collaborator of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. 

"Let me thank Killer Mike," the 74 year old spouted through his thick New England lilt. The nod to the rotund rapper followed introductory remarks from the Run the Jewels M.C., who said he wasn't there to "talk about benevolent politicians that are going to come and save the day for you."

The homegrown hip-hop hero and the self-described democratic socialist spent the better part of the afternoon sightseeing - at one point, the duo stopped by the soul food favorite the Busy Bee Cafe for fried chicken, yams and gravy and a couple of Instagram snapshots. Earlier in the day, the Democratic presidential challenger met with Bernice King, the youngest child of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both Killer Mike - his "real" name is the far less lethal-sounding Michael Render - and the Democratic presidential challenger mentioned the revered civil rights leader numerous times during their respective speeches. Sanders spoke at length about King's "Poor People's Campaign," which provided a perfect segue into a discussion about he plight of the modern American prole. 

"He was a great leader because he understood that justice in America was even more than civil rights, it was economic rights as well," Sanders said. "What he said was of course we need to end segregation at lunch counters and hotels and universities and schools, but he also said what difference does it make if a family can't afford to send their kids to those schools, or eat at that restaurant?" 

On a particularly frigid late fall evening, Sanders' calls for living wages and college debt forgiveness certainly resonated with the 5,000-plus strong crowd. References to "corporate media" and The Walton family drew boisterous jeers, and when Sanders mentioned his $70 billion a year plan for universal tuition-free education paid by taxes on speculations - "now it's Wall Street's turn to bail out the middle class" - the jam-packed theater erupted in applause. 

A PAINFUL REMINDER: Protesters at the Nov.23
Bernie Sanders rally in Atlanta held signs informing
attendees of the one-year anniversary of the shooting
death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. 
Over the course of an hour, Sanders blazed through the biggest hot-button issues of the day. Voter rights, abortion, campaign finance reform, minimum wage hikes, ending the drug war; each elicited the same reaction - stentorian cheers. The quarter-century Congress vet even had a chance to show off his ad-lib abilities. "I didn't realize my oratory was so powerful," he quipped after one of his supporters on stage momentarily passed out.

Although predominantly populated by white millennials, the audience was fairly diverse. A considerable number of African-American and Asian supporters turned out for the rally, and English was far from the only language audible. Age-wise, there were quite a number of attendees outside the 18-34 demographics; wedged in between college kids in Adventure Time toboggans and North Face jackets were sexagenarians and elementary schoolers proudly clad in Bernie '16 regalia. 

Sanders' campaign certainly feels reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street movement - indeed, much of his policy directly echoes the anti-big business sentiments of 2011. In some respects, his ability to draw in college-age kids, largely via a financial-based policy platform, also brings to mind the Ron Paul revolution of the late 2000s - albeit, from the exact opposite end of the political spectrum.

Alas, neither of those "populist" political movements were long-lived. Less than a year later, #OWS fizzled out and became just another discarded hashtag, and despite being able to fill up Major League Baseball stadiums for appearances, the poster child of contemporary American libertarianism never so much as won a single primary in two back-to-back presidential bids. Call it the Charpentier illusion for the Uber generation - just because someone or something has a big following on Tumblr doesn't necessarily mean that online adoration translates to general population appeal.

The runaway success of Sanders' presidential bid is certainly one of the more interesting developments of the 2016 race. Thus far, he has emerged as the only serious Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton, whose $97.7 million war chest as of Oct. 16 eclipses Sanders' campaign donations by $56 million

In that, however, there is a considerable amount of irony. Although Sanders has taken a firm stance against money influencing politics, his $41 million mid-October contributions total is a higher fundraising tally than Tea Party favorite Ben Carson and easily seven times the amount raised by leading Republican candidate Donald Trump. And for all the talk of economic inequality, Sanders, although nowhere close to being a billionaire, is still far from the middle-class himself. Estimated at $700,000, Sanders has a net worth seven times higher than that of Republican challenger Marco Rubio - and 15 times that of the median U.S. adult

Nonetheless, Sanders' fierce anti-one percenter message - coupled with socioeconomic principles that skew more towards Tommy Douglas than Barack Obama - has made the Brooklyn native a hit with the coveted - yet historically underrepresented - young voter demographic. So what is it about the candidate that has the predominantly unmarried, childless and debt-laden Gen Y masses in such a tizzy? And more than that, will the notoriously fickle Millennial base stick with Sanders and his policies for the long haul, or does his brand of democratic socialism have about as much cultural shelf life as your average Snapchat message?

The Very Young Vote

THE FUTURE OF THE LEFT: 18-year-old college students 'Erynn' and 'Gina' proudly show their support for the Democratic presidential hopeful at the Nov. 23 rally in Atlanta.

For about four feet on both sides of the Fox Theatre plaza, the sidewalk is spectacularly decorated with grandiloquent patterns and faux jewels. Then, it transitions into scuffed up public pavement, connecting the venerated performance hall to the rest of the urban environs. 

Things aren't going too well for James Quattlebaum, a 50-year-old merchandiser who said he has traveled to Vermont, Florida and Iowa to hawk his un-endorsed Sanders apparel. Beat cops and theater management told him to pack up his hats and tees, right before the deluge of Sanders supporters flooded the walkway. 

"Under the First Amendment, I have a right to, but it seems the police want to arrest me for selling the merchandise because they said it is not authorized by the campaign," the Columbia, South Carolina native said. “From my understanding of the law, when you're selling religious, political or protest merchandise, you don’t need a license anywhere in the United States of America.”

An incredibly patient police officer proceeds to spend the next five minutes explaining to Quattlebaum what "a vending ordinance" is, and why his political profiteering requires a license from the city. 

The attendees begin to filter out of the building. A lanky white male and a fellow protester, a silent, mustachioed young person of color, hold up signs dedicated to the memory of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child who was shot dead by Cleveland police almost a year to the day of Sanders' rally. A brief but spirited "no justice, no peace" chant flares up, but it dissipates almost as quickly as it began. It is soon replaced by the lonesome howl of a nearby street performer's saxophone.

Before long, the trickle turns into an outpouring, as hundreds of people fight their way through the masses to hop in their Uber rides. Many use the downtime to light up cigarettes - there were remarkably few "vapers" in the audience - and take selfies while holding miscellaneous Bernie-branded signs, pins and clothing. 

AIR TIME: A local TV station camera crew interviews
a trio of Sanders supporters.
Despite Atlanta's majority African-American population - and Sanders' stated campaign objective of wooing the city's black voters - most of those who turned out to support the presidential candidate were Caucasian. Among those, a majority were clearly in the 18-34 demographic. 

And quite a few were even younger than that. 

"I heard about him from my friends, so I started supporting him,” said Jared Steckel, a 17-year-old Atlantan. "The issues he talked about seemed kind of like common sense, and why wouldn't people agree with him?"

Emma Peters, another 17-year-old Atlanta resident, said she discovered Sanders while working at a summer camp. "In my off-time browsing the Internet, he kept popping up,” she said. “He just makes the most sense. As a woman, as someone who is going to be in college, I want to know college is going to be affordable.”

Demonstrating Sanders' heavy support on social media, the cohorts of Steckle and Peters described how they first encountered the presidential hopeful. 

Atlantan Zach Getty, 17, said he was introduced to Sanders via Tumblr. "A lot of people are big fans of him on there," he said. 

"I first heard about it through  a friend," said Josh Binderman, 16, of Atlanta. "She would always retweet stuff about him on Twitter." 

The post-rally powwow was a brief one - the half-dozen strong gaggle of youngsters had to split up as soon as mom and dad swung their cars underneath the blinking, neon-gold fascia of the Fox. 

"Gina," an 18-year-old Georgia State student, said she respects Sanders endeavors to "rebuild" the middle class. "The wealth redistribution needs to be fixed and I like how he supports the lower class," she said. "Although he has taken socialist ideas, he's not trying to be real extreme with any of them." 

Her pal "Erynn," a fellow 18-year-old Atlantan, also praised Sanders for his efforts to close the "gap" between the one percent and the 99 percent. "For me, it's just his support for all the minorities," she said. "The women's wage gap is probably the biggest thing for me."

Alas, the two have some doubts about Sanders' higher education policies, which "Gina" described as "a little outlandish."

"I like how he's trying to get free healthcare and free education for the people," she said. "But it's like, where is all the money coming from to send all these people to school for free?"

Money Matters

CASH FLOW: Samuel Smith, 18, said he supports Sanders' efforts to limit the impact of money on political races - in fact, he considers campaign finance reform to be the single biggest policy issue heading into 2016.

Samuel Smith, an 18-year-old journalism major at the University of Georgia, stumbled across Sanders in much the same way many of the candidate's other supporters have. "Just from the Internet and doing my own research, I heard about Bernie Sanders," he said. "I looked deeply into his platform and I liked what I heard." 

The Athens, Georgia, resident said he supports a near totality of Sanders' ideas, running the gamut from his free tuition to paid family leave policies. He would, however, like to see Sanders build upon his criminal justice reform stance. "Being a black male, I've definitely been on the receiving end of some institutional racism," he said. "Like Obamacare, I think it can go a step further." 

The biggest issue heading into 2016, Smith said, is campaign finance reform. "I find myself looking at the world and realizing just how much money actually runs the country, so I find it very appealing that he doesn't take corporate donations," he said. "It determines what happens with everything else ... if we don't reform campaign finance, they can govern according to what the donors say."

Jefferson, Georgia resident Dean Trippe, 35, said he first encountered Sanders around 2004. He is not sure, but he thinks it was an appearance on The Daily Show.

"Unlike most politicians, he's got a record of being on the right side of history," he said. "A lot of people evolve on issues and a lot of people come around the side of liberal causes, but honestly, it feels like the country has caught up to him." 

Although Sanders is technically running on the Democratic ticket, Trippe said a successful Sanders bid would give the United States its first "independent" president since Washington. 
QUESTIONS LINGER: Although Durrell Lyons, 30,
said he supports Sanders economic policies, he can't
help but wonder where the money will come from to
support some of his educational initiatives.

"Both political parties have completely acquiesced to the giant financial institutions of the country," he said. "He is the only person willing to take that on. Goldman Sachs has backed every fed for years ... they're backing Hillary Clinton and these giant institutions are backing the entire Republican party." 

Durrell Lyons, a 30-year-old software engineer from Atlanta, also said Sanders' independent streak greatly appeals to him. 

"He was the only one I saw on the national level that classified himself as an independent, even though he did kind of support progressive ideas," he said. "That means I don't owe nothing to anybody, I'm not here for democratic principles, I'm not here for conservative principles, I'm here for what I truly believe in."

Along with beating back institutional racism - "he's the only candidate that had the balls to say, on a national stage, black lives matter" - Lyons said economics is the most pressing issue of the 2016 presidential race. 

That said, he said he still feels unclear about some of Sanders' policies - in particular, his lofty higher-education initiative. “He mentioned something about raising taxes on Wall Street, which I get the feeling that can help, but I don’t know if that’s one single policy that’s going to provide tuition-free education for every student that wants to go to college," Lyons said. 

Not all attendees were convinced of Sanders economic plans, though. 

"Some of his ideas seem to be moving in the right direction, however I do not feel that all would be the best move for our country," said 27-year-old Acworth, Georgia resident "K.S."

While he does like Sanders' moves to reel in outsourced jobs and focus on domestic output, he's not so sure a hiked minimum wage will pan out. 

"It's going to be the same seven-something-odd dollars as it will be at $15," he said, "if the cost of material and production remain the same." 

The Hillary Dilemma

STILL BERNIN': Nancy Casey, 57, and Alan Thornquest, 66, said although Sanders is their preferred candidate, they would be willing to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton if it means keeping a Republican out of the Oval Office. 

While most of Sanders' Atlanta supporters firmly fit into the college and post-college demographic, a number of attendees leaning towards, or already at, retirement age also braved the cold to get a glimpse of the 2016 hopeful.

"Penny," a 66-year-old Atlantan, was introduced to Sanders by her husband. "He watches C-SPAN all the time and about five years ago, I came home from work and I said 'why the hell are you watching that, it's so boring?" she recounted. "He said 'it's not going to be boring for long, because Bernie's coming on'...I've been listening to him ever since." 

Alan Thornquest, a retired mental health counselor, has been following Sanders on social media for about a year. 

"The major news outlets are not carrying any news about Bernie," the 67-year old McDonough, Georgia resident said. "Reddit is alive with Bernie, Facebook is just burning up with Bernie."

The most appealing aspect of Sanders' campaign, Thornquest said, is his crusade to eliminate economic disparity. "The rich versus the poor, the aristocracy and the proletariat," he said, "We have to change the way we look at the economic structure in this country and fight for the middle class." 
ASSISTING SANDERS: Approximately 5,000
supporters showed up in Atlanta on Nov. 23 to hear
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders
Nancy Casey, a 59-year old respiratory therapist also hailing from McDonough, Georgia, said Sanders cannot be "bought" a'la some of the other 2016 candidates. "He's not tied to big business, that's my big thing," she said. "Hillary is."

However, if Sanders doesn't get the nod for president, both Casey and Thornquest said they will cast their ballot for the Democratic challenger, whoever he - or she - may be. 

While Trippe said he has qualms about Clinton's background as Secretary of State - he accuses her of raising arm deals for oppressive regimes and using the political arena to make herself and her spouse "multi-millionaires a dozen times over" - he would check the box for her if Sanders isn't the official Democratic presidential candidate next year. 

"I will likely vote for Clinton, if there is a gun to my head," he said. 

Using another firearm metaphor, Smith said he too would "bite the bullet" and pull the lever for Hillary Clinton or Martin O'Malley if Sanders doesn't get the party vote - primarily, because he said he doesn't want to be responsible for another Republican taking up residence in the White House. 

Ideally, Lyons said he would like to see Clinton and Sanders on the same ticket. If Sanders isn't in the V.P. slot, however, he said he would have "to sit back and re-evaluate the decision."

There is, however, one scenario in which Lyons said he would cast his vote for the Democratic candidate, regardless of whoever's name is on the computer terminal.

"If Trump is a candidate, I will vote Democratic," he said,  "not because I am voting for the president I want, but because I am voting against the president I don’t want.”

So What Is 'Democratic Socialism,' Anyway?

HIS OWN TERMS: Sanders supporter Dean Trippe, 35, said 'democratic socialism' means precisely that: 'We're all in this together,' he said, 'and everybody has a vote.'

Regardless of the outcome of Sanders' White House run, there is no denying that his "democratic socialism" message has raised serious discussions about the feasibility of European-style economics in the United States. Indeed, Sanders' ideology very well could be a preview of things to come, as more and more Americans - especially those in younger age brackets - warm up to the concept of "the Nordic Model." In fact, a Rasmussen poll from late October revealed that nearly half of all self-described Democratic voters in the U.S. view "socialism" as preferable to "capitalism."

Just days before his Atlanta visit, Sanders described his personal definition of "democratic socialism" at a Georgetown University event: "We must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy." Sanders supporters in Atlanta, however, had their own take on what the term means - and whether or not it's really a new concept in the American political landscape at all. 

Although "propaganda" has transformed the terminology "socialism" into a scary phrase, Lyons said that, for the most part, Americans are - and have been - living in a quasi-socialist society for decades.

"The idea of being democratic means 'voted on by the people,' with an idea of socialism meaning 'kind of organized by the state,'" he said. "So I think democratic socialism is the concept of the people of the democracy voting on what is provided and controlled by the state and what is not provided or controlled by the state."

Democratic socialism, Thornquest argued, is already firmly enmeshed in the U.S. political framework. "We collect taxes, don't we, in America?" he said. "See this highway, see this road? That's socialism. Go to a library? That's socialism. We already have democratic socialism in America, but most Americans are uneducated and don't know that."
pro-Bernie apparel still be relevant this time next year?
Even if Sanders isn't a factor in the presidential race,
many Atlanta supporters believe his 'democratic
socialism' principles will remain influential in
the U.S. political landscape for years to come. 

Fellow Sanders supporter Casey echoed that sentiment. "If it's paid for by the people and used by the people," she said, "it's socialism."

While many political commentators have focused on the "socialism" aspect of the term, Trippe said many are overlooking the "democratic" part of Sanders' political ideology. 

"Every time voter turnout is low and people are kept away from the polls, Republicans win," he said. "I think if you believe in democracy, you should get another country, because this isn't what this one is about." 

In his eyes, Trippe said democratic socialism truly is a synthesis of the two terms. "We're all in this together," he said, "and everybody has a vote."

To Smith, democratic socialism is "taking money and making it work for the people." Instead of appropriating $600 billion to national defense - a sum tantamount to the next seven highest military budgets in the world combined - he wants to see resources invested "back into the actual people of America, not just the people who are making money."

Seeing as how the U.S. easily spends three and half times as much on social security and health care entitlements than it does defense expenditures, perhaps the nation is actually a lot closer to a European socioeconomic template than even Sanders' most impassioned supporters assume.

Whether that's a positive or a negative - and how much Sanders' presidential bid ultimately impacts that progressive ideal - is in the eye of the beholder, "K.S." stated. “Our country has been gradually socializing over time," he said. "However, I am not sure if that’s the proper political model for us."

His voice, at least that evening, was drowned out amidst a small, impromptu political parade on Peachtree Street. "Bernie, Bernie," the masses chanted, hollered and hooted for about an hour following Sanders' speech.

And then the crowds dispersed and the joyous rah-rah gave way to the "normal" sounds of an Atlanta weeknight. Tires squealed and that forlorn saxophonist picked back up - just as a surfeit of unclaimed pro-Bernie pamphlets slowly began to twirl about in the chilly, November wind. 

Uncommon Journalism, 2015. 

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