Bern's Return: In Queens, a Massive Crowd Welcomes Sanders | Off Message

Bernie Sanders
Bern's Return: In Queens, a Massive Crowd Welcomes Sanders


U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders prepare to embrace at the rally. - ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Associated Press
  • U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders prepare to embrace at the rally.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) delivered a jolt of star power during a huge and boisterous Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaign rally in Queens on Saturday. Thousands gave her rapturous ovations and chanted “AOC! AOC!” during her 15-minute speech.

But the adoring crowd erupted with even greater enthusiasm when Sanders strutted onstage in Queensbridge Park. The impressive turnout, which the campaign asserted was more than 25,000 people, and Sanders' nearly hourlong recitative combined to prove the candidate's contention that, “To put it bluntly, I'm back!”

Declaiming his standard litany of issues in spirited cadences, Sanders gave no hint of having suffered a heart attack less than three weeks ago. The delivery of his speech, as much as its content, seemed designed to convince skeptics — and to warn political opponents — that Sanders can make good on his promise of waging “a vigorous campaign.”

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore gave a humorous, if indirect, response to misgivings about Sanders' age in a warmup speech. “Bernie's not too old,” Moore told the crowd. “Here’s what’s too old: The electoral college is too old. A $7.25 minimum wage: That’s too old. Women not being paid the same as men: That’s too old. Thousands and thousands of dollars of student debt. What is that? Too old.”

  • Courtesy of the Sanders campaign
  • The crowd at the rally
Ocasio-Cortez, a 30-year-old Latina Bronx-Queens lawmaker, presented a condensed story of her life which, she said, led her to endorse the 78-year-old Jewish Vermonter. The former bartender, whose mother came to New York from Puerto Rico and whose Bronx-born father died when she was 18, recounted how Sanders' “consistent and nonstop advocacy” of progressive causes had been an inspiration to her working-class family. His successful challenges to powerful interests motivated her to run for Congress in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez said.

With his white hair wafting in a gentle breeze and right hand thrusting upward and outward, Sanders at times resembled an Old Testament prophet, especially when he thundered: “Justice, long overdue, is coming to the United States of America!”

Few members of the throng departed before he had finished enumerating his promises. And a lengthy list of promises it was.

Declaring himself “more than ready to assume the office of president of the United States of America,” Sanders vowed to secure Medicare for all, roll back climate change, tax the rich, combat “environmental racism,” ensure “decent and affordable housing for all Americans,” reform the immigration system, implement gun control, defend women's right to choose, overhaul the “racist criminal justice system,” end gentrification and deliver high-speed broadband everywhere in the country.

Foreign policy was not included in Sanders' roll call. The closest he came to mentioning any international issue was a critical reference to “billions of dollars in defense spending.”

In a preemptive response to anyone who might dismiss his platform as unrealistically utopian, Sanders quoted Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

The setting of the rally illustrated many of the themes sounded by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Moore and campaign cochair Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator.

Across the street from the park stands a gloomy grouping of gray brick apartment buildings known as Queensbridge Houses, which Ocasio-Cortez described as “ground zero in the fight for decent public housing.” Manhattan's corporate and luxury residential towers loomed in contrast in the opposite direction, just across the East River. Railing against Wall Street and bandit businessmen, Moore called that Gotham skyscraper tableau “a crime scene.”

Queens itself, with a population four times Vermont's, is referred to by its boosters as “the world's borough.” Queens does indeed comprise a multicultural melange. “I see people from every single background, apropos the melting pot we call New York,” Sanders' wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, remarked from the stage. Yet, to this reporter, it appeared that four out of every five people in the crowd was white.

But Christine Nwachukwu, a New Jersey resident of Nigerian extraction, insisted in an interview that “Bernie hasn't had trouble attracting people of color.” Sanders' activism during the 1960s civil rights movement makes African American trust him, Nwachukwu said.

Absent and unmentioned but nonetheless a palpable presence at the event was U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sanders' formidable rival for the affections of progressive Democrats.

Ocasio-Cortez's endorsement is being interpreted by some pundits as a blow to Warren as much as it is a boost to Sanders. But the congresswoman offered no comment as to why she had bestowed her blessing on a male rather than a female presidential candidate. In fact, she praised “one of the best Democratic primary fields in a generation” and attributed its strength in part to “the work Bernie Sanders has done.”

Campaign cochair Turner, resplendent in a red gown, danced close to a Warren reference in her gospel-style oration. “There are some people who didn't have the guts to run in 2016,” Turner said, punctuating that semi-subtle swipe with a cry of, “Come on, somebody!” She added: “There's a lot of copies, baby, but I don't know why you'd take the copy when you can have the original.”

Francesca Rheannon, a 70-year-old Long Islander carrying a Bernie placard, said prior to the rally that she does not view Warren negatively. But Sanders, she said, is offering the sort of fundamental transformation needed to prevent a climate disaster, while the Massachusetts senator takes a more temperate approach to “an existential emergency.”

“We're going over a cliff right now at 85 miles per hour,” Rheannon said. “With someone who's not willing to do what's needed, we'll go over the cliff at 50 miles per hour instead.”

Correction, October 21, 2019: This post has been updated to reflect that Nina Turner is a former Ohio state senator.

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