Early Wednesday evening outside a rally for Bernie Sanders in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, a tanned, silver-haired man in a black cape and red eye-mask—a bank robber costume—extolled the virtues of renouncing civilization. “I spend as much time as possible outdoors on my farm,” he said.
He introduced himself as Ricky Obama from Brighton Beach, New York, and held up a sign with bullet points like “abolish money” and “less workers, more poets.”
He said he was 75—”Bernie’s age”—but that he was christened a “baby beatnik” many years ago in the park. He loved everything about Bernie—”except that he doesn’t smoke marijuana. And even though he opposed the war in Iraq, he voted for the war in Afghanistan.” If he had been president, (Ricky) Obama “would have sat down with the Taliban and smoked some nice dynamite hashish.”
He said the tan was from tending to his marijuana plants on the farm in Chico, California: “I’m a ganja guy.”
Bernie Sanders couldn’t have picked a more fitting venue for the first of his three rallies in New York ahead of the state primary. Washington Square Park is in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a long-time haven for artists and activists, counterculture and LGBT rights.
The park is also New York University’s backyard.
A crowd of student radicals, wannabe beatniks, hippies, freaks, and limousine liberals came out to support the democratic socialist candidate and his political revolution. They lugged around peace sign posters, giant handmade Bernie dolls, and cardboard eyeglasses resembling those worn by the Vermont senator. Young women whose cheeks were painted with hearts and planet Earth sang along to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
By the time the rally kicked off around 7 p.m., legions of besotted Berniacs spilled out of the park and funneled into side streets. Sanders’s campaign estimated that 27,000 people attended the rally.
Sanders was introduced by an entourage of celebrity surrogates, including actor Tim Robbins, filmmaker Spike Lee, and Vampire Weekend, the indie-rock band, who played a kumbaya set with several Columbia University students onstage.
Johnny Maroney, a 28-year-old filmmaker dressed as a beatnik stereotype (beret, goatee, long coat, and fingerless gloves) cupped his hands around his mouth and cheered. He admitted he didn’t take Sanders very seriously during the early stages of his campaign, though he soon came around.
“I was already sure we needed a political revolution, then I realized our beliefs were completely aligned,” Maroney said, citing economic and environmental reform among his political priorities.
Ever since he announced his candidacy, Sanders has appealed to the far Left as a man of the people who would take on Wall Street and those responsible for corporate greed and income inequality in America.
It’s a compelling ideology to people like Leah Gindies, a psychotherapist from New York who clutched a “Boomers for Bernie” sign at the rally.
“I love that he represents the 99 percent of those of us in the world who need to speak up in order to be heard,” she said.
When asked about Sanders’s plans to “reverse” current U.S. trade agreements to boost the economy, Gindies replied: “Look at what’s happening between the U.S. and Cuba? What a ridiculous shame it’s been that that there’s been an embargo with Cuba since 1970.”
Sanders’s cozy relationship with the Castro dictatorship in the ’80s was proof that “his revolutionary roots run deep,” Gindies said, adding that while Castro “lost touch” because he was corrupted by power, she admired him and his pal Che Guevara in the early days of the Cuban revolution, when Guevara and Fidel’s brother, Raul, executed people they suspected were “counterrevolutionaries” or agents of the Batista regime.
“If we could have revolution today legally and bloodlessly, that would be terrific,” she said, apparently unaware of Guevara’s history of violence.
On stage, Hollywood liberals railed against the “millionaires and billionaires” whom Sanders promises to tax generously if elected president.
There’s nothing wrong with being a limousine liberal, of course: better to want to share your wealth with the poor than to keep it all for yourself. Better still if, like Spike Lee—whose Upper East Side townhouse was once featured in Town and Country and is on the market for $32 million—you’re rich enough that a socialist tax system won’t affect your cash flow.
Tim Robbins, best known for his role in the Shawshank Redemption, kicked off an evening of Hillary-bashing.
“We’ve all been fed a steady stream of propaganda that Hillary is the presumptive nominee,” he said, citing The New York Times and NBC News among the mainstream media’s pro-Clinton propaganda machines. Unlike Clinton, Bernie “will not bow down to the elites in the party” and isn’t “entirely entrenched in the dysfunction of the past.”
Sebastian Bard, a middle-aged man clad in a faded leather trench coat, cowboy hat, and thick-rimmed black aviators, clapped vigorously as Robbins cried out: “Now is a time for truth! For tolerance! Love! Idealism!”
“Bernie has always told the truth,” said Bard, an artist and self-described “utopia temple-ist” (he clarified that it would be inaccurate to say he was just an “idealist.”)
“I feel like he’s the last one with integrity, like it’s now or never,” Bard continued. “If Hillary were to win [the general election], it’s just going to go back to the Stone Ages.”
Rosario Dawson was now slamming a “culture of propaganda” for “framing the narrative” in the news around Clinton, the establishment candidate. America is hurtling towards a cliff, she said, and simply “slowing down” is not enough when the country needs to focus on “changing direction.” Who better to lead a progressive political movement than a candidate who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King?
Spike Lee had barely begun his routine (“We’ve been bamboozled [by the system]!”) when he was cut off by music signaling Sanders’s imminent arrival.
A wave of Bernie chants echoed around as if this was a football stadium, reaching fever pitch beneath the park’s iconic arch before Sanders took the stage to thunderous applause. He was dressed down in a light-blue jacket, his shoulders tensed up beneath his ears as if he’d been standing out in the cold for too long like everyone else.
“Our campaign has won seven out of the last eight caucuses and primaries,” he said, “and when I look at an unbelievable crowd like this, I believe we’re going to win here in New York!”
It was the warm-up to an hour-long attack against “a rigged economy,” the “status quo,” and “a corrupt campaign finance system.”
The crowd knew these talking points so well that they often finished his sentences.
How will he pay for universal healthcare, free college tuition, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?
“We’re going to pay for it by imposing a speculation tax on Wall Street!” his raspy voice sounded throughout the park, with a chorus of voices joining him on the word “imposing.”
He took aim at the “Donald Trumps of the world” and railed against Verizon for being a “poster child” for corporations. He vowed that he wouldn’t allow companies like General Electric to find tax loopholes. He promised to rebuild America’s inner cities; implement sweeping climate-change policies and ban fracking; reverse “disastrous” trade policies; close the gender wage gap; pass immigration reform (“If Congress doesn’t do its job, I’ll use executive powers!”)
He also stressed that his campaign was about “listening to people whose voices are not often heard,” particularly the African-American, Latino, and Native American communities.
“Fuck Christopher Columbus!” a woman wearing a “Make America Dank Again” hat shouted behind me. (Earlier, it was “Fuck Jim Geitner!”)
Several photographers snapped pictures of a 23-year-old woman next to her, Amanda Sweden from Queens, who wore a T-shirt with Che Guevara’s beret, beard, and shaggy hair superimposed on Bernie’s face.
Asked what she thought of Guevara, Sweden said: “He started a revolution, too.”