Two nights in California: How Bernie’s revolution ran out of continent

We were with the San Francisco Berners at the very end


The dream began at different times and in countless different ways. 

For some people it began last summer when Bernie Sanders, then a super-longshot candidate for the Democratic nomination, began drawing unexpected crowds in places like Madison, Wisconsin and Portland, Oregon. For some the dream was lit when the senator from Vermont swept the New Hampshire primary in early February, scoring his first win in the process. For many others it began with a conversation at a party or an online video, like the historic clip of Bernie attacking a Republican congressman for demeaning gay servicemen. 

However and whenever it began, the dream of political revolution ended this week, at about 6pm Pacific Time on Monday night to be precise, in San Francisco’s damp and foggy Crissy Field. 

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On the field, stretched out from the Golden Gate Bridge, there were Bernie bicycles, Bernie hats, Bernie t-shirts plastered with cult films. Bernie is John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Bernie is Heisenberg, Bernie is one of The Muppets. Bernie is a black labrador.

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Union worker Tracy shows us her Bernie cardboard cut-out, which she put together with her friend Skylar. They met at last week’s rally in Davis. “We made it so it would go viral!” she beams, offering a passerby the chance to have their face framed in a facsimile of Bernie’s trademark glasses and shock of white hair. “Take your next profile picture here!”

If you didn’t know he was a candidate for the presidency, you might assume Bernie was one giant online gag — the year’s favorite internet meme.

A huge bearded man named Michael stands nearby, with a Charles Manson beard the length of his head, selling what he calls Bernies — rolling papers he made himself, on sale for $1 a pack. Michael’s wife sits on the ground breastfeeding their son, named Soul Rebel, as his brother Casey Echo plays nearby.

“They’re 100 percent untarnished hemp,” he explains as ageing hippie Neil approaches to buy a pack of Bernies. Neil addresses both of us: “I was initiated officially in the summer of love.”

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Michael asks Neil: “Are you a hugger?” and without missing a beat, Neil says yes, and grabs Michael in a bear hug. “Right on,” says Michael.

You would expect all of this at a rally for a progressive candidate in San Francisco, but after months covering the candidate’s campus events, this gang — here at the bitter end — are the true believers. Gone are the bright-eyed students, leaving only the Michaels and the Neils standing in the drizzle, hugging.

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Compared to the thundering optimism of Bernie’s rallies in Portland, Philadelphia, and New York’s Washington Square Park, where he drew a bigger audience than Barack Obama, this was a subdued, small event.

When he steps up to the platform Bernie says there are “a lot of people here”, which would be true of most candidates’s rallies, but his campaign has set a high bar. 

At no point does he address the news that has been spreading through the crowd for more than an hour now — that the Associated Press has called the race for Hillary. At one point, he even imagines himself President: “I will use the executive powers of the White House…” 

“He’s just so right on everything,” says a young woman in the crowd. Her mother, standing next to her nods in agreement.

***

Bernie’s San Francisco organizers — a bushy-tailed brigade — have been anxiously waiting for his arrival in the city for weeks. “He was supposed to meet me today but it didn’t happen,” says one LGBT activist at the Crissy Field rally, whose enthusiasm hadn’t been dampened. 

Samantha, 24, a pretty supporter from San Jose who has painted her forehead with acrylic paint, says the mood among her friends is “solid”. She lives “moment by moment” so she can’t say what she will do next. Her brother, also blonde but less elfin, says: “I’m going to vote for Bernie”. Even if he’s not a candidate in November? Yes, he says. “Hillary is a puppet.” He doesn’t know who she is a puppet for, “which is what’s scary,” he says.

Outside, waiting for Bernie’s motorcade, is Kevin, 46, a short guy with wild eyes and a pointed goatie, holding a sign alleging that Hillary is “A more dangerous Republican than Trump!” She supported the Honduran government despite their persecution of journalists investigating a scandal over dams in the country, he says. He also mentions the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and something about Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, which he doesn’t finish because Bernie’s car is approaching surrounded by police. “Thank you Bernie” he shouts repeatedly as the candidate sweeps by.

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The next morning, primary day in California, the huge Facebook groups where Bernie supporters have been organizing for months became bulletin boards for allegations of electoral malpractice. One shared a story about a severely autistic cousin being taken to a polling station and instructed to vote for Hillary. Another supporter, a trained opera singer called James, posted: “The President, The DNC and the corrupt media conglomeration are the ones who should be ashamed of themselves. We don’t need to say anything more. MEDIA IS COMPLICIT IN THE CRIME!!!!!!!!!!!” 

Talk of voter suppression and electoral fraud has attended the Bernie movement for months, particularly during the New York primary, where it has become gospel among his supporters to claim that tens of thousands of votes were lost or miscounted. Here in San Francisco organizers are handing out flyers — adorned with a raised fist — for “Suppress This”, an app which promises to “arm all California Voters with the LAW.” When contacted on lunchtime at polling day they say no irregularities have been reported.

Something smells rather fishy” one supporter posts in the California for Bernie Sanders 2016 group after finding that they are not on the ballot list in Contra Costa County. “DO NOT TAKE THE PROVISIONAL” advises another group member in the comments. “Spend an hour there raising hell and threatening to call the police and the news,” they add. The atmosphere in the group had become fevered. “I have decided that the most important issue in this election is election fraud,” said another member.

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“California,” Joan Didion once wrote, “is a place in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Things needed to work for Bernie in California, but by 6pm last night it was clear they hadn’t. 

In The Rogue’s Tavern on San Francisco’s Washington Square Park, the locals were watching the USA take on Costa Rica in the Copa America, but the room at the back was filling up with the activists, some carrying flyers and posters from their last day of campaigning for Bernie and their local independent candidate for congress, Preston Picus.

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Lauren, a junior at Georgia State and Preston’s niece, said: “I saw Bernie yesterday – I cried. He was the one who got me into politics.”

On the TV screen CNN goes live to Brooklyn where Hillary is finally taking the stage to declare victory. Some people watch. “She’s so full of shit it pisses me off,” says Drew, a 29-year-old activist from San Jose. He wants Bernie to run as an independent in November.

The activists here are planning to have a meeting soon to decide their next moves. “Everyone wants to keep going with what we are doing,” says Reid, 32, one of their chief organizers for Bernie in San Francisco. “We have accomplished a lot. We have started a new era in American politics.”