Four and half years ago, watching the Occupy Wall Street movement take off, Bernie Sanders hailed the “extremely important” work activists were doing in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and across the country. “We have got to continue to focus on the greed of Wall Street, and we’ve got to bring about real reforms to end the kind of abusive behavior that is taking place,” Sanders said at the time.
The presidential campaign he’s run over the last year has been designed to show Americans, including those who gathered at Occupy encampments, that he’s still focused on those goals: protesting the influence of corporate money in American politics, demanding the architects of the financial crisis be held accountable for their reckless actions, and registering moral outrage at the obscene and rapidly increasing rate of income inequality in the United States.
Whether the message has resonated — and resonated loud enough to create a political revolution — will, at least in part, be discovered after Tuesday’s primary in Occupy Wall Street’s birthplace, New York.
A week before the primary, the streets around New York City’s Washington Square Park are teeming with people anxious to get past the police barricades and through the metal detectors that lead to what will later be hailed is one of the biggest rallies of Sanders’ campaign.
The crowd is almost implausibly on-brand for the occasion: Someone is handing out leaflets with information about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, someone else is gathering signatures for an anti-fracking petition and another person wants you to know about an upcoming rally to close Rikers Island prison. A splinter faction of union members picketing Verizon have Washington Place blocked off, and everywhere people are extending pamphlets and chirping, “Are you interested in socialism?”
Crowds like this — the campaign claims 27,000 attendees — are an encouraging sign for Sanders, because New York is a critical contest; without a solid win in the Empire State, Sanders’ chances of securing the nomination significantly narrow. And as Sanders has acknowledged himself, he’ll need a historic turnout to win the state by the margins he needs to. (The average poll still has Hillary Clinton up by more than 11 points.)
That historic turnout — the kind that Sanders desperately needs in New York Tuesday — is a key component of the political revolution he’s been touting on the campaign trail for the past year. So far, Democratic primary turnout has been down this year — bad news for Sanders. But one of the things he has going for him in New York City, at least, if not the state as a whole, is the dedicated support of many Occupy activists who helped spur their own nationwide movement in 2011.
In New York there are signs that key pieces of the apparatus responsible for transforming Occupy into a national phenomenon are now mobilizing to get out the vote for Bernie: veterans have phone-banked for the senator from Zuccotti Park, they’ve marched through the streets for him, and, early on, a number of them formed People for Bernie — one of the most visible groups canvassing on Sanders’ behalf. The fact that so many former Occupiers are rallying behind Sanders is all the more remarkable for the fact that Occupy, from the start, adamantly resisted attempts to focus its power on electoral politics.
The speech Sanders delivers in Washington Square Park Wednesday, like the ones he has given for months, makes clear how he has gained their support; it’s laced with the same grievances and demands the protesters made five years ago from their encampments in lower Manhattan and elsewhere.
“How could it be that in this great country today the top one tenth of one percent now own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? How could it happen that the 20 wealthiest people in America now own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans? How could it happen that one family — the Walton family of Wal-Mart — could own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people?” Sanders asks the crowd.
Before they can hear him speak, though, supporters have to wait in line. The thick queue to pass through the park’s single, fortified opening snakes past Solomon Seagal, 28. Seagal is standing on Thompson Street scowling at people as they nearly trample on the dozen or so spray-paint-splattered Guy Fawkes masks arrayed before him on the sidewalk. Seagal was involved with original 2011 protest in Zuccotti Park; the masks he’s hawking are just a selection of “plenty” he says he has leftover from back then.
Volunteers are walking up and down the same line with a heavy stack of The Battle of New York broadsheets in their arms, each heap a small fraction of the 150,000 copies that rolled off the presses earlier that day. The Battle of New York, financed by an Indiegogo campaign that raised $67,000 in just 12 days, was put together by the same group of editors, writers and designers whopublished the Occupied Wall Street Journal during the protest.
Just as the Occupied Wall Street Journal was designed to fill a vacuum activists perceived in the coverage of the Occupy protests, co-editor Allison Burtch says The Battle of New York is designed to act as a kind of counterweight to the publications she and her colleagues feel are prematurely counting Sanders out. It’s about showing that Sanders’ political revolution is happening.
“Bernie Sanders says, ‘When I’m president, I can’t do it alone, I need a political revolution’ — that’s why we came and said, ‘We’re here.’ That was the thing about Occupy: We weren’t protesting power. We were speaking to each other,” Burtch says. That is also why it grates her to hear people characterize The Battle of New York as ‘a Bernie paper.’ To Burtch, “This is actually an exercise in showing our power.”
The test will be making sure the people showing up for Bernie in Washington Square Park also show up for him at their polling places Tuesday — and it’s a test for both Sanders’ campaign and for the onetime Occupiers who are supporting him. One of the big hurdles Sanders will run up against is New York’s onerous voting restrictions, which are some of the worst in the nation. The state has no early voting, no same-day registration and strict rules about absentee voting, and it’s the most difficult state in which to change one’s party affiliation; existing voters hoping to change their party affiliation (you must be registered as a Democrat to vote in New York’s closed Democratic primary) had to do so way back in October. All these factors will make it more difficult for Sanders to translate his massive New York crowds into massive New York margins.
And margins matter. It’s not enough for people like Burtch that Occupy helped set that stage for Sanders’ run. “The world is still fucked up. I don’t think Bernie Sanders would be here without Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but that doesn’t mean that the lived reality for the majority of people’s existence has changed,” she says. It’s great that Sanders is taking up Occupy’s causes, but he has to be elected and he has to effect change he’s promising, she says. “I’m not just trying get a message out there. I want material change for people.”