Beside the woman wearing a Donald Trump mask and head-to-toe Barney the dinosaur costume, holding a sign constructed from cereal boxes that says, “FUCK YOU,” a man brandishing his own sign declaring “I’M ON ACID” shouts, “Look out New York City, here we come!” And with that, Saturday’s March for Bernie commences, as at least a thousand Bernie Sanders supporters pour out of Union Square, flooding Broadway on a march toward Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street.
Before Trump/Barney can explain her outfit, or her support for the Vermont senator, the space is overrun by people taking the day’s events far more seriously. “I’ve been recruiting people for the revolution since my first Bernie meet-up, in July,” explains Rachel Bernstein, a local teacher, drawing me away from the spectacle. “There were only four people there. Back then, hardly anyone in New York knew who he was.”
That’s certainly not the case today – Sanders has come a long way since July. With the Iowa caucuses just days away, a wide variety of constituencies flock to Manhattan Saturday to show support for a candidate who, over the past six months, has slowly pulled himself out of underdog status in the race for the Democratic nomination.
“This is the first election that I’m going to be able to vote in, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to vote for anyone but Bernie!” roars a young woman over a bullhorn to resounding cheers, not just from her counterparts waving #MillennialsForBernie signs, but from Sanders supporters of all ages.
“Grandmas for Bernie!” answers 70-year-old Libby Deroo. “I’m retired, but now I work full time for Bernie,” she says.
Environmentalists maintain a notable presence at the march. “I support Bernie Sanders because he supports the planet,” says Katarina Pittis, 20, who’s marching in a full-body wolf suit. “He’s one of the few politicians [who] speaks up for these issues.”
Black Lives Matter activists and other social justice seekers, including former Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis, a noted figure in the 2014 Ferguson protests, march in large numbers as well.
A common theme among the constituencies is a deep mistrust for establishment candidates – many express disenchantment with America’s two-party system through banners, chants and other means. “We feel the Democratic Party has failed us. Corporate America always has the upper hand, there’s no social mobility or access to jobs,” says Marni Halasa, a professional figure skater. Halasa has joined a group of Sanders marchers wearing Pinocchio noses, which she explains are meant to represent Hillary Clinton.
“She is disingenuous and not honest – she pretends to be a populist,” says Halasa, amid cries of “Dump the elephant, dump the ass!”
Halasa explains this seeming contradiction of being against the Democratic Party while marching for a Democratic candidate. “Even though it sounds weird, we’re progressives against Hillary. The key campaign issue for us is money out of politics,” she says, arguing Sanders is the only major party politician whom she can trust to not be influenced by corporate donations or the billionaire class.
“If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, I’ll vote for the Green Party,” she says, “and if a Republican wins, I might have to leave the country.”
Ray Lewis, the former police captain, takes that sentiment a step further. “I’m a Bernie supporter – but only hesitantly. He’s the lesser of two evils,” he says.
But the biggest issue for Saturday’s marchers, by far, is that for which Sanders has become most famous: income inequality. It’s easy to see why this march — and Bernie Sanders in general — has attracted such support from the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
“I’m very intrigued to see what it will feel like when we get to Zuccotti Park, of all places, in 2016,” says Heather Hurwitz, a post-doctoral researcher at Barnard College who’s studying the continuation of the Occupy movement. She’s attending the march to observe parallels with the Occupy protests, and she finds many, including signs bearing familiar maxims like “END CORPORATE GREED” and megaphone-touting marchers reminding the crowd that “the banks got bailed out,” while “we got sold out.”
The most resounding chant among the marchers is Occupy’s famous motto: “WE. ARE. THE 99 PERCENT!” Hundreds chant this as they descend on the Wall Street-adjacent plaza where the movement began, this time rallying behind a presidential candidate who has a legitimate shot at the nation’s highest office. At this point, the march seems to have morphed into an Occupy Wall Street reunion, with much talk of breaking up the banks, and ending corporate greed.
For many, it’s a reunion that’s long been in the works. They feel the system they gathered here five years ago to rail against is still broken. For others, this is a first chance to join the fight. “The political movement we’re in comes out of Occupy,” says Elma Relihan, who wasn’t able to attend the Occupy demonstrations in 2011. “People are inserting themselves into the political terrain because they know things are stacked against us.”
Though the March for Bernie isn’t nearly as large as Zuccotti’s Occupy encampment was at its height, it marks the first time in years a large crowd has gathered here, under the looming specter of the Wall Street banks, to bellow these chants. It feels like a significant moment. As Libby Deroo, of the Grandmas for Bernie, notes, “I think what [the march organizers] are hoping is that once we get to Zuccotti Park, it will spark everyone’s memories.”