By Sheilagh Lichtenfels
Additional reporting by Radhika Viswanathan
Published: April 13th, 2016
On Friday, April 8, Brooklynites gathered on East 26th Street in Flatbush to hear 2016 presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, deliver a speech outside his childhood home. Sanders, in an effort to garner votes ahead of the April 19 New York primary, made a stop at Brooklyn College before speaking at the rally.
Appearances like this one could generate greater support from Sanders’ Brooklyn voter base in the days leading up to the April 19 primary. Heslin Gallagher, a volunteer at the campaign’s Flatbush headquarters, said that she has helped to register over 40,000 new voters in Brooklyn over the past several weeks.
People from across the borough were in attendance on Friday, including residents of Flatbush, Bay Ridge, Midwood, and Ditmas Park. At 12 p.m., one hour before security began allowing people into the speech area, the line of attendees wrapped around the block.
Meanwhile, Sanders and his wife Jane Sanders—greeted by the rhythmic chanting of “Ber-nie, Ber-nie!”—were shaking hands and taking pictures with Brooklyn College students at the campus library.
“Seeing Sanders on campus definitely made me feel super passionate about the campaign and voting for what really matters,” said sophomore Rita Kumar. “Although I’m not a crazy passionate Sanders fan, I still got pretty excited to see him and began to chant his name with other fellow Bernie supporters; it was just really exciting to see someone who is so relevant to today’s political climate.”
Sanders reminisced about his year at Brooklyn College, talked about his mother’s graduation from the college, and thanked the attendees for supporting him.
And of course, the college visit was not complete until students had a chance to take selfies with his wife, Jane.
Video/ Sarvar Akobirzade
Back at the rally, Sanders began speaking at about 2 p.m. After introductions by a campaign staffer, a man named Paul who sang a Bernie Sanders-themed version of “America the Beautiful,” and a beaming Mark Ruffalo, Sanders took the podium to people cheering and raising signs.
“Welcome to my old neighborhood,” Sanders greeted the crowd with a smile. Sanders hit hard upon his Brooklyn roots in the introduction of his speech, citing his graduation from James Madison High School, located directly across the street from the apartment building, and his fond childhood memories of playing “punch ball” and marbles on the corner.
He focused on issues of concern to the Brooklyn community, including tuition-free public college, ending police brutality, and increasing educational opportunities for Brooklyn youth. “They should have jobs, they should have education, they should not have jail cells,” Sanders said to thunderous applause and shouts of “Preach it, Bernie!” from one onlooker.
Sanders then moved on to his classic campaign rallying cries, saying, “When we stand together as a people, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. When we stand together, we win.”
Sanders kept his speech brief and shook hands with the front row spectators before leaving, but his message struck a chord with those in attendance.
Benjamin Kats, a Brooklyn College freshman and computer engineering major especially connected with Sanders’ background, said, “He is from Brooklyn so he understands what its like to come from a middle class working family, and not only that but I am also the first born generation of a Jewish immigrant just like him, so I feel very inspired by him,” said Kats.
Jessenia Florez, a political science major at Rutgers University and founder and president of Rutgers for Bernie Sanders, also appreciated Sanders’ return to his roots. “I’m a Bernie supporter because I’m a first-generation college goer,” Florez said. “My parents are immigrants from Colombia so I feel like Bernie’s beginnings really resonate with me and his values really align with mine.”
Those in attendance were eager to proclaim their support for Sanders, referencing his stances on a variety of issues, from equal pay for women, to free trade, to fracking. But the atmosphere of the rally itself was what generated the strongest response.
Andrea Coyle, whose daughter is pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center, commented, “It’s so beautiful to see such a diverse crowd, all different ages, a lot of young people, all different races, all standing together peacefully, all with a common cause. It’s a beautiful thing to see and it’s very life affirming.”
“[The event] was fantastic,” said Mark Bandoylo, a Brooklyn College junior and double major accounting and literature. “You felt it in the air, and there was something particularly special about being right across from the apartment that he grew up in. That’s spectacular.”
The campaign did their best to create an atmosphere of camaraderie in the lead-up to the speech, playing songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People” over the speakers. Rally-goers readily bought into the message, chatting happily in anticipation of Sanders’ arrival.
At one point, a man began complaining about the wait time, but was silenced by Coyle, who told him not to “disrupt the atmosphere of love.”
Though the good cheer among supporters was palpable, not everyone in attendance was there simply to enjoy the ride with a wholehearted approval of Sanders.
“Yes I will most likely vote for him on primary day but I’m only supporting him out of the pure fact that he is a more honest and worthy candidate than Clinton,” said Kumar. “I have many concerns about Sanders and the direction in which he plans to lead this country, however I have no better choice than him to vote for. So while it was exciting to see someone famous, my opinions [about him] remain unaffected.
Kate Kolbusz, a senior and history major at Brooklyn College, said she is not sure whom she supports, but Friday’s rally may have helped to sway her vote.
“I’m really undecided but I do lean Democrat, and I’ve been to a Hillary event a little while ago,” she said. “I mean the speech was really great and the environment was great. He came over and I shook his hand and I told him that I really appreciate that you’re fighting for public colleges because, you know, that’s a really important issue. It made me view him a lot more positively.”
Whether or not the enthusiasm felt at such events will be reflected in the polls come primary day remains to be seen. Because as Kenny Placencio, a Brooklyn College senior and economics major, pointed out, “It’s not just about his attitude, it’s about the policy.”