Photos: 26,000 Spend Saturday With Bernie Sanders And AOC In Queens
Senator Bernie Sanders opened his 2020 presidential campaign speech in Long Island City on Saturday afternoon with an apology to the nearly 26,000 supporters packed into Queensbridge Park and on the sidewalk outside: “We got a permit for 20,000 people and we had to close the doors!”
The rally, billed as #BerniesBack, marked the Vermont Senator’s first major campaign appearance since a heart attack forced him to leave the campaign trail earlier this month. “I am more than ready to assume the office of President of the United States,” he said. “To put it bluntly, I’m back.”
The most anticipated guest of the day was Queens Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose headline-grabbing endorsement came in the wake of Sanders’ health scare and dip in the polls. Introducing her “tio Bernie” to the crowd, she singled him out as the politician who helped her understand her inherent rights as an uninsured waitress working long hours to make ends meet, and later inspired her to run for Congress.
“It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question, and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves healthcare, housing, education and a living wage,” she said.
“The halls of Congress are no joke,” added Ocasio-Cortez. “Behind closed doors, your arm is twisted, the vise pressure of political pressure is put on you… and it has been in that experience, over the last nine months, that I have come to appreciate the enormous, consistent and nonstop advocacy of Senator Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders launched into a speech familiar to his supporters: why, beyond just defeating Donald Trump, the political system must be completely overhauled to improve life for everyday Americans. He called for Medicare for All, student debt cancelation, a minimum wage of “at least” $15 per hour, nation-wide rent control regulations, the elimination of private prisons, and $20 billion for the New York City Housing Authority.
“It is not a radical idea to say that all of our people regardless of their income have a right to live long and healthy lives,” Sanders said.
“Wall Street, the insurance companies, drug companies, fossil fuel industry, military industrial complex, prison industrial complex, the whole damn one percent,” he added. “The question we’ve got to answer: are we prepared to stand up to them and transform this country?”
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders also both noted the significance of the rally location: next to the NYCHA-run Queensbridge Houses. “Let’s acknowledge the ground that we are on, which is the ground zero for the fight for public housing, and fully funded, dignified housing in the United States of America,” Ocaso-Cortez said.
The Ravenswood Generation Station, a fossil fuel-burning power plant, loomed behind the rally stage. “Let us be clear: it is not secret that that plant is located right next to the city’s largest public housing development,” Sanders added. “Together we will pass a Green New Deal that will end the environmental racism we see right here in Queens.”
Throughout the rally—between chants of “Green New Deal!” and “Black lives matter!” and “We will win!”—speakers were defensive of Sanders, amid criticism that the 78-year-old is too old to run for president. Sanders’ primary challenger, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who drew a slightly smaller crowd of 20,000 to Washington Square Park last month, has echoed one of his key policy priorities, Medicare for All.
“Me personally, I would support Warren as well,” said Kareem Ibraham, a 28-year-old teacher from Long Island. “I’m going to vote on the Democratic ticket, but… I don’t think we need centrism. I don’t think that happy medium or that old fond memory is really what we should be going for.”
Standing nearby, 16-year-old Tasfiya Kashem from East Flatbush explained that it was Sanders who got her interested in politics. Too young to vote, she’s currently interning for a local campaign: City Councilwoman Hellen Rosenthal’s 2021 Comptroller bid.
“He uplifts working class people, people of color and women, minorities in general,” she said. “I think a lot of people believe that since he’s a white man, it’s important to endorse other candidates like women candidates and candidates of color, but I think he’s still the only candidate who works for those people.”
Other supporters told Gothamist that Sanders is the only candidate for them—a position informed by their material circumstances, or those of their friends and family.
“I know my mom’s coworkers are in their 40s and 50s and are still paying off college, and I don’t want to live like that and I don’t want my friends to live like that, or anybody,” said 18-year-old Nuala Naranjo of Jackson Heights.
“They just raised my rent in the Bronx so I’m staying with my mom on the couch right now,” added Ishmael Arroio, 45, a union mason who grew up in the Queensbridge Houses and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “The rich are sucking up every resource available. You’re getting a smaller and smaller piece of the pie, period. It’s just a fact… it’s Bernie or nobody.”
Patricia Peterson, a 64-year-old retiree who lives in the Queensbridge Houses, also voted for Clinton in 2016. She heard about the rally on television while she was getting ready for a dentist appointment on Saturday morning and decided to walk over. An undecided voter, she was critical of an ill-fated plan to bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens, which Sanders opposed earlier this year.
“I just wanted to hear what he had to say,” she said. “And just to be here in the moment.”