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Last year, on February 14th, 2019, on the birthday of Frederick Douglass, I started The North Star to be a hub for liberation journalism. Two weeks later, I introduced Bernie Sanders at the kickoff rally for his presidential campaign in Brooklyn. It was a huge, beautiful, diverse, colorful, hopeful, raucous crowd gathered on a super cold, snowy Saturday afternoon. Introducing Bernie there, at one of the most important moments of his life, was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my life as a leader. Over these past 14 months, I worked hard to never use this space as a campaign tool for Bernie Sanders. I even instructed my staff at The North Star to not even run stories they wrote about Bernie by me because I knew I couldn’t be fair. I love Bernie Sanders. Now that his campaign is over, I am going to write a series of reflective pieces on my thoughts and experiences as a part of the campaign Today, I want to begin with a letter of thanks to Bernie Sanders. Until now, doing so here could’ve been seen as a campaign contribution.
I was brought on to introduce Bernie at his kickoff rally in Brooklyn to tell his origin story — one that for a myriad of complex reasons, he had almost completely refused to tell himself. Bernie’s humble beginnings are deeply rooted in pain and loss. When he and I hosted a criminal justice reform event together in Los Angeles in the summer of 2018, I spent weeks researching his early life to shape my introduction of him there. When I finished introducing him at that event, his wife, Jane, and son, Dave, came to me in literal tears, telling me that they had never heard any of those stories before. I was shocked, honestly, and it sent me down a different path of trying to understand why he had kept all of those stories of fighting for civil rights in Chicago to himself.
Bernie Sanders was a miracle. The Holocaust wiped out entire swaths of his family, and his father, a teenager who hardly spoke a word of English, and barely had enough money to make it a week in America, narrowly made it here. When Bernie grew up in Brooklyn, the horrors and costs of the Holocaust were not history, but a present reality. He saw shopkeepers and everyday people with the marks on their arms from concentration camps. And every family, like his own, had lost countless loved ones. It branded on Bernie’s soul a deep imprint of good and evil that he has carried with him his whole life.
What I found, though, was that when Bernie’s dear mother died in 1960, when he was a freshman at Brooklyn College, and his father passed two years later, while Bernie was a student at the University of Chicago, he seemed to throw his entire life into the Civil Rights Movement. He became the single most influential organizer on campus and one of the most impactful youth organizers in Chicago at the time. I don’t know if his classmates had any idea of the severe losses that he had experienced, but I have grown to believe that Bernie never told the hundreds of stories he could’ve told about his life as an organizer in the Civil Rights Movement for two reasons. The first is what Bernie has said publicly — that he never wanted to seem like he was putting himself on the same level as people like his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, or his peer at the time, John Lewis. I believe that. The other reason why I think he never even shared those stories with his family was because Bernie could not truly separate the work he did in the Civil Rights Movement from the unimaginable pain of losing both of his parents at such a young age.
For me, I saw Bernie Sanders as the last chance we had to elect a president who had literally marched with Dr. King. It was our last chance to elect somebody who had literally chained himself to young Black women to protest educational inequality. It was our last chance to elect somebody who had organized successful sit-ins and demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. Selfishly, as a student of the movement, I wanted us to have such a thing.
To be perfectly transparent with you, I still have not gotten over Bernie’s loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. To this day I believe, and Bernie believes, that he would’ve beaten Donald Trump in 2016. Our nation has paid an incalculable price these past four years with Trump as president. We are living in the fallout of that loss right now during this pandemic. It was Bernie’s belief that he would beat Donald Trump this year if given a chance. That was his primary reason for running again.
It has always been my belief that you beat Donald Trump by running someone against him that is the polar opposite of who he is. Trump is a liar — so you run someone against him that is perhaps the most honest human being in politics. Countless women have reported that Donald Trump sexually harassed and assaulted them across his career — so you run someone against him with impeccable character and integrity. Donald Trump surrounds himself with billionaires and bigots — so you elect someone who surrounds himself with everyday people and has fought his entire life for those on the margins of society.
I believed that to defeat Donald Trump, you needed to choose the candidate loved and preferred by young people all over the country. Youthful energy drove the successful 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. The lack of it all but tanked the presidential campaigns of countless Democrats before and after him. Bernie Sanders was the preferred candidate not just of teenagers, but of all voters under 40.
I believed that to defeat Donald Trump, you needed to energize new voters, non-voters, first-time voters, immigrants, Muslims, and independents. Bernie Sanders was, far and away, the top choice for each of those voting blocs. It’s what fueled his big campaign victories in California, Nevada, and New Hampshire.
Bernie’s campaign was fueled by hope and big ideas. The mainstream media would have you think that it was fueled by anger or crankiness. It wasn’t. Bernie’s rallies were fueled by joy and optimism. The millions of donors and volunteers for Bernie were fueled by an abiding belief that we could do so much better than we are doing right now — not just better than Donald Trump, but better than what we are often offered by the Democratic Party.
Over these past 14 months, I met super volunteers who quit their jobs to campaign full-time for Bernie. I met men and women who moved to the United States from all over the world to campaign for him. I met people struggling on minimum wage who gave weekly and monthly campaign contributions because they knew Bernie would fight for them harder than anybody else running. I met hundreds of people, face to face, who told me they had never voted before, that they didn’t even believe in American politics, but they trusted Bernie and were going to come out and vote for the very first time in their lives. I met children all over the country, who were not old enough to vote, sometimes they were just in elementary or middle school, but volunteered for Bernie every single Saturday, knocking on doors and making phone calls. I often had to fight back tears meeting them. Their innocent optimism moved me so deeply.
At every single campaign event I did for Bernie, undocumented immigrants would come up to me and tell me about their status, and tell me that they were fighting so hard for Bernie because they knew he saw them and cared about them. Immigrants from countries Donald Trump had put on his banned list, often African women in hijabs, would come up to me and tell me how much they trusted and believed in Bernie Sanders.
I am crushed that we could not win this for Bernie — that we could not win this for us. On the campaign trail, I would often joke at how little I knew it meant to Bernie to ever live in The White House. He’s not the kind of guy. I don’t even think that he was desirous of the title of President of the United States as much as he knew the office would give him a platform to fight for us. He did this, putting his life and family on the line — yet again — for us. He pushed through the most atrocious media attacks, through life-altering health challenges, through the rigors of a truly grassroots campaign — where staff and family sometimes had to force him to slow down — he did it all for us.
Thank you, Bernie. Thank you for always fighting for people that so many others have forgotten and ignored. Thank you for speaking the hard truths about who is actually working for and against the needs of everyday people. Thank you for fighting for the most ambitious plans ever created for healthcare, for the environment, for the economy, for housing, and for criminal justice reform.
Thank you for even allowing a guy like me into your inner circle. I don’t know that any other campaign would even have me, or Phillip Agnew, or Nina Turner, or Killer Mike, or Lee Merritt lead out front like you did. Thank you for inviting outcasts to be your organizers. Thank you for paving the way for us to lead for years to come. This campaign may be over, but your struggle — our struggle — for freedom and equality continues.
Love you man,