Yesterday (April 17), two days before New York’s Democratic primary, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was filled with families, recent college grads, kids from the surrounding neighborhoods and old hippies who looked as if they’d crossed the country many times over. This would not be unusual except for their density: 28,000 had packed into the Nethermead area to see Bernie Sanders speak for nearly an hour, the Vermont senator decrying income inequality, promising to support working families, and criticizing Hillary Clinton’s support for the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailout.
Yes, this was a political rally, but it also had the feel of a summer concert. Grizzly Bear played their first show in two years, EPMD rapped late-’80s classics, and reggae star Tanya Stephens sang a new acoustic track about how much she’s, as they say, “feeling the Bern.” In the audience, people wore shirts repping bands from Agnostic Front to One Direction, and there were not just a handful of Grateful Dead tees but a handful of Grateful Dead tees that worked in images of this unexpectedly-beloved politician. “I have for the past week been a surrogate for the Sanders campaign,” Grizzly Bear frontman Ed Droste told the crowd, he and his three bandmates themselves wearing matching Sanders tees. “I have truly never seen anything like this in my entire life.”
The candidate, the bands and a handful of speakers all addressed the crowd from a small platform at the top of a slight incline. This makeshift stage was surrounded by supporters and bunting on all sides, and the simple setup had a retro effect — especially when Grizzly Bear played their dreamy rock songs using organ and hollow-body guitar. They opened with “While You Wait for Others” and “Knife,” both of which inspired casual head-nodding. I hadn’t seen any of Grizzly Bear shirts in the audience, and only one volunteer I spoke with even knew who they were, but plenty of people cheered when they began “Two Weeks,” their final song. A sound issue threw accidental distortion into an otherwise clean arrangement. “We lost the keyboard, but it doesn’t matter because we’re all here for Bernie Sanders,” Droste said before leaving stage.
Concert or not, an 18-year-old self-described “political junkie” from nearby Crown Heights — he has been to NYC rallies for all major candidates — told me that this scene was relatively laid back compared to other campaign stops. Speakers liked CNN’s Sally Kohn, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and New York councilman Jumaane Williams helped change this, and finally Danny DeVito got people chanting the name of “our Obi-Wan.” His entry line? “I just hugged the man who shook the hand of the Pope!”
Finally, four hours after gates opened, Sanders and his wife Jane walked onstage, thanking the bands, speakers and DeVito, “one of the great actors in America.” (The remark was an unexpected source of controversy: “That made me think, ‘I don’t [know] if I could vote for this guy,'” a Brooklyn resident in his mid-20s admitted after the rally.) “When I was a kid growing up in Flatbush our parents would take us to Prospect Park,” Sanders continued. “Do they still have the seals and elephants? I was never here speaking to 20,000 people, so thank you all very much for being here.”
The speech touched on most social justice issues that the Left has fought for over the last decade — the anti-fracking portion was particularly head-spinning for anyone who learned about issue from anti-fracking leaflets foisted upon them outside Celebrate Brooklyn! concerts at the nearby bandshell. And though some have suggested that the campaign is a culmination of the Leftist movements that first raised these issues, the diversity of the crowd (among other things) makes this sort of narrative difficult to sustain. Grizzly Bear’s performance, even, could have been seen as the culmination of countless indie and DIY Bernie benefit shows in Williamsburg and Bushwick, but many in the crowd had never heard of Grizzly Bear before the rally. Some couldn’t even remember their name afterwards.
“I only knew the first artist,” a student from Crown Heights told me as we both left the park, referring to the reggae singer Stephens. “I didn’t know the Grizzlies. I liked it though. But the first artist came on and I was like, ‘Wait, who is this?'” When I asked if she liked Stephens’ song in support of Bernie Sanders, she paused and smiled and looked up at the sky. “I did. I sang along.”