The independent press is calling it “The Battle of New York,” and the street warfare comparison has never been more appropriate in the 2016 American primary elections.
Here the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are showing all their differences. While the former New York senator shuttles between fundraisers, the Brooklyn-born senator from Vermont rallies in neighborhood after neighborhood park. His volunteers not only make phone calls, they move door-to-door in a block party-like crusade that starkly separates the grassroots Sanders movement and Clinton’s institutional political machine.
Usually by April, when it comes time to vote in the big states, the conclusion is already foregone. But not his year, as the convention nominee is still just as much disputed among the Republicans as the Democrats, and the electoral battle is still in full swing.
A week after Clinton delivered a speech aimed at New York’s African-American community, Sanders took a turn speaking on the same stage as Clinton (and before her Obama), the Apollo Theater. When he entered the hall and began to speak, with that hoarse voice and his head sunk between his shoulders, the audience fell silent.
“The polls that show Clinton with an advantage among African-Americans are dated,” says Nadia, a 30-year-old black woman at the event. “They refer to the beginning of the campaign, when few knew Sanders. Now it is becoming clear how he is close to a Harlem candidate. He is the son of immigrants, born poor in the suburbs. And on the other hand we have a rich white girl.”
Local leaders came out in support of Sanders, but none as important as Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, a black man who was choked to death by a New York police officer while exclaiming, “I can’t breathe!” Garner was on stage with Sanders to defend his candidacy against Clinton, who from the beginning has enjoyed the support of Black Lives Matter groups and the family members of black victims of police violence.
“I am convinced that Sanders could go where Obama failed,” says Tom, 50. “And by means other than Hillary’s, cleaner. What he says is true: The racial problem has roots in the economic problem.”
Sanders did not belabor the economic point at the Apollo, however, and his speech diverged from the previous five speeches in New York’s other boroughs that day. Instead, he spoke of police violence. He said he wants a police force that’s respected and not feared, that doesn’t pull a gun as a first resort. He spoke of a judicial system that doesn’t unfairly penalize the black community, of ending the war on drugs and of decriminalizing marijuana.
“I will vote for him, for common sense,” says Will, 27, a black lawyer. “Polls say that Sanders was in the lead among young people with higher education. I, like many here, I’m a young professional and am African-American. My parents, however, are for Hillary. I’m trying to convince them.”
From the outset, the Sanders campaign was organized by Occupy Wall Street activists. They distribute slogans with the hashtag #FeelTheBern, and the symbol of glasses topped by a mop of white hair has become a cult symbol of the socialist candidate.
These days, the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn is no longer the domain of Polish immigrants but hipster colonizers. Just hours before the rally there, the local committee whipped up some welcome murals: “Welcome home Bernie,” one read, inviting voters to the polls April 19. Another mural appeared in the Bronx, painted in just nine hours with the help of 87 artists.
In New York, these murals are worth more than any campaign ad: The artists spoke to local newspapers, passersby cannot ignore them and the only cost was the paint cans. But that’s not the only type of grassroots communication. A crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo aims to collect $80,000 for left-wing newspapers The Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal to publish a special issue called “The Battle of New York.” They want to print half a million copies in English and Spanish devoted to Sanders.