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Fighting the Power on the Edge of the Future

Live from the Bernie Sanders rally right before the world ended.

I was a few Tecates deep on Thursday night when Ground Game’s fearless heroine, Kendall Mayhew, said something along the lines of “the left doesn’t know what exercising power looks like.” I thought that was wild, and it completely grabbed me. It indeed requires a lot of imagination, a whole fridge of Tecates — Eric Garcetti is as feckless as the presidential candidate he’s stumping for; the ultra-powerful city council is comprised of career centrists under criminal investigations and stupidly-overcompensated NextDoor posters; the Olympic bid is a consistent source of blusterous pride for Donald Trump every time he visits Los Angeles. The L.A. left has been ignored or downright stifled on issues of criminal justice, climate change and public housing. It happens every day: politics in action. I thought about this more over the weekend, and fortunately, I reached the oasis by Sunday afternoon. Imagining a fanciful world in which we actually win elections and for real have some power to exercise…well, it would look a whole lot like the Convention Center did last night.

Ground Game was proudly standing up in the rafters, behind and to the right of the main stage. A huge California flag adorned our elevated section, which included members of the Nurses’ Union, Black Lives Matter-LA and other invaluable local organizations. We were escorted to our spots by a teenage campaign volunteer in a Baby Yoda/Bernie 2020 shirt. Chuy Garcia spoke rapturously. Sarah Silverman advised us on how to epic own dunk clapback our boomer parents when the democratic socialist talk goes down. Dick Van Dyke said he likes Bernie’s consistency and lifelong fight against the Military-Industrial Complex, then laughed about not knowing where he was. Our 94-year-old homie proceeded to murmur about not knowing who he was supposed to introduce or when he was supposed to do it, then lead the crowd in singing “we love you Bernie, oh yes we do,” before he vaguely defended America’s use of the atomic bomb apropos of nothing. The Dick Van Dyke danced, as chants of “we love Dick” began circulating the auditorium. It was strange and silly and it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not about us winning and exercising power.

That part started when Patrisse Cullors spoke. The organizer, activist and prison abolitionist told a crowd of more than 24,000 people that “a Bernie Sanders presidency means that we aren’t going to waste time tinkering around the edges of oppressive systems. We are going to be courageous. We are going to push for new systems of public safety that don’t put targets on the back of Black people.” The people behind me hollered “BYE, JACKIE!” Cullors’ speech applies on a national level, but everyone in attendance could assign specific, communal meaning to what was being said. A Bernie Sanders presidency looks like a Los Angeles without D.A. Jackie Lacey letting police murder with impunity. A Bernie Sanders presidency means investing $10 billion dollars of public money in public housing and services instead of the LAPD. It means a lot of things to a lot of people in a lot of parts of this city. Bonnie Castillo of National Nurses United and Marisa Franco of Mijente spoke of radical compassion, of the physical and moral crisis that our nation faces. Franco told us that with “Super Tuesday” approaching, we were actors “on the edge of history.”

Bernie Sanders himself was thrilling and galvanizing in all the ways a 78-year-old rockstar should be. He told everyone in the attendance that we were making the political establishment and the corporate media “rather nervous.” He acknowledged the indispensable power of unions in our movement, promised to “invest in our young people, with jobs and education, not more jails and incarcerations,” and expressed humility for and solidarity with the 400,000 or so Americans who sit in jail without being convicted of any crime simply because they cannot afford bail.

“As it turns out, there are some things you can do with executive order,” he said about legalizing cannabis and expunging the criminal records of those with marijuana convictions. A president can effectively end the War on Drugs and free its prisoners with the stroke of a pen. Someone running for the Democratic presidential nomination was talking openly about how excited they were to use power to liberate people. He spoke about exercising that power in more conventional ways too, like a pledge to pass gun control legislation through Congress. But he mostly discussed power for what it is at that level — the ability to liberate the oppressed, to heal the wounded and correct the injustices, all across America. The crowd roared when he mentioned breaking up ICE, an institution not even old enough to vote in this primary. This is what it all looks like. A rallying of a movement that extends from the President all the way downward, with local organizers (particularly women of color) flanking in support and building out the coalition. It felt fucking awesome.

Public Enemy (uh…Radio) performed a few songs, and Chuck D delivered his hits with an emotive, punchy ferocity that belied his age. “Voting is as important as wiping your ass in the morning,” he said, true to character. Spot the freakin’ lie, folks. Like Bernie Sanders, Public Enemy has been proudly anti-capitalist and a full-throated revolutionary since the 80’s. The performance rocked, even the sermonic parts. The drums were kicked, The Powers That Be were fought, and the night was suddenly over. It’s one of the last nights before clarity: come Tuesday, we’ll have a better idea of how our power can be won and exercised. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is aiming to run away with the damn thing and sweep California’s delegates; Nithya Raman is attempting to restore humanity and literal democracy in city council; Loraine Lundquist is trying to unseat a Republican. Four LAUSD school board seats are up for grabs. A tireless, decade-long struggle has finally landed Measure R on the 2020 ballot. We might actually get to say “Bye, Jackie.” Wholesale amounts of Tecate cans for this forthcoming Tuesday night.

So, yeah, “the edge of history.” It feels like that. I want every Sunday to look like yesterday. I want power to not only be taken away from the abusers of that power, but gleefully and graciously used to change real things. The left, particularly in Los Angeles, has been taking a lot of L’s for decades. Tuesday might make things look different, or it might not, but that vision of exercising power was proven possible. I got a quick glimpse of what it looks like. I’d like to believe it’s coming. Give me the progressive campaigns, the ballot measures, and Bernie, all parlayed. We’re about to find out, and either way, let’s get on with it. The clock ticks, the wind blows, and Dick Van Dyke dances onward to oblivion.