Bernie Sanders makes a statement with big New York rally: ‘I am back!’

NEW YORK — About five minutes into his speech, Bernie Sanders looked out into the sea of blue and white signs adorned with his name, and addressed the issue that had been hanging over his campaign for most of this month.

The junior senator from Vermont had put his campaign on hold earlier this month after experiencing chest pains at an event in Iowa. Two stents were implanted to unclog an artery, and he was diagnosed with a heart attack.

There were calls for the 78-year-old progressive to quit the race, but a strong performance at the fourth Democratic primary debate earlier in the week in Ohio - which the New York Times panel rated as the strongest on that stage - showed he still had plenty of fight left in him.

“I am more than ready to assume the Office of President of the United States,” said Sanders, eliciting raucous applause from the estimated 26,000 in attendance at Queensbridge Park, on the banks of the East River in the working class borough of Queens.

“To put it bluntly, I am back.”

Sanders demonstrated his endurance on stage, speaking for close to 55 minutes, pausing just twice, to take a sip of water on a sunny, crisp autumn day. The rally, billed as “Bernie Is Back,” outdrew the big turnout of his presidential rival Elizabeth Warren, who packed an estimated 20,000 into Washington Square Park across the river in Manhattan.

The permit capacity for Saturday’s event was 20,000, and many more were reportedly turned back at the gates. It was the biggest rally so far of any Democratic contender, sending a message about the robustness of Sanders' campaign, his second for president after he rose from obscurity and nearly won the nomination in 2016.

The location was strategic: the park is across the street from Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in America, and in the shadow of the Ravenswood Generating Station, an oil and natural gas-powered power plant. 

Expanding public housing along with transitioning America’s power grid away from fossil fuels, was central to his messaging, decrying what he called “environmental racism.”

“The affordable program that we will implement will establish the funds necessary to build nearly 10 million apartments and homes throughout this country. Our program will eliminate homelessness in America,” said Sanders, adding that the program will also combat gentrification and institute a “national rent control standard.”

“Landlords all over America will no longer be able to rip off their tenants and throw them out of their homes,” added Sanders, who grew up in a rent controlled apartment in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Sanders’ campaign received a big boost from representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congresswoman whose endorsement was the most sought after of the primary race.

There was some speculation that Ocasio-Cortez, who had upset powerful incumbent Joe Crowley to win her district’s nomination in 2018, would support Warren instead.

Those concerns were allayed when it was announced near the end of the debate on Tuesday, October 15, that Ocasio-Cortez, along with her “Squad” colleagues, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, would endorse the fellow Democratic Socialist.

The endorsements come at a time when Warren is surging in the polls, and to stay out of the primary race may have been politically expedient. Only Ayanna Pressley, another member of the “Squad” who represents a district in Massachusetts, where Warren serves as a senator, has yet to endorse Sanders.

Ocasio-Cortez spoke about her days before becoming the youngest congresswoman in American history, and says she didn’t have healthcare and struggled to make ends meet as a bartender living in the Bronx.

“It wasn’t until I heard of a man named Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing, education and a living wage,” said Ocasio-Cortez, whose signature proposal, the Green New Deal, is viewed as the most ambitious approach to reversing climate change.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) endorses Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a campaign rally in Queensbridge Park on October 19, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. This is Sanders' first rally since he paused his campaign for the nomination due to health problems.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP

Some in attendance, like Linda, a retired pre-school teacher from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, had no doubts that Ocasio-Cortez would side with Sanders.

“It’s gonna be a big boost to his campaign,” said Linda, who says she has supported “since I have known about him.” She lists Sanders’ opposition to privately-run prisons and the “prison-industrial complex” as her biggest reasons for backing Sanders.

Oscar of Westchester County, N.Y., says he was most impacted by what Sanders said towards the end of his speech, when he challenged the crowd by asking them to look at the people around them, and then asked “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you are willing to fight for yourself?”

“This fight is all of us. We can’t turn our back on anyone,” said Oscar, who has become a celebrity of sorts at Sanders rallies because of his all-Bernie jumpsuit. His favorite of Sanders’ proposals is a single-payer healthcare system he calls Medicare For All.

Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only guest to speak. Tiffany Caban, the public defender who narrowly fell short of the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney earlier this year after running on progressive criminal justice reform, gave the speech that introduced Ocasio-Cortez. Campaign co-chairs Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, and Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor San Juan, Puerto Rico, also warmed up the crowd.

Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentarian, endorsed Sanders again, as he had in different campaigns, starting with Sanders’ first run for congress in 1990. 

Moore criticized Sanders’ Democratic primary opponents who have attacked his Medicare For All proposal, saying “What would Franklin Roosevelt say about the Democrats?” He also dismissed criticism about Sanders’ age and health.

“What about his health? How about we talk about the health of this planet that is dying?,” said Moore, the director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.

“The only heart attack we should be talking about is the one Wall Street is going to have when Bernie Sanders is president.”

Sanders is in the top tier of Democratic front-runners, alongside Warren and former vice president Joe Biden, seeking the nomination to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, in the 2020 general election. The first nomination event, the Iowa caucus, will take place on February 3, 2020.

As Sanders walked off the stage, the AC/DC song “Back in Black” played. One of the song’s lyrics, “Forget the hearse 'cause I never die,” suggests that the song was selected to send a message to Sanders' supporters, and opponents, about his resiliency. – Rappler.com

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at ryansongalia@gmail.com.