Lisa Gilman: I learned the power of solidarity

What Bernie did. A short series. Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign, but his political influence continues to reverberate. While he has endorsed Joe Biden, Sanders clearly aims to extract policy concessions based on growing support for his signature Medicare for All demand, however unlikely this may be given Biden’s track record. More significantly, Sanders has inspired a generation of socialist organizers who are willing to push beyond the limits of the political revolution he popularized. This week, No Borders News presents voices inspired by Sanders’ campaigns — and the social and class struggles that emerged before, during, and after — as well as debates about where socialists go from here.

Lisa Gilman is an educator and a member of the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

The Bernie Sanders campaign changed my life. Before 2016 I was well aware of many of the unconscionable injustices in our society and I knew that capitalism was to blame for the lion’s share of them. But I didn’t think that there was really anything to be done about it. The first vote I cast in a presidential election was for President Obama, and after witnessing his administration bail out the banks instead of the American people during the 2008 recession, lock up Central American migrant children in cages at the border, and drop bombs on weddings overseas, I understood how hollow his campaign promises of hope and change were. I internalized the lesson that politicians were not to be trusted, no matter how good they sounded, and that the structure of our government and economy made the transformational changes that I knew we needed impossible. I became disillusioned and resigned to the idea that things would stay more or less the same. 

I, like many in my generation, decided to sit back and let history happen to me, instead of finding ways to intervene in the course of history. I would show up to protests and talk to people in my world about injustice, but I did not have a broader theory of change, just a diagnosis of what was wrong with our society.

Bernie’s run in 2016 changed all of that for me. His campaign clarified why, on a more precise level, it is that our political system has blocked any meaningful changes from taking place, and presented a positive vision of what we could have if we demanded a government and an economy that worked for ordinary people, not just the wealthy. His 2016 campaign showed me that the desire for universal social programs like Medicare for All and tuition-free college were broadly and deeply felt by ordinary people across this country. Bernie went from being a relatively unknown political outsider to being a leading light in a newly-forming progressive current in this country. He called himself a democratic socialist, and even with the weight of the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate media against him, he got 13 million votes in that primary. 

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Bernie talks a lot about how his 2016 campaign brought policy ideas that were perceived as fringe or impossible into the political mainstream, and he’s right to take credit for that. Today, in his speech suspending his campaign, he noted that a majority of DemocraticPparty primary voters in every state now say that they want to replace private insurance with a single, government insurance program – Medicare for All – even in states we lost. To me, that’s such an important illustration of how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. The task of the Bernie movement then and now was, and is, to figure out how to transform these broadly-felt demands into real victories that change the lives of millions of people and bring them into our movement to fight harder for more. 

But, back to 2016. Bernie lost to Hillary and then Hillary lost to Trump in the general election. I remember the night of the election very clearly – I had helped organize an election night watch party at the youth arts education center I was working for at the time. A bunch of kids and families showed up, thinking that we would all watch the defeat of Trump’s bigotry in real time. I will never forget the reaction of the young people at that watch party as things started to go downhill, and how I and the other adults in their lives tried but failed to explain to them what was happening because we ourselves couldn’t wrap our heads around it. 

Trump’s victory was the last straw for me in my tacit acceptance of mainstream Democratic Party politics. It became incredibly clear that the people I had entrusted to fend off the worst ills in our political system and society, and to generally advocate for my interests, were a) incapable of doing that and b) not interested in actually doing that because doing so would upset the status quo. The pundits and the political mainstream blamed voters for being stupid and racist, but I knew what was actually to blame – the rot and corruption of our political system and of the Democratic Party in particular. Many of the states in the Midwest that the Republicans carried in that election for the first time in decades were states where Bernie beat Hillary in the primary. In Michigan, where Bernie won the 2016 primary contest, Hillary lost to Trump by 10,000 votes. 75,000 Michigan voters went to the polls and cast ballots but declined to register a presidential preference. The meme “Bernie would’ve won” rang true for me, and so many others. 

I was mad as hell, and terrified of what a Trump presidency would mean for myself, and particularly for immigrants and people of color. I knew I needed to get organized, and I found the Democratic Socialists of America. Before 2016 DSA was a small, relatively inactive organization with about 10,000 members. I believe the median age was about 65 years old. After the 2016 election, tens of thousands of mostly young Bernie supporters flooded into the organization. By the 2017 convention, we were up to 35k members with a median age somewhere close to mine. Here in the Bay Area, a group that had mostly functioned as a discussion group for retirees became a massive, messy, and militant organization determined to continue Bernie’s political revolution. I found myself, after years of getting angrier and angrier about capitalism, actively fighting for socialism. 

In the early days this meant knocking on doors to talk to people about building a state-wide single payer health insurance system here in California, getting on a bus with the nurse’s union to go fight for that bill in Sacramento, mobilizing for protests and direct actions, and building organizational structures within DSA that could help large numbers of people find a way to turn their anger into action. We built a strong, fighting organization, capable of mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, and thousands of supporters. I’m proud of the campaigns we’ve run in East Bay DSA, from the Jovanka Beckles campaign to the solidarity campaign for the Oakland teacher strike, we’ve played a role in raising people’s expectations for what society should look like and inspiring them to get involved.

In DSA I learned about the reasons why our society is so unjust, and developed my understanding of what it’s going to take to birth a new world from the ashes of the old. I learned about the history of our great struggle for a better day, and I learned, and felt, the power that the multiracial working class has in this capitalist system, and the power we can wield if only we unite, organize, and fight. I learned about what it meant to be a comrade, to learn, strategize, and organize with people with whom I share a political vision. And I learned the power of solidarity, how to not just care about, but fight for and alongside of people I don’t (yet) know. 

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It was because of the political clarity that I gained through organizing for real change in DSA that I gained came to understand what to do with all of this anger and compassion I was feeling for my fellow human-beings. Now I’m becoming an elementary school teacher and planning on organizing for the common good as a union member, and I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to have found my place in this world after years of searching.

It felt like we were coming full circle with the Bernie 2020 campaign, and it’s been an amazing ride. This campaign has exceeded all of our wildest dreams. I’m running out of steam here so I’ll just leave it at that but I’ll just say that I’m so proud to be a part of this movement and so proud of what we’ve accomplished. My hatred for the Democratic Party establishment has never been stronger. The multiracial working class of this country is gearing up for some big fights in the near future, and we’ve gained strength, organization, and hope through the movement to elect Bernie Sanders. 

In short, the struggle continues. We can win Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a Green New Deal with a jobs guarantee, student and healthcare debt forgiveness, a minimum wage and a got damn maximum wage. We can double (hell, triple!) union membership in this country and end mass incarceration. We can open up our borders and replace the immigrant detention and deportation machine with a just immigration system based on solidarity. We can end the endless wars. We can have all of that and more, but we have to keep our heads up and keep fighting. 

Solidarity forever. Bernie forever. Love to all of you whose hearts are heavy today. Join DSA

*This piece was written on April 8, the day Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign.

[For daily international coronavirus coverage and socialist analysis in translation, read No Borders News.]

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