The Future of Bernie's 'Political Revolution' in Brooklyn

With a trio of wins at his back including Washington State, Alaska and Hawaii, insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders is now turning his sights on the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, where one recent poll places him five points ahead of challenger Hillary Clinton. If he can win the Wisconsin primary on April 5, which seems within the realm of possibility given the state's labor and progressive tradition, not to mention the long history of student activism at University of Wisconsin, Madison, then Bernie will have some wind in his sails as the electoral contest veers into delegate-rich eastern states.

It is vital that Bernie sweeps New York on April 19, though the odds are much more challenging there. Unlike other primary contests which are open to independent voters, New York holds a closed Democratic primary. Up to this point, independents have strongly favored Bernie, whereas Hillary Clinton tends to do better in closed primary contests.

To its credit, however, the campaign has just opened an official office in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. While no one should write off New York's upstate voters, who tend to be white, concentrating on diverse New York City makes more tactical sense. Up to this point, Sanders has done well with white voters but has struggled at times with minorities. Concentrating on Brooklyn in particular is a strategically wise move. The area is New York's most populous borough, towering over Manhattan by some one million people, and overall Brooklyn makes up about 10 percent of the state's population.

Long eclipsed by Manhattan, Brooklyn now enjoys some clout in the form of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, a native of local neighborhood Park Slope. In tandem with such newfound clout, many hoped the Democrats would hold their convention in Brooklyn, though ultimately the party opted for Philadelphia. Needless to say, Brooklyn has historically voted democratic on a very consistent basis. As such, the borough represents an essential electoral prize in the New York primary contest.

Brooklyn's Millenial Generation

Long before the "official" campaign showed up in Brooklyn, volunteers were quick to organize. Without an official headquarters, activists held their first meeting last spring atop one resident's Park Slope rooftop apartment. From the outset, it was Park Slope which wound up being the epicenter of the Bernie campaign and the neighborhood displayed the highest concentration of volunteers from any area throughout Brooklyn, let alone the city as a whole. To a certain extent, this is hardly surprising: a long-held bastion of liberal and progressive politics, Park Slope is also home to a local food cooperative which is at least nominally somewhat socialist in spirit.

In recent years, many around the country and even the world have become aware of Brooklyn, which has enjoyed a meteoric political, cultural and even economic rise. Though it's almost a cliché at this point to speak of hipsters, Brooklyn or at least parts of the borough display a dynamic and youthful energy. It is precisely this millennial generation which has helped spearhead Bernie's campaign in Brooklyn, though to be sure some older political veterans, particularly those over 60, have also played a role. Not only have volunteers organized at the local level in Brooklyn but they have also called voters in early primary states. Not stopping there, some have fanned out to New Hampshire and even farther afield to help in canvassing efforts. With support from young millenials, Bernie has been able to consolidate his base in key Brooklyn enclaves such as Bushwick and Ditmas Park. Some of these twenty-somethings come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, while others are complete political newcomers and may not define themselves as "leftist."

It's difficult to know precisely how many volunteers Bernie deploys in Brooklyn at any given time as there are different "circuits" of people at multiple levels. From the outset, about 30 hard core activists set up the larger campaign infrastructure, though new volunteers come and go from local meetings making for a total of about 200-300 people. There's a whole other level of people, however, who show up for phone banking events on an infrequent basis or attend larger events such as marches, perhaps numbering some 500-600 people. Without the technical know-how of the younger generation, particularly when it comes to social media, it's highly doubtful that Bernie would have developed much of an operation in Brooklyn in the first place. Perhaps even more importantly, tech-savvy activists have been able to amass an impressive amount of voter data which allows for skillful targeting come election time.

Brooklyn's Latinos

Much has been remarked about the racial contours of the Bernie movement and the so-called dominant role of white millenials. While the media has over-hyped this narrative, and Bernie has demonstrated crossover appeal to minorities in certain states, there's a degree of truth in such observations. These dynamics can play out at the local level in Brooklyn, where the campaign tends to attract predominantly white folk. This in turn can give rise to an undesirable dynamic in which whites are deployed to canvas in other outlying areas of the borough.

From a tactical standpoint, the borough displays many daunting and even bewildering characteristics. Geographically vast, Brooklyn is separated into discrete neighborhoods which can feel like islands unto themselves. Sunset Park is a poor and working class Latino and Chinese enclave located just two miles away from Park Slope. For the outsider venturing into the area, one may almost feel transported to Guadalajara or Shanghai. Many Latinos in the neighborhood are illegal aliens and can't vote, let alone speak English. When local residents are engaged in a daily battle for economic survival, it can be difficult to make political inroads within the community.

Nevertheless, Mexico and Central America have their own tradition of leftist politics and many residents may courteously stop and converse on the street. Throughout the summer, Bernie volunteers made a big push in Sunset Park by signing up new voters and distributing flyers in Spanish. In the beginning, the number one question on the minds of passers-by was "Who's Bernie?" Some six months later, with people now tuning in to the electoral stakes, the good news is that Sanders enjoys a fair amount of support in the neighborhood.

To the degree that people are tuning in, however, many are also embracing Hillary Clinton who may be on par with Bernie or even enjoy a slight edge (bizarrely, some Latinos now also support Donald Trump). On the purely generational level, it seems Bernie has broader appeal amongst Latino youth while older folk may dismiss kids as being naïve or even "confused" for aspiring to tuition-free education at state colleges. Over time, more Latinos have joined the campaign though Sunset Park has represented a significant uphill battle: while many youth sign the volunteer forms, very few show up to subsequent meetings. Months later, it's still non-Latino whites organizing within the community as opposed to the Latinos of Sunset Park canvassing their own neighborhood, suggesting some kind of cultural or psychological barrier.

Gowanus and Park Slope

While such conditions are certainly daunting, Bernie operatives have demonstrated a shrewd organizing strategy when it comes to upcoming Brooklyn operations. By setting up shop in the Gowanus, a warehouse district in the midst of gentrification, the campaign hopes to tap into the millennial youth scene. Strategically located just outside Park Slope and Sunset Park, the Gowanus area could bridge a critical cultural divide between disparate Brooklyn constituencies. Unlike Hillary Clinton's headquarters, which is located in decidedly staid Brooklyn Heights, the Gowanus operation lies just a block away from the Bell House, a popular local venue featuring everything from concerts to geeky science lectures to trendy hipster food festivals.

On the other hand, the Gowanus has historically lacked any underlying political trajectory. With the exception of the Interference Archive, which houses a library of leftist books and occasionally puts on shows culled from its own collection of 1960s poster art, the neighborhood is more widely known for its eccentric arts scene. Provided of course that local hipsters start to look toward the Gowanus for something other than barbecue and craft beer, the neighborhood could be an important staging ground for operations farther afield.

While adjacent Park Slope is known for some older 1960s generation activist types and has certainly yielded many volunteers for Sanders, the area certainly isn't "locked up" for the campaign by any means and there's probably still a fair amount of persuasion in order. Home to young Brownstone couples raising children within a rather insular domestic bubble, the area is psychologically more akin to the suburbs. To be sure, the area's "crunchy granola" culture is reminiscent of Burlington, Vermont or Seattle Washington, cities where Bernie does quite well. Nevertheless, Park Slope can be very complacent and favors the status quo, particularly when it comes to real estate interests and property values. While local residents don't typically work on Wall Street, many have corporate jobs in other sectors such as advertising. In the 2009 mayoral election, Park Slope broke heavily for Mike Bloomberg.

Brooklyn's Ethnic Politics and "Jewish Identity"

There's been a fair amount of talk in the media about how New York supposedly favors Hillary Clinton over Bernie, though looked at more closely such arguments don't necessarily stand up. To be sure Hillary is a former Senator from New York, but when she originally ran for office she was an out of state carpetbagger while Bernie meanwhile actually grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn (for more see this video, in which Bernie takes a tour of his old neighborhood, or click here for Bernie's historic landmarks in Brooklyn). Those who know Sanders well remark that Bernie, who grew up playing stick ball in Midwood, is "100% Brooklyn," while the Vermont Senator's postwar working class accent may betray his local roots.

What is more, Bernie is Jewish which can be quite a political advantage when it comes to Brooklyn let alone New York City. Up to this point, Bernie has bent over backwards to court the black and Latino vote, with dismal results to show for the former and only mixed results for the latter. In Brooklyn, Bernie has black and Latino volunteers on staff, though it's unclear how much effort the campaign will put into courting the numerically massive Jewish vote. Perhaps, political operatives may wonder whether Jews constitute an actual voting bloc or just form part of the larger "white vote." To be sure, some pockets of Jews preserve their own sub-cultures throughout Brooklyn. Hassidic Jews, who have now moved into Bernie's old neighborhood of Midwood and also occupy large sections of Crown Heights and Williamsburg, tend to break Republican though reportedly some register as Democrats so as to have an impact on local city elections. Orthodox Jews tend to be less politically conservative, and live along Ocean Parkway, a major thoroughfare. Perhaps the vast majority of Jews, however, have assimilated into the wider culture and as a result religion and ethnic identity aren't so paramount in daily life.

Whatever the case, Bernie would be foolish not to play to his ethnic strength in Brooklyn. Without wearing religion on his sleeve, Bernie could try to reach out to Jewish voters, particularly those of a more progressive or leftist bent. Many states which have voted thus far in the primary and caucus schedule don't have substantial Jewish populations, though Sanders' lack of interest in this regard constitutes one of the great mysteries of the campaign. In the case of Florida, for example, Bernie ignored Jewish retirees who make up a big voting bloc in the state. A recent headline in the Guardian reads, "Bernie Sanders' candidacy is a first for Jews. Why isn't he talking about it?" Bernie's silence is even more perplexing given that the candidate had a bar mitzvah in Brooklyn and even lived on an Israeli kibbutz in his youth.

One may suspect there are a couple of different reasons for Sanders' reticence. In the first place, Bernie comes out of the secular Jewish tradition and may feel uncomfortable playing identity politics. Secondly, Sanders has sought to run an "issues-based" campaign which de-emphasizes culture. But while such notions sound noble, this strategy may not be very suited for New York City or Brooklyn which display a dizzying array of ethnicities and neighborhoods. Apparently, Bernie thinks Jewish identity is something to play or "ham up" for a Hollywood comedy, but otherwise this has no place on the campaign trail.

Lastly, Bernie also could make a play for the Eastern European and Russian immigrant vote which is important in certain Brooklyn districts such as Greenpoint or Sheepshead Bay. Bernie's father hailed from the Polish village of Slopnice, and Sanders shares the American immigrant experience. Reportedly, Slopnice is very proud of its own native son, which makes one wonder whether the campaign has contemplated any outreach to the Poles of Greenpoint who can actually vote in a U.S. primary election.

Future of the Political Revolution

So just how should Bernie try to sew up Brooklyn within his column? If the "official staff" has a concrete plan of action for the borough, organizers are being rather tight-lipped about it. To a certain extent, arcane delegate math at the district level will dictate the campaign's logistical and tactical decisions. At the same time, a positive outcome in Wisconsin could translate into greater media visibility in New York as well as a palpable sense of momentum. Whatever the case, Bernie won't have much time to campaign since there's only two weeks separating the Wisconsin and New York primaries. At the very least, however, Bernie should consider spending a couple of days campaigning in Brooklyn in particular, let alone other boroughs throughout the city.

Ultimately, Bernie's strength may lie in organized marches which can attract crowds. Unlike Hillary, whose events tend to be stage-managed and lack enthusiasm, Sanders has been able to hold huge rallies and thereby generate media buzz. If his security detail were to allow him to do so, Bernie might hold a march through central Brooklyn, a black area which is home to 1 in 10 of the city's Democratic voters. Another key vantage point is Grand Army Plaza, from which marchers could proceed along Flatbush Avenue toward Fulton Street, winding up at Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn where the campaign might hold a rally. If he really wanted to go for the symbolism, Bernie could furthermore call for a march over the Brooklyn Bridge and lead his followers to Zuccotti Park, site of the original Occupy Wall Street movement.

So much for the buildup to primary day, but what happens after the election in Brooklyn? The short answer is that the campaign will simply shut down its office in the Gowanus and "re-assign" its operatives to other states such as neighboring New Jersey. To a certain extent, these developments are hardly surprising given the natural ebb and flow of presidential campaigns. On the other hand, Bernie has certainly heightened expectations through his rhetoric which emphasizes a so-called "political revolution" and the need to cultivate a grassroots "movement." Just what such statements actually mean is open to some interpretation, and some may have hoped that Bernie would ultimately transcend the narrow confines of a presidential campaign by helping to build something more (for a fuller discussion of these topics, see my articles here).

Whatever happens in the nominating process, it is to be hoped that Bernie won't "fritter away" his movement by demobilizing political followers. There is a tendency for official campaigns to simply "parachute in" paid staff to primary states and subsequently send them off elsewhere. While those kinds of tactical decisions are probably inevitable, they have a way of leaving activists in the lurch. Campaigns are just as much about establishing personal networks and building up community spirit as they are about the day-to-day business of canvassing and phone banking. For close to a year, volunteers set up campaign infrastructure before the "official campaign" ever landed in New York, and in the process activists got the opportunity to meet each other. Now, before they even get a chance to become acquainted with Bernie's paid staff, the latter will simply vanish.

Bernie's Legacy

Whether there's sufficient energy in Brooklyn, let alone the rest of the city to continue fighting for a "political revolution" predicated on Bernie's ideas is an open question. During the campaign, few spoke up for the need to construct a larger movement outside of the campaign itself. To a certain extent that's hardly surprising given the sheer amount of work which goes into securing ballot access, registering new voters and the like. As a result of the constant deadlines, political discussions tended to focus on practical logistics rather than over-arching philosophical ideas.

There are pluses and minuses to such an approach. On the one hand, staying focused on simple deadlines can be efficient and tends to discourage counter-productive partisan and ideological debate. On the other hand, there has been a certain tendency toward Bernie "hero-worship" within the campaign which fails to consider the need for a wider social movement. Once the primary is over, many people may naturally wander off and much of the personal, logistical and political infrastructure could be lost or simply dissipate. It is to be hoped that never happens, however, for all of the contact details, voter information, e-mails and the like could be squandered.

There is, however, an alternative: Bernie could keep the Gowanus headquarters open indefinitely, even after the New York primary, with an eye toward preserving the Brooklyn operation. While paying the rent would certainly be expensive, it's not as if the campaign is hurting for money right now. In the short-term, volunteers could use the space for phone banking and making calls to other states which vote after New York. In the long-term, however, the Gowanus could turn into a political center sponsoring talks and discussions while helping to mobilize people around common issues of concern.

Periodically, presidential candidates rile up the Democratic base and raise expectations. In 1988, Jesse Jackson carried the liberal banner but failed to turn his campaign into a grassroots movement. In 1992, Jerry Brown followed suit and similarly failed to channel popular enthusiasm into lasting results. In 2000, Ralph Nader fulfilled much the same role, this time as a third party candidate. Whatever happens with the Bernie campaign, the question for Sanders is whether he can supersede these previous efforts. Perhaps, by making a modest investment in Brooklyn, the borough which has done so much to spearhead his candidacy, Bernie can help to foster underlying structural change.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer and photographer who frequently addresses the notion of revolutionary change.