Thousands of supporters spilled in a line out the front door of the Oncenter in Syracuse Tuesday, chanting, singing and eagerly awaiting a glimpse of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). The presidential candidate was not due to arrive for another five hours.
Sanders has been traveling across upstate New York over the past week, hosting rallies in anticipation of New York’s primary on April 19. While Hillary Clinton leads the senator 53 to 40 percent among New York’s democratic voters, the margin narrows to 50 versus 46 percent in upstate New York, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. The throngs of Sanders supporters braving an unusually cool April morning certainly seemed undeterred.
Over 5,000 people crowded the Oncenter, a relatively small venue for the rally, buzzing with excitement in advance of Sanders’ address. Supporters clustered in small groups — comparing Bernie gear and singing and swaying along to a playlist powered by revolutionary anthems and odes to the power of the people.
Many carried signs with messages, including “Mother Nature Endorses Bernie” and “Don’t Frack New York.” A group of college students raised a sign above their heads reading: “It’s Our Turn to Lead.” Several attendees’ attire jabbed at Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, with one hat reading: “Make Donald Drumpf Again.”
Attendees represented a cross-section of towns in upstate New York — several Cornellians made the trek to Syracuse — and many local residents expressed their excitement that Sanders had chosen the city as a campaign stop.
“When I heard he was coming to Syracuse I knew I had to get out and see him,” said resident James Gazza. “I think he’s going to do really well up here.”
A young couple ballroom danced around the arena, oblivious to the presence of others, as the lyrics, “Young people speaking their mind / Getting so much resistance from behind,” played over the loudspeakers.
Dana Carlson, a Syracuse resident proudly sporting 17 Bernie pins, said she had been a Sanders supporter long before the senator became a presidential candidate.
“I absolutely adore Bernie, I’ve been a big fan of his since he was in the senate,” she said. “He’s been a rising star to me.”
Carlson explained that she was impressed with Sanders, who she called a “genuinely good human being,” because of his consistent record and admirable character.
“I’m to the left of the Democratic Party and he is too — he’s an independent and I think he’s not someone who can fit into this box,” she said. “He’s his own kind of person — I’m my own kind of person.”
Carlson urged Democrats who may be wary of Sanders’ “democratic socialist” label to “educate themselves more and find out that this is already a very socialist country.”
“Lots of the programs that we have in place are already socialist — the fact that the roads are plowed is a socialist concept,” she said. “So do your homework and stop being afraid — this fear mongering is done through the media.”
John Edwards, who arrived to the rally with family in tow, said Sanders “checks a lot of the boxes” for him, citing the hefty cost of his daughter’s college tuition and the scope of Wall Street’s influence as perturbing issues.
“I believe him when he says he wants to break up the big banks — I’m a member of a credit union and I really think he has more for the middle class and the poor. He hasn’t been bought by the rich people,” he said emphatically.
When asked about Clinton, who many consider the “establishment” Democratic candidate, Edwards said he had supported the former secretary of state in the past but has grown tired of compromising his beliefs to vote along party lines.
“You know, you get to a certain age and you get tired of holding your nose and voting for someone just because that’s who there is,” he said. “I’m glad to have the option of voting for Bernie.”
Gazza called Sanders “reasonable and solid,” saying he is concerned about the senator’s chances in New York but believes he can pull off another upset, expressing a reluctance to rely too heavily on polls.
“There’s a fighting chance,” he said. “And what’s so encouraging is that there are so many young folks out here. It makes me believe that even if Bernie doesn’t make it there’s hope for tomorrow.”
Before Sanders took the stage, several volunteers involved in his Syracuse campaign and two prominent national figures campaigning with the candidate took the microphone to sing the senator’s praises.
Sanders called upon local musician Joe Driscoll to perform a few songs for the crowd before the rally kicked off, including a tune called “Water” about the perils of fracking, and another about the insufficiency of the minimum wage.
“Back in the 1960s, music used to be part of the revolution,” Driscoll said. “We all know the game is rigged and it’s so refreshing to see a candidate who’s ready to start this revolution. I’ve always paid attention to politics but no one has ever said what I wanted to hear.”
Zach Silver, a field organizer in Syracuse, said he had worked on Sanders’ senate campaign in 2006 and was celebrating his 10 year anniversary stumping for the senator.
“Show me what democracy looks like,” he shouted, leading the crowd in a chant. “This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd roared back.
Kendrick Sampson, an actor from the TV show How to Get Away With Murder, and prominent activist Rosario Dawson also took the stage to speak on Sanders’ behalf.
Sampson said he felt a responsibility to use his public platform to promote change, saying before Sanders he had never met another candidate “so peaceful, so loving, so ready to change the world.”
“He’s been an advocate his whole life — he was doing these things when it was not popular,” he said. “I feel like he’s a grandpa and I can just sit at his feet and learn from him all day. He’s a wonderful example of what this country should be. And I can’t wait to have him as my president.”
Dawson explained that she had received significant backlash as a woman of color for not “going with the other candidate, who’s supporting fracking around the world.”
“I’ve waited so long to have [a candidate] like this,” she said, speaking of Sanders. “To be able to look back on videos of him 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago and see him saying the exact same thing. If he says he needs to be our president and make bold changes, I’ll believe him. Because I don’t want to look back and say ‘We didn’t listen.’”
Thunderous applause signaled Sanders’ entrance to the arena.
“It looks like Syracuse is ready for a political revolution,” the candidate called, appearing behind his podium.
The senator opened his speech with the assertion that he is a different kind of candidate than Clinton — expounding upon his refusal to establish a super PAC and arguing that the country’s campaign finance system is “corrupt and undermining American democracy.”
“You can’t stand and fight for working families if you are dependent upon big money interest,” he said to roars of applause.
Sanders expanded this economic critique of wealth inequality in America, more broadly, stating that the country’s income disparity is worse than at any time since 1928.
“When the top one tenth of one percent has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent — we have got to stand up and say, no, that is not all right,” he said. “When the 20 wealthiest people own more wealth than half our population — no, that is not what this country is supposed to be.”
He also voiced his adamant support for a 15 dollar minimum wage, calling it an “outrage” that with increasing worker productivity and longer hours, 58 percent of wealth is still retained by the top one percent.
“Are you guys ready for a radical idea?” Sanders asked. “We’re going to create an economy that works for the elderly, for the working class, for all of us — not just the one percent.”
The senator also delineated a plan to repair what he called a “broken” criminal justice system, asking how a country as wealthy as the United States could have confined more people in jail than any other nation.
“If a kid today in Syracuse gets picked up for possession of marijuana, that kid will have a police record that stays with him for his entire life,” he said, “But if you are a CEO of a large financial institution whose actions destroyed this economy, you don’t get a police record.”
Loud boos echoed from the crowd in response to this accusation. Sanders continued on to commit to a revitalization of the social security system, a tactic which he promised would expand coverage for the poor and elderly.
“A great nation is a nation that treats its most vulnerable people with respect,” he said.
The senator also specifically addressed the young people in the room, addressing concerns about the “death of the American dream” and the punishing cost of college tuition.
“Students say when we do the right thing — when we do what our parents said, our teachers said, our communities said — when we get the best education that we could, we are ending up $50,000, $60,000, $90,000 in debt,” he said. “Do not accept that this reality is anything roughly normal. It is crazy. Young people who get an education should be rewarded, not punished.”
Sanders also stressed the need to address climate change rapidly and boldly, calling humans the “custodians” of the Earth and thus responsible for leaving it “healthy and habitable for our children and future generations.”
However, the candidate generated the most passionate roar from the crowd with one simple sentence — “Donald Trump will not become president.”
“America is about supporting each other, which always trumps selfishness,” Sanders asserted forcefully. “Most profoundly, the reason that Donald Trump will not become president is because the American people understand in their hearts what every major religion on Earth has taught us … at the end of the day, love always trumps hatred.”
Many of the rally’s attendees were college students, who voiced strong support for Bernie’s public college plans and candid persona.
Three students — who are participating in their first election this fall — said they were thrilled that they will be able to cast their first ballots in Sanders’ name. A large group excitedly waved “Students for Bernie” posters.
Several Cornellians also attended the rally, including John Andrew Elliott ’17, who said he traveled to Syracuse because he wanted to “feel the energy while being surrounded by thousands of others who have the same aspirations for our country,” even while he conceded that Cornell does “feel the bern.”
“Since the start of Bernie’s political career he has been an advocate for all of us,” he said. “He is the only candidate that wholeheartedly wants the best for you regardless of your race, class, gender, sexual orientation [or] political creed.”
Elliott said attending the rally enabled him to connect with others devoted to Sanders’ political revolution.
“Everyone was so excited: there were tears, screams, all types of signs and all sorts of Bernie apparel,” he said. “I met an activist — and she was around 60 years old — she reminded me that voting for this candidate is a once in a life-time chance. It made her cry to see so many people fighting for what she had believed for decades.”
Trevan Signorelli ’18 echoed this enthusiasm with Sanders’ rally performance, praising both the excitement of the crowd and the integrity of its candidate.
“I like that [Sanders’] campaign is not being directed by corporate interests,” he said. “When listening to him speak, you can hear the passion and authenticity in his voice.”
Elliott said witnessing Bernie speak live made him realize the power of the candidate’s message to transform the country’s political landscape.
“Seeing Bernie in person — it was a restoration of faith,” he said. “It was reassurance that if millions upon millions of us do come together, we can change things.”
This article is one in a series of stories on presidential candidates’ rallies in upstate New York before primary voting. Check back soon for coverage of a Donald Trump rally and follow @cornellsun on Instagram and Twitter for more exclusive content.