ATLANTA — At a burger bar near downtown Atlanta, tables were piled with “Bernie Y’all” buttons and “Who the Hell is Bernie Sanders?” pamphlets. Sign-in sheets were readied, and now, there was only the question of how this meeting of Bernie Sanders supporters would go.
Here came the people. Men with tiny gray ponytails. Women with tattoos. Unapologetic lefties such as Starr Wright, who said in a Southern drawl, “If the main negative anyone can throw out is that he’s a white male Jewish socialist, then bring it on!”
But here, too, came Dan Friedman, who is in technology sales. Signing in was Dale Stratford, a scientist who described herself as “a prototypical middle-class white woman.” Taking a seat was David McClatchey, a graduate student who said, “Honestly, my instinct is that when a Democratic socialist stands and talks, it makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t let that stop me from listening.”
Here they all were at a gathering for the democratic socialist senator from Vermont, whose mad-as-hell campaign for president has been drawing crowds that have surprised even Sanders. In New Hampshire, more than 700; in Minnesota, more than 3,000; in Des Moines, a raucous crowd of 700 people turned out for a no-frills rally, about the same number that came to a Hillary Rodham Clinton event featuring a live band and burgers.
And now, on a Sunday afternoon, Atlanta.
More than 100 people streamed into a place called Manuel’s Tavern, one of more than a dozen “People for Bernie” events around the country on this weekend in which Sanders himself would not appear.
In the Atlanta version, it was a gathering of ardent progressives but also relative newcomers to this world, people slightly surprised that it was the rumpled, white-haired Brooklyn native — who speaks of reversing “grotesque” income inequality, getting billionaires out of politics and the need for “political revolution” — who was best articulating their growing unease with the direction of the country.
These people included Friedman, his gray hair closely clipped, his glasses wire-rimmed.
“If you look at his 12 points,” he said, referring to agenda items such as taxing the wealthiest, breaking up big banks and free college tuition, “they are more aligned with mainstream Americans than other candidates, particularly if you do away with labels — that ‘socialist’ label.”
Friedman said his own politics had not changed that much since he first voted Democratic in 1968 after the Robert F. Kennedy assassination; rather, he said, the party had moved further away from his values, so far that he was now slapping on a People-for-Bernie name tag.
“I was curious about what is happening here,” he said, explaining why he came. “I want to learn more about his position on foreign policy.”
He sat at a table with McClatchey, who told Friedman he could not agree more with what he was saying about labels.
“I think there is a silent majority that maybe don’t even know they agree with Bernie Sanders,” McClatchey said, and as they began talking about how political stereotypes get in the way of deeper discussions, their attempted conversation was overtaken by an organizer shouting into a microphone.
“All right! Let’s start with some chants!” the organizer shouted. “This is what democracy looks like! This is what a movement looks like!”
Some people raised fists; Friedman and McClatchey kept arms on the table.
“All day, all week, burn down Wall Street!” the organizer yelled, then introduced a man who declared into the microphone, “If you believe in people over profits, you’re probably a democratic socialist!”
Friedman and McClatchey tried to continue their discussion.
“I think, with time, the political system has become so overrun with money,” McClatchey said. “Billionaires are choosing candidates. It feels like an oligarchy.”
“Oh, I agree — and it not only determines who gets to run, it extends to the positions they take,” Friedman said.
They started to talk about how mainstream Americans might be persuaded to consider Sanders’s record against rolling back bank regulations and positions on other issues, when the organizer took the microphone again.
“All right, we’re going to start out doing a dot-mocracy!” she said.
She passed out color-coded dot stickers. She held up a large sheet of paper. She said she was going to write down ideas for how to build support for Sanders, and people would use the stickers to vote for the best ideas.
“So, ideas?” she asked.
“Knocking on doors,” said a woman in cat-eye glasses.
“What we need is sophisticated exit polling,” said a man with rumpled curly hair.
“Using art to share our ideas!” yelled a woman in the back.
“So, art pieces,” the organizer said, writing.
A man with a black Vietnam veteran hat who’d kept his arms folded raised his hand.
“Have realistic expectations!” he yelled out.
“All right — logistic expectations,” the organizer said, writing.
“No, no!” the man said. “Realistic expectations! What can we really expect?”
“Coalition building!” a man yelled.
“Yeah, like Ben and Jerry’s!” someone else said.
Soon, the large paper was being passed around the tables for the sticker voting, and that was about the time that Friedman peeled off his name tag and left to do some grocery shopping.
“I wish they would talk more about his positions,” he said. “I realize that a lot of this is preaching to the choir, but some people may not be members of the choir, even if I like the man.”
The meeting went on with slightly fewer people, who signed up to canvass, reach out to minorities and work on a social media strategy, and after nearly three hours of this, they adjourned with a last round of chants.
“The people, united, will never be defeated!” it went, and Stratford, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raised a fist on her way out.
“Wonderful,” she said of the event, explaining that she planned to get more involved after retiring in a few weeks. “I feel it’s getting to a critical point, and more and more people are feeling it — there’s a social sea change that’s kind of building.”
“At least we’re starting somewhere,” said a man heading out the door.
Soon, everyone was gone except for a few last people who decided that if they were going to canvass, there was no time like the present.
So out into the warm Sunday afternoon they went with their signs, trifold pamphlets and clipboards stenciled on the back with “Capitalism Has Outlived Its Usefulness.”
The group included a young veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement in ripped black pants. There was a man who worked with homeless youths, a woman from Canada and a woman in a white tennis skirt embroidered with little turtles.
Six in all, they walked past bars and boutiques along North Highland Avenue, hoisting their signs before men in button-downs and khakis, young couples pushing strollers and a young man wearing a T-shirt that read “Always and Forever a Libertarian.”
“Rand Paul, baby!” the young man yelled at them, referring to the libertarian presidential candidate running for the Republican nomination. “I used to be like you people.”
“Rand Paul has some great points,” began the woman in the tennis skirt, trying to start a conversation, but soon they were just arguing, and she decided to move on to a park where a festival was underway.
“Now what do we want to do?” said the Canadian woman, and as the crowds passed by, they stood there in the late afternoon heat, clutching their clipboards, trying to figure out how to talk to people about Sanders.
The woman in the tennis skirt approached a stage where a band was playing, and alone, began dancing with her clipboard. The rest of the canvassers began trying to hand out the pamphlets.
“Bernie Sanders for president,” the Canadian woman said to a man passing by.
“Who?” he said.
“He’s against money in politics,” said the Occupy guy to a man in khaki shorts, who kept walking.
“He talks about police brutality,” he said to a woman in a Bob Marley T-shirt, who took a pamphlet and looked at it for a moment.
“He’s running against Hillary Clinton, and he’s not going to have a super PAC,” he said to a man in a purple-checked button-down, who put a pamphlet in his pocket.
People kept passing. Some gave a thumbs up.
The Occupy guy held out the last of his pamphlets, a photo of Sanders on one side and “A political revolution is coming” on the other.
“Y’all heard about Bernie Sanders?” he asked, and eventually the last pamphlet was gone.