Opinion: In ‘Till The Last Ballot Is Cast

Monica Schmitt
8 min read
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It was a hot May afternoon as my friend Jonny and I drove west towards the Albuquerque Convention Center. My beat-up 2001 Toyota Corolla hummed loudly while blasting cold air out of dusty vents. I couldn’t believe that Bernie Sanders was coming to our Southwest town. Seeing as only a portion of Americans realize that New Mexico is part of the states, I’m conditioned to the location being overlooked. Nonetheless, it was really happening. We turned slowly onto 2nd Street which was already lined with cars waiting to turn into the parking lot even though the time read 4:07pm, roughly three hours before Bernie’s speech was expected to begin. The parking lot prices were all raised temporarily to $10 (damn supply and demand) but after three loops around the block we were graced by a free curbside space just a short walk away.

I had never seen so many young people at once. Not even at Warped Tour. Thousands of twenty-somethings decked out in Bernie Sanders paraphernalia snaked around the building and out of sight. I expected the rally to be packed but not this far in advance. Booths selling t-shirts and buttons were lined along the fence and young political activists handed out voting information and pamphlets.

Shorter lines formed at the Convention Center doors and supporters trickled through metal detectors before arriving in the massive and well air-conditioned venue. Right before it was our turn to enter, Jonny’s vaper—an attempt to satisfy the craving for a cigarette while indoors—stopped working. As a non-smoker, it was fascinating to see his desperate attempts to remedy the situation. Gotta get that fix. We had a long way to go before the speech would commence so the broken vaper was a nice distraction and project to pass the time. Taken apart, the tiny mechanism’s wires and circuit board looked potentially suspicious. I waved off the concern, determined to help my tobacco-dependent friend but Jonny seemed rather paranoid about looking like a terrorist.

"Ow, shit!" he grimaced and held onto his finger and the broken device, now with a disconnected wire. There was no fixing this thing and we both knew it. Finally defeated, he jammed one broken side into the other only to create a tiny spark and puff of smoke. He looked at me with wide eyes and sweaty palms. Not helping his case.

"Just go to the bathroom and throw it away," I suggested.

"That will look so suspicious! Discarding this in a trashcan..?" He was beginning to panic. Eventually, not wanting to be associated with the device, he wedged his way through the sea of humans to flush it down the toilet. Didn’t want to start a trashcan fire.

As the venue filled the temperature rose and personal bubbles significantly reduced in size. I got used to knocking elbows with everyone in my general vicinity and had to make a conscious effort not to step on the one-year-old putting together a virtual puzzle on some handheld device sitting on the dirty floor directly behind me. Groups of people cheered intermittently for no discernible reason other than sheer excitement, falsely elevating the hopes of thousands that Bernie was arriving and perhaps the rest of us just couldn’t see him from our vantage point. I guess sporadic outbursts are bound to happen when a multitude of strangers are squashed together like sardines for hours. I felt like everyone was going a little crazy, myself included. Shifting my weight from one foot to the other was about as much movement as I could manage.

A little before 6pm, a Native American tribe took the stage giving the audience an actual reason to cheer and instilling some hope in us that the speech would start soon thereafter. After a ten minute performance of sacred dances and songs, the tribe members left and everyone craned their necks to see if Bernie was behind them. He wasn’t. Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty. The group to my left decided to sit on the floor. A middle-aged woman with a purple lei and giant corduroy vest to my right started singing along, head-banging and fist-pumping to a Tracy Chapman song that blared over staticy loudspeakers.

Originally I was on the fence about attending the rally, what with the power of Internet videos conveniently a click away easily informing me of his speeches, etc. What’s the point of parking, walking, standing, waiting and feeling claustrophobic in a room packed with sweaty screaming people when I could just look on YouTube?

I found my answer at roughly 7:20pm. A tuft of white hair bobbed its way to the podium and for the first time all afternoon I felt a surge of genuine excitement bubbling inside my chest. Arms, fists and signs shot upwards and voices roared to create one massive sound cloud. It was impossible to tell how loud the decibel was; it came from all directions until it sounded like a fuzzy background hum.

Bernie Sanders has a loud and gentle voice. It’s a voice of reason and hope. I had heard a lot of what he said at the rally previously on videos online but some of the information was new to me, or at least it felt very real in a new sort of way. Being surrounded by passionate people rooting for justice was indescribably amazing. I knew about various forms of inequality happening in the U.S. before the rally—how can you not—but I felt like I was ten steps closer to helping change those things, when I had otherwise felt completely powerless, just by being there. The turnout was an astonishing glimpse at the power of everyday people, congregating because they feel like they finally have an honest representative.

The hour and a half speech went by in a blink. Sanders talked about poverty. He talked about college tuition, about super PACs and Wall Street. All the stuff that you hear him ranting about repeatedly. But what stuck out to me the most was when he talked about nature.

"As human beings, we are part of nature," he said. "We must live with nature, not destroy nature. … If we destroy nature—our air, our water, our land—if we destroy nature we are ultimately destroying ourselves."

Finally someone said it. Someone of influence said it. I clapped until my hands hurt after those couple of sentences because I am constantly astounded that we as a society are leading young generations to believe that being so environmentally ignorant is the norm, and that its acceptable. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, "there’s no planet B." There’s talk of
water and potentially sustainable environments on Mars but it’s not a reality. Even if it were, based on history humans would probably destroy it. It’s refreshing, to say the least, that a politician is passionately discussing the damage that humans cause to the environment, and that its not okay.

During the rally I felt a profound responsibility to care and vote about the issues at hand. I know too many people who "aren’t political" or choose to stay uninvolved. I used to be one of those people as well. But the whole idea that "political" is a thing that someone can or cannot "be" is strange to me. Aren’t all citizens affected by politics simply by being citizens? To be uninvolved is to be uninformed and it certainly won’t help change anything.

As quickly as the speech began it was over. Bernie left the podium and the crowd moved in a collective herd to the doors and dissipated into the night. It felt nice to walk again. Stiff joints carried my legs back to the car while my brain chewed on what I had just witnessed. I wove through crowded downtown Albuquerque with the windows down, hearing the occasional Bernie supporter holler or whistle.

I’m guilty of being overly optimistic, naively so, but I just can’t allow myself to lose hope quite yet in a man who vows to speak up for oppressed groups and use logic and fairness to work in favor of justice and equity in the midst of a grossly corrupt political system. As Sanders says himself, "we are in ‘till the last ballot is cast."
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