Smile Politely

Champaign-Urbana gets Berned

Before I push my opinions on you via this article, I feel it pertinent to mention that, no matter who you’re voting for, you go out and vote today. Please. Our future depends on it. Use your noggin, think about what’s important to you, and just get out there and do the damn thing. Seriously. Please.

Last Friday, it was announced that Bernie Sanders would be making a campaign stop in Champaign-Urbana, sweeping through one of the only bastions of liberalism south of Interstate 80. Given that Illinois’ primary is today, C-U seemed like a natural spot for the self-described Democratic Socialist to give a stump speech, especially given his resonance with young voters, who happen to occupy a massive amount of the electorate here in our fair city.

On Saturday, Senator Sanders spoke to thousands in the University of Illinois’ ARC gym complex, keying in on the issues that he is so well known for: higher education, income inequality and campaign finance reform. In fact, some estimates even had the crowd waiting outside as large as 20,000 people, though only 3,600 were allowed in officially.


Look at this line for Bernie Sanders, all. Video by Sam Logan Photography. #FeelTheBern

Posted by Smile Politely on Saturday, March 12, 2016

Living in Illinois, national electoral politics rarely seem to reach out part of the world. It’s not that we’re less important than our fellow-midwesterners in Wisconsin, Missouri or Ohio, but rather that our state always seems to go blue (and I’m not complaining), and thus, it’s not an area where candidates feel they need to spend much time. Simply put, we’re a predictable electoral state when it comes to national elections, and as such, the cameras tend to focus elsewhere. I mean, damn, even Illinois is President Obama’s “home state,” yet he never even stopped through C-U during either of his presidential campaigns in 2008 or 2012.

The rarity of Bernie Sanders’ rally at the U of I on Saturday was remarkable in its existence — but even more remarkable was the sharp contrast it presented to Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago the night previous.

Protesters took up a massive percentage of Trump’s crowd at UIC Pavilion on Friday night, for example, ultimately leading to the rally to be cancelled and Trump leaving Chicago, beaten back by the city’s vocal and liberal population. Why Trump even chose to come to Chicago is baffling to me, and signals questionable decision making to say the least.

Sanders’ rally in Champaign, however, could not be more different than the scene described by the media the night previously. There were no protesters inside the venue and no screams to interrupt him as he spoke. Even following Sanders’ speech, the small handful of protesters that stood outside the ARC garnered more thumbs up, high fives and other signs of solidarity from rally-goers than jeers and violent rhetoric. The difference was astounding, and the entire rally was massively humane and extremely different from the environment described at any one of Trump’s rallies.

At first, I thought that this may just be isolated. Perhaps crowds in Champaign are just tame compared to the rest of the country. Perhaps there wasn’t a large contingent objecting to Sanders’ visit because we are simply complacent beings in C-U. Maybe there’s something in the water. But after going back and realizing that over the course of his campaign, Bernie has been interrupted more by people fainting during his speeches than enraged protesters screaming at him, it became apparent that there was a much more ingrained difference between the two candidates. For the first time, we here in C-U had the opportunity to see it happen in person.

Of course, this is America. If Donald Trump becomes president, all of our lives instantly will become a reality TV show, which I guess is a dream-come-true for a substantial portion of the American population. But this isn’t entertainment, as much as the fancy graphics and scoreboards on CNN would like to suggest. Rather, it’s politics. It’s the future of our country. It’s the difference between whether or not thousands of students will be able to afford college or not. It’s the difference between someone receiving health care, regardless of how much money they have. In the latter case, it could quite literally be the difference between life and death, and Bernie treats his campaign as such, not like it’s some game for TV ratings. Saturday’s crowd at the ARC seemed to get this notion more-so than any other crowd I’ve ever seen.

I won’t lie — I’ve seen the electoral maps. I’ve seen whiz-kid Nate Silver’s number crunches, and I know that the statistical probability of Senator Sanders winning the Democratic nomination is, at best, a long shot. But when thousands upon thousands of people, most of them young people, are lined up surrounding Memorial Stadium at the early hours of the morning, probably hungover, to see a 74 year-old man give a speech, he certainly has struck a nerve somewhere along the line. That much is undeniable.

To be in a crowd where positive energy was so abundant was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I know it’s become a cliche to the point of annoyance, but Champaign-Urbana was certainly feeling the Bern on Saturday, and hopefully that feeling extends into Illinois’ voting booths today. If we all got together to strive for the common good, as Senator Sanders has been advocating for his entire life, the United States could be a phenomenal place. It really could be.

And if Sanders’ job is just to move the Democratic Party to the left a little bit, I’ll take that too. 

All photos by Justine Bursoni.

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