‘Feeling the Bern’: Debate-Watching in a Bushwick Loft with Bernie Sanders’s Die-hard Supporters

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Bushwich Berners Debate Watch.Photo: Jen Kirby

Open the graffiti-covered front door, walk up the paint-chipped steps, pass a stained mattress propped up against a wall, make it to the third floor, and find a loft space that smells of cigarettes and is filling with twentysomethings who will not shut up about an old, irascible man from Vermont.

The man in question is Bernie Sanders, or just Bernie, as his admirers at the first-Democratic-debate-watch party refer to him. About 50 of his devoted supporters have packed this Bushwick loft to cheer on the independent senator and Democratic presidential candidate as he spars with his political rivals — or, really, tries to dent the front-runner status of Hillary Clinton.  

The Bushwick Berners, a grassroots group, organized the event, one of the more than 4,000 local parties — said Sanders himself, during the debate — coordinated by his supporters. These Berners came together in July, and work with other Sanders groups to drum up donations, canvass for Bernie, and get people registered to vote. Their slogan is “Feel the Bern.”

The loft belongs to 36-year-old artist Steve Panovich, whose handmade silk-screened Bernie (unofficial, but bespoke) campaign shirts are strung up on a wall of above a table filled with (official) Bernie stickers and voter-registration forms.  The shirts advertise “Brooklyn for Bernie” or “Bernie is bae” with the senator’s mug. The stickers are a bit more formal: Bernie 2016.

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Photo: Jen Kirby

People start trickling in before debate tip-off. A guy walks around with a bowl of popcorn and two guys smoke cigarettes, knocking ashes out the window. It has the awkward feel of a housewarming party where everyone knows the host through a friend of a friend — in this case, a surprise Democratic contender. 

Then the lights go out, movie-theater style. Panovich steps up to give a pep talk. He encourages people to volunteer, which he credits with Bernie’s surge. “The Koch brothers have a billion dollars and Bernie’s got all the people,” Panovich tells the crowd. “It’s a crazy dynamic to see who might win.”

Meanwhile, guests are unfolding lawn chairs and stools. One group sits on a blanket, picnic style, a six pack of beers wedged between them. It’s now standing-room-only. Sure there is a lot of plaid and some kale and at least one person drinking from a straw sticking through a Mason-jar top. But talk about politics dominates, most of it centered around Sanders’s authenticity — his ability, however ineloquently, to speak truth to power. Sanders’s stand against big money and special interests is what his fans find most energizing.

Tom Walls is one of the folks milling in the back as the candidates take the stage. He lives in Florida but is in New York on business, and thought it would be fun to watch the debate in a group. He’s not decided though — simply Bernie-curious. “He’s a quirky older man,” Wialls says. “He says what he thinks in spite of him not being the slickest person.” He admits, though, that he also has some interest in Jim Webb — probably the only guy here who does, and possibly anywhere — and stealthily applauds when Webb is introduced. 

Cheers greet Bernie Sanders’s introduction, and what sounds like the pop of a Champagne cork. One person tries to get a “Bernie” chant going, but it dies. There are a few heckling snores when Hillary gives her opening.

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Photo: Jen Kirby

But once the debate begins, the crowd stays rapt and listening — not just to Bernie, but all the candidates. Only the buzzer, announcing late-comers, and the occasional snap and release of a beer can punctuate the broadcast. When the crowd does react, it’s usually to Bernie’s signature issues (“casino capitalism”; public tuition; “billionaire class”) or his own brand of charming crankiness (“I’m not a young man today”; “Enough with the emails”). Laughter also comes on cue pretty much every time Sanders raised his hand like an impatient kid waiting to be called on in class. The crowd leans anti-Hillary, and her responses get derisive groans. Lincoln Chafee, a runner-up in the eccentric-grandpa department, gets a few chuckles. Jim Webb elicits a few scoffs. Most people just seem puzzled by Martin O’Malley. 

The crowd doesn’t really take a break until the candidates do, at which point most give positive reviews to Bernie, with a few admitting, if begrudgingly and with caveats, that Hillary is kind of killing it, too. Twins Melissa and Lisa Wright, both 24 and from the Bronx, and their friend Amanda Ranier, 23, milled around the refrigerator.

He’s kind of too good to be true,” Melissa says of Bernie.

He’s too idealist,” chimes in Lisa, who confessed she was kind of impressed by Hillary’s wonkiness, especially on international affairs. But the sisters thought it was worth believing in Bernie. 

The way he speaks to the people, the people here,” Melissa says, waving at the room. Everyone here has student loans, she guessed, and his stance on college tuition resonated. “We can’t afford to get away with it,” she says. “We are all paying.”

As the debate drags well into its second hour, everyone starts getting a little tired and restless. One guy, who admitted he’d probably vote for Hillary anyway, watches the Mets game on his phone. But the group snaps to attention when the video stream that’s being projected on the wall freezes. “Net neutrality!” someone shouts. “Where’s Al Gore when you need him?”

Bernie crashed the internet,” shouts out another. The space fills with shouts of “Feel the Bern,” and some of the Bushwick organizers start stumping for Sanders for the few unconverted. The pitches seem to work because when the stream starts working again and the debate finally ends, many file toward the table to sign up to volunteer or purchase some Bernie merchandise. “I think he was on fire,” Panovich says. 

But then he softens that assessment, acknowledging that it was a far-from-perfect showing. Maybe Sanders had a little two much adrenaline this time around, he admits, but there are more debates to come.