Culture / Newsy

Inside Bernie Sanders’ Houston Rally — Tough Talk on Fossil Fuels, Protestors Escorted Out and the Ice Cream Man

The Scene at Discovery Green is Something Else

BY // 04.25.19

It was only in the mid-70s, and the sun slipped back and forth between the clouds. It was nothing compared to summer heat. But tons of Houstonians were feeling the Bern.

A crowd of nearly 3,000 gathered in the sunshine of Discovery Green Wednesday evening to hear from presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Most of them had been following Sanders from the last election cycle, if not before.

And Sanders didn’t shy away from the setting, taking on fossil fuels in the heart of the oil industry. After all, Bernie Sanders’ feelings on climate change are no secret.

“Today we are saying to Donald Trump and the fossil fuel industry — stop lying!,” Sanders told the Houston crowd. “You know I disagree with (Donald) Trump on virtually everything. That’s an understatement.

“But his lying on climate change is a danger not only to our country but a danger to the entire world. We need a president who does not deny the reality of climate change. We need a president who will lead the world in transforming the global energy system.

“We need to move away from fossil fuels. And by the way I do know what city I’m in. And I also know that we are not here to blame the workers in the fossil fuels industry. We will make sure we hold these communities harmless. We will make sure the workers get the jobs, the training, the extended unemployment they may need.

“They are not our enemies. But what is our enemy is climate change.”

Before the speech, the stage was set.

The “doors” to the tree-lined — and currently pinwheel-flanked, with stalls after stalls of political merchandise — park “opened” at 3:30 pm. But families, friends and individuals had been settling in on the grass in front of the temporary stage and massive Texas flag since noon.

It was Sanders’ first visit to Space City since launching his 2020 presidential campaign in February. Many in H-Town hadn’t seen him since his Texas pit stop in March of 2018, when he encouraged Democrats to vote ahead of the midterms.

The rally drew people of all ages, decked out in all different outfits, from people sporting the classic polo-and-khaki pairing to folks in business attire, gents in Hawaiian shirts and hipster twentysomethings in shorts and fishnet stockings.

A winding line of volunteers stood around the perimeter, each holding a white sign with Bernie printed on it in blue, with the signature star over the “i.”

“By the time me and my roommate got here, it was already a little packed. The line started forming around 2-ish,” Emily Garretson tells PaperCity.

And it wasn’t all steadfast supporters.

“There’s been a little stuff going on, some interesting characters. A gentleman was already ejected for acting a little strange, he had some propaganda with conspiracy theories about the Mueller investigation, that kind of thing,” Garretson says.

Over the course of the rally, this counter programmer would be joined by others, who stood on the other side of the fence with megaphones shouting things like “Bernie, go home!” “Pay your fair share!” and “Socialism is slavery!” Police officers were on hand to escort them from the park with little fanfare or commotion.

For Garretson, the rally was worth the trouble. She’s been a fan of Sanders since she first became interested in politics.

“Having somebody, especially someone who has a long track record of taking care of LGBTQ people, like myself for example, that’s a big thing for me,” she says.

Christopher Lense, who hails from Chicago and lives in Houston now, is confident that the influx of new Texas residents can help shift the voting trends in the Lone Star State.

“I think Sanders will fare well here. After Beto O’Rourke, he’ll do better,” Lense says. “When you look at what he’s done, he’s always been on the right side of history. ‘Socialism’ does throw people off. But he wants to help everyone, he wants to benefit everyone.”

“The right side of history” was a common refrain of the Bernie backers — as was Sanders being “consistent.” But from criminal justice reform to equal pay, from affordable housing to improving infrastructure, everyone had their own reason for being there.

“I’m very interested in his education ideas, because I’ve got a teenage daughter, and I’m a single mother,” Claudia Quesada says. She brought her daughter, who sat next to her on the grass.

“For me it’d be a lot of help if education for children is more affordable, so they’re not in debt for a very long time. I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to go to college and be educated so she can have a better future than I could afford to give her,” Quesada says.

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 Push

The 77-year-old Sanders may not be quite the rock star he was in the 2016 Democratic race, but he still gets plenty of love.

“I think people might think Bernie’s too old,” Mary Queene says. “But he’s the same age as my husband. He’s still really with it. I’m amazed by his energy.”

You could say there was a lot of energy in the throngs of people surrounding the stage, who were bobbing along to the music pouring out over the speakers, but close to full-on dancing when a local band took the stage.

Sanders couldn’t have picked a better band than the seven-piece ska/funk/hip-hop/reggae ensemble — or at least not one with a more apt name. “Free Radicals” may apply to science, but the sentiment definitely fit in with that crowd.

By 4:59, the band had cleared the stage. Volunteers flooded up the sides of the stage onto the risers, proudly waving their Bernie signs or using them to shield their eyes from the sun.

The “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!” chants began somewhere from the back and made their way up to the front, all around.

Elizabeth Abair of the Democratic Socialists of America, born and raised in Houston gave a little preview of what Sanders was all about, like “taking vigorous action against climate change.” But she also said what many were thinking.

“I’d like to thank him for sharing his plan with us, instead of just writing us off as a red state!”

The next three introductions weren’t quite clear. The two men each came up to pump up the crowd — which was already well and pumped — and discussed Sanders’ main policies in vague terms.

Then, the doppelganger. From a distance, anyway. A bespectacled man, mostly bald with tufts of white hair on the side, whose age could only be described as seasoned, apparently from Vermont. But it wasn’t Sanders.

It was Ben Cohen, of the Ben & Jerry’s persuasion. He was not introduced as the co-founder of the ice cream giant, which is why some people were a little puzzled when he squared his shoulders over the podium referred to himself as the ice cream man and said “When Bernie makes me Minister of Ice Cream, there will be a pint of ice cream in every freezer! A sundae on every table!”

A Sanders constituent of 40 years, Cohen highlighted some of the politician’s best hits, like his work on raising the minimum wage to $15 at places like Amazon.

The thing about having a rally in a park in the heart of a Downtown metropolis is that no matter how many people are there, because of the soaring skyscrapers, the whole feel is pretty intimate.

Sanders stepped up in a blue button-down — the different shirt meaning it could not be Cohen in disguise — and thanked the crowd.

He kept the crowd rapt with attention — and the requisite boos and yays, depending — for more than 40 minutes. Sanders’ speech spanned everything from poverty to decriminalizing marijuana, voter turnout to health care, and back again.

“Politics, despite what the media and congress will tell you, is really not complicated,” Sanders says. “What politics in a democratic society is supposed to be is about looking around, taking a hard look, and saying what all the problems facing our families, facing our communities, facing our nation, and how do we solve those problems? That’s it.”

And what that’ll take, he continues, is everyone rallying together and turning out to vote, shaking off the one-vote-doesn’t-matter mentality. “This is about urging and demanding all of you and all the people in our country to have the courage to think big, not small. Not to think ‘maybe we can do this,’ or ‘maybe we can do that.’ But to demand as part of a political revolution that we can an economy and a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent!

“It’s not a radical idea, is it?”

No Radical?

There was a clear juxtaposition in Sanders discussing the revolution, but iterating and reiterating that his ideas aren’t all that “radical.” As in, they’ve either been adapted in the country to some degree, or they’re practiced in other countries. Like the living wage and universally accessible health care.

Sanders also took on the role of the president.

“The president, no matter how well-intentioned he or she may be, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or anybody else, nobody can do it alone in the White House,” Sanders says. “Because the power of the establishment, of the large corporations, entities of Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuels industry, the military industrial complex — they are so powerful that no one president can do it alone.”

Sanders didn’t shy away from the Lone Star State’s voting history. “Let me just say to the people of Texas. I know Texas voted for Trump,” Sanders says amidst boos.

bernie sanders rally discovery green Houston
Bernie Sanders took Downtown Houston by storm.

He took the opportunity to break down his perception of the promises Donald Trump made on the campaign trail, and how Sanders believes Trump failed to keep them or even worked against them. Facts and figures flew around — 32 million Americans were almost kicked off the insurance they currently have by legislation Trump tried to pass, the president called for a trillion-and-a-half cut of Medicaid over a 1o-year period, 83 percent of the benefits of the proposed tax plan over a 10-year period would go to the top one percent.

The top one percent owns more wealth then the bottom 92 percent. CEOs today make our 300 times what their workers make. These are the Bernie numbers.

Sanders touched on the subjects nearest and dearest to him, from the high rate of child poverty to the racial injustice of white families having 10 times the wealth of black families, the underfunding of African-American school districts, people in prison not being able to vote, universal health care, reducing student debt, making higher education affordable and even free and reforming immigration.

There was one issue that hit close to home for Houstonians — but Sanders tried to make sure it didn’t hit too hard, insisting oil industry workers would be protected .

And just how will he fund this?

“At a time when we have more income and wealth in equality in this country than in any time since the 1920s, yes, we’re going to make the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share,” he says.

“I may not be a great mathematician, but I do know that 99 percent is a hell of a lot more than one percent.”

Sanders summed it up at about 6:15 pm. “Let’s transform this country and have a government and economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”

Soon Sanders was gone. Will the Bern last?

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