“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Short answer: Everything.
In a small office inside an old theatre in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders' supporters gathered to share their highlights and challenges after a day of knocking on doors.
"I'm feeling grateful," said one, before relaying a story about a surprisingly friendly interaction with a Trump supporter.
Others said they were feeling energized and inspired, despite a low response rate after hundreds of knocks and hours out in the February drear. "Just talking to one person who thanked me for being out in the field made it all worth it," said another.
The moment one person said they were feeling cold, organizers leapt into action, tossing hand-warmers to the shivering canvasser.
The New Hampshire primary was in one week. Some organizers had been in the small office for months, others had been working steadily since 2016, and still others were canvassing for the first time, but the energy in the room was palpable and warm and beautifully chaotic and fundamentally communal, much like a lot of Bernie Sanders' campaign. That has something to do with its success.
As Sanders has steadily risen in the polls, major media outlets have been forced to examine his campaign and the massive base of supporters—many young, social media-savvy, and passionately fired-up about their 79-year-old patron saint—that have propelled them to this place. Some portray his supporters as a battalion of belligerent young white males; others insist that Bernie's base is the most diverse of all; still others view them as lazy, entitled kids.
Doubters have been forced to interrogate that last opinion, because it's clear that Sanders' campaigners are anything but lazy. Sanders' campaign has garnered the highest number of individual donors of any candidate, amassing $1.3 million after discovering that a super PAC planned to air a negative ad about him. He raised nearly $100 million in 2019, topping Pete Buttigieg by some $25 million without the help of major corporations. His supporters are fervently keyed in, texting, tweeting, and—as it became clear in that New Hampshire room—getting out into the streets, taking the time to talk to people.
So what's behind Sanders' sweeping, grassroots appeal? And who are his supporters, really?
The easiest answer to this question is that there is no single answer. Bernie Sanders' supporters are working-class Americans, disaffected progressives, starry-eyed optimists, frustrated pessimists, devil's advocates, and God-fearing moralists. They are not a monolith. In that way, they might just represent the actuality of the American people—in all their contradictions, devotion, and passion—better than any other base.
"Not Me, Us" and the Fight Against American Hyper-Individualism
Miss Toni took a while to open the door. She was wearing a blue onesie covered in hearts, and her room was filled to the brim with records and posters from the 1980s. When she finally was able to open the door, a flock of birds fluttered away from her porch and took to the sky.
She told us she was already a Bernie supporter and began shakily filling out the sign-up sheet we gave her. She was registered to vote by her deadname (the male name she was given at birth), but she asked us to refer to her as Miss Tami. She had been an activist in the 1960s, she said. Bernie felt like the closest thing to bringing back the spirit of those days.
We also met a gun-owning Republican from Hawaii who, after hearing about Bernie's support for ending student debt and his dedication to ending the spirit of xenophobia in America, pledged to lend his support for Sanders on Tuesday.
Among the Trump supporters we met, their number one reason for supporting him was always the economy. "Me and my daughters are doing well."
"It would be nice if everyone could do as well as you and your family," we said. He shrugged. By the end of the conversation, he was genuinely smiling when he said, "I'm still voting for Trump. But I hope you guys keep going."
If Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, the economy will be paramount to the ensuing debates. While the currently strong American economy mostly exists thanks to Obama-era policies, and while many economists project that we are headed for a recession, it is true that Trump protects the Wall Street interests that continue to ensure cutthroat capitalism's success in America and around the world. These very successes are what have led America's income inequality levels to approach Depression-era extremities.
Sanders represents a synthesis of radicalism, anticapitalism, and a realistic understanding of the threats that America and the world are facing. To many, he also—contrary to the entire Bernie Bro narrative—represents human compassion. His campaign slogan, "Not Me, Us," is a refreshing antidote to the egotistical and self-absorbed nature of politics and neoliberalism in America. It's a reminder that—like the best stories, or the best policies—Sanders is just a vessel for something much greater, a catalyst for a dream.
Good luck to the planet to victims of American imperialism to people with giant student debt to those who want a li… https://t.co/EvaAD4D56p— 𝐓𝐚𝐧𝐢𝐚 𝐒𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐡 (@𝐓𝐚𝐧𝐢𝐚 𝐒𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐡) 1580738520.0
Sanders' Internet Army and the Limits of Tolerance
It's unfortunate that Bernie's campaign has been plagued by cruelty and disunity—and that these aspects of his base have been so heavily emphasized by the media. It's also true that some of Bernie Sanders' supporters can be cruel, and many need to learn to listen. If Bernie's supporters are serious about his campaign, they need to understand that shutting down discourse and rejecting all contention isn't the way to go about winning support.
But it's also true that in this America, people are dying thanks to medical bills they cannot pay, and students graduate into a world where they pay exorbitant amounts of money each month for years at a time in order to combat their student debt.
In light of this, the rage that many of Sanders' supporters feel at so-called centrists is born out of a deep-rooted desire to see real change instead of more of the same. It's a realization that trusting in the system and tolerating hatred is essentially the same thing as allowing them to continue.
It's also true that we're embroiled in a climate crisis, and kids are being born into a world of increasingly rampant natural disasters and apocalyptic scenarios playing out in real time, all while watching their politicians and parents do nothing. Bernie's Green New Deal is the most ambitious plan to address climate change of any candidate's; it also promises to renew the American economy, refurbishing our crumbling infrastructure by providing millions of new jobs in green, clean manufacturing. The strength of his plan has caused Sanders to gain the support of major environmental organizations across the country.
In a world where families can easily be crushed by a medical bill or a college admissions fee, Sanders' policies read like gospel for the disaffected. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform, and an end to endless wars are plans that promise actual change, packaged in a promise that can be paid for with the money that the United States spends on wars and allows to burn holes in Jeff Bezos's pockets.
The gospel-like, lyrical, and consistent nature of Sanders' policies are at the center of his movement. Like "Make America Great Again," Sanders' policies appeal to the idea that politics is theatre, that the best politicians present a show and offer a vision, a possibility, a roadmap for a movement that will get people out of their homes and into the field.
Lighting the Fire
There's a video of Bernie Sanders in Vermont, teaching his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, how to use a wood-burning furnace. Sanders is wrapped in a coat, bent over a cast-iron stove. "You want the flames from the small guys—are you recording me?" he says, stopping and then clarifying, "You want the small wood to be able to catch onto the big logs."
A Vermonter tries to teach a Floridian (me) how to properly light a wood-burning furnace. Let the record show he… https://t.co/Y5nLkZlWyS— Faiz (@Faiz) 1575426269.0
With his thick Brooklyn accent and his dedication to the task at hand, Sanders has intensely grandfatherly energy—but his statement also seems like it could suffice as his campaign slogan. He's a small flame, and when he began as a Vermont senator in 2016, he seemed to face impossible odds.
But every fire starts with a single spark. As the infamous poster that's a fixture in many dorm rooms reads, "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases from being shared." It's a quote from the Buddha, but it could also apply to the ripple effect that Sanders' campaign has launched.
Change is catching and intoxicating. The spirit of hope and unity and fire that lights Sanders' campaign is a balm against apathy and hopelessness, against racism and xenophobia and economic inequality. It's about what human society can achieve—what we should achieve—what we are morally obligated to achieve.
Still, many of Sanders' supporters are realistic. We are well-aware that even if Sanders is elected, it will still only be the beginning of a long, hard fight against deep-rooted economic inequality, corporate greed, and dangerous capitalism-driven climate disaster in America and around the world. We know that visions and dreams mean nothing if the work isn't put into achieving them—the long, endless nights and the decades spent carving out policies.
But it's impossible to even begin the work if the dream isn't there in the first place, and if the people who believe in the dreams aren't allowed in the rooms where the work is done.
Regardless of what happens in Iowa and on the campaign trail, even the most fervent Bernie Sanders supporters believe that cruel attacks are not the answer. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of Sanders' biggest supporters—has stated that Democrats need to support whoever is elected in order to beat Donald Trump. If anything, we will need more unity and love and compassion for each other in the coming months than ever before.
We shouldn't have to compromise our values and allow people to die while others languish in the shade of the wealth and power they did nothing to earn, save being born in the right place.
Voting in Iowa closes at 7:00 PM CST in Iowa today, February 3rd. Find your caucus site here.
The opportunity to change your party affiliation in New York State closes February 14th.
Find out how to vote for Bernie in the primary in your state here.
We’re here at the Ottumwa satellite precinct, which is the first Iowa precinct to caucus today. They’ll kick off at… https://t.co/MFBXp2zHfn— Brianne Pfannenstiel (@Brianne Pfannenstiel) 1580752095.0
The refugee crisis hasn't gone anywhere. But news outlets and political leaders everywhere are ignoring it—and xenophobia is making it worse.
Around 2015, the so-called European refugee crisis was topping every newspaper headline. Reports of the 5.2 million refugees pouring in from Syria and other war-torn countries that year led to mass calls for mobilization to create infrastructure and support systems for displaced peoples. The photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old who provided a name and face to the crisis, sparked international acknowledgment and inspired humanitarian activists all over the world.
Alan Kurdi, via Medium
But that was four years ago. What has happened to those 5.2 million since then?
Firstly, there are a lot more than 5.2 million now. According to the UN, as many as 63.5 million people have had to flee their homes because of conflict since World War II; and today, roughly eight thousand people per month arrive in Greece, Italy, and Spain from Syria, Guinea, Algeria, and neighboring countries. These numbers are staggering; the lives they describe are almost impossible to imagine. But each figure corresponds to individual experience and a body that likely has crossed countless miles of ocean to arrive on European shores. Though it is impossible to generalize their stories, the majority of these people are currently stranded in liminal places like refugee camps or living as undocumented citizens without access to rights, living wages, and other protections.
According to the Aegean Boat Report, around 20 boats have arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone in February 2019, carrying a total of 791 people. Lesvos's Moria Camp holds somewhere between eight to ten thousand refugees; it was initially designed to hold ten. Many have been there for over half a decade, and the conditions in the camp are becoming more and more unlivable by the day.
Moria Camp, via Al Jazeera
Many refugees go through hell and back to get there. Left with no choice but to flee violence and unlivable conditions, many spend thousands of dollars on hiring a smuggler who could carry them across the sea. The journey is treacherous—smugglers sometimes have deals with authorities or even pirates, and recent reports have revealed that the journey is more dangerous than ever before, with 1,600 to as many as 2,730 people dying at sea in 2018. The
UNHCR released a report which argued that although the official number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean fell last year, this was likely due to "reductions to search and rescue capacity coupled with an uncoordinated and unpredictable response to disembarkation." This in turn, "led to an increased death rate as people continued to flee their countries due to conflict, human rights violations, persecution, and poverty." As the world forgets, the little structure and safety netting that does exist inevitably falls apart.
The news is a strange beast. Some stories can dominate for months and fade out so suddenly it's almost like they never happened; particularly shocking acts of individual or random violence can consume headlines while systematic, long-term horrors can fade away, having lost their ability to capture audiences' attention. With countries like South Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan steadily experiencing mass exoduses for years and years at a time, and with the inundation of tragic stories and gory photographs from Syria, it's easy for ongoing horrors to slip underneath an ocean of facts and figures that seem too overwhelming to address.
It's also easy for governments to shirk off responsibility for taking in refugees, seeing as technically they are stateless and, therefore, are not protected by any citizenship rights. Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees basic protections for all people on earth, it does not specify which countries are responsible for providing these protections.
But every political decision manifests in lived experiences. For example, when migrants arrive on the shores of Lesvos, they are sometimes met with volunteers who provide water and transportation to the camps. Families and individuals are assigned at random to tents, which are crammed next to each other, creating unlivable conditions.
Image via aljazeera.com
Lesvos, in particular, has an extensive volunteer population, but overall aid groups often work as band-aids, failing to heal the sources of a larger issue and failing to structure a pathway forward. Instead, aid groups and refugees languish on Lesvos, in the grey area of statelessness and global amnesia. NGOs are gradually shifting their focus to working with refugees and locals to develop long-lasting relationships and skills, which can propel migrants forward into new lives.
But in light of the antipathy many locals hold towards newcomers, and also because of the trauma, language barriers, or other struggles that migrants face, the process of adjustment is challenging and will require individualized attention, patience, and cohesive efforts. Reports reveal that the majority of refugees fleeing severe conflicts will have vestiges of trauma; the IRC reported high levels of depression and PTSD among refugees across the board.
A 2011 Oxford University study found that the best way for refugees to move forward is through integration into life in their new countries. Solutions lie in treating the wound at its source, addressing xenophobia, and fighting for fair opportunities to education, jobs, healthcare, and other vital structural support systems. On the other hand, stranding migrants in places like Lesvos—where they live in unsanitary and dangerous conditions, surrounded by strangers who may also be experiencing trauma, with no idea of if or when they will be able to leave—is a product of a collective worldwide amnesia, a refusal to see what is happening in real time.
Long-term, slow-moving challengers are not foddered for breaking news. Particularly massive floods of refugees might pique the interest of a world leader; an artist might draw attention to the crisis through an installation in a busy city; but always, the cycles of violence and erasure continue as the world gets caught up in shinier, brighter topics. But remembering and acknowledging what is happening is the first step to moving in a new direction.
Image via Oxfam Novib Academy
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.