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BY SARAH FERGUSON | Bernie Sanders swamped Washington Square Park on Wednesday night with a massive crowd that overflowed into the tightly corralled side streets in Greenwich Village. The Sanders camp said 27,000 attended, based on the capacity of the park and the number of RSVPs it got from Sanders fans online. But other news outlets put the count closer to 30,000 — more than then-Senator Barack Obama drew to Washington Square when he was campaigning for the presidency back in 2008.
The crowd was mostly young and white, as you’d expect from a rally happening on the doorsteps of New York University. Many said they were drawn as much by the chance to see Grammy-winning indie rockers Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors, who warmed up for Sanders.
The potent scent of marijuana wafted through the air as Vampire Weekend launched into their seminal hit, “Unbelievers” — to the cheers of the many young “true believers.”
But there was also a group of striking Verizon workers in the front row of the audience. Sanders had joined their picket line in Brooklyn earlier in the day, and he portrayed their fight against Verizon C.E.O. Lowell McAdam as emblematic of his battle against corporate “greed”:
“This campaign is sending a message to corporate America: You cannot have it all,” Sanders told the cheering masses, speaking from a stage in front of the park’s famous arch. “The only way we take on Wall Street and the wealthy corporations is when millions stand up and demand a government that represents all of us, and not just the one percent.”
Sanders spoke for an hour, cycling through his staple themes of restoring economic fairness, reversing America’s “disastrous” free-trade agreements, extending free tuition for college students, immigration reform and fixing our “broken” campaign finance system.
He said his campaign was just part of a larger “political revolution” aimed at routing the “billionaire political class”:
“It is not just about electing a president,” Sanders declared. “It is about creating a political revolution. It is about creating a government which works for all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributors.”
Voters “are asking themselves, ‘Why should we accept more income and wealth inequality to be worse here in America than any time since 1928? Why should we accept a proliferation of millionaires and have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country in the world?’ ” he demanded.
Toward the end of his speech, Sanders also acknowledged the difficult odds of his clinching the Democratic primary in New York, where Hillary Clinton is currently ahead in the polls by double digits.
“It’s gonna be a tough primary for us,” he told his supporters. “But when I look out at the thousands of people I see here tonight — and the thousands of people who came out for us in Syracuse and Buffalo — I think we have a surprise for the establishment. I think if we have a large turnout on Tuesday, that we are going to win this thing.”
Sanders drew one of his biggest cheers when he invoked the Stonewall Riots and the fight of people to “love each other, no matter what their gender is.”
Former state Senator Tom Duane, who is gay, said he was a “YUGE” fan, stretching his arms wide. Duane praised Sanders’s record on gay issues, and also said Clinton was being unfair in her attacks on Sanders’s gun votes in Congress: “When Hillary was running for Senate, she was like Annie Oakley. Put it to bed already. It’s a red herring. You shot ducks.”
Also warming up the crowd for Sanders was East Village native Rosario Dawson, who took another jab at Clinton for her Iraq War vote.
“We have an opportunity with our vote this coming Tuesday,” Dawson said, addressing the young voters in the crowd. “Too many people have already died for us to have the right to vote, and too many people have already died because of some of the people who are running,” she said, alluding to Clinton’s 2002 Iraq War vote, which Clinton has since said was a “mistake.”
“Is that the message that we’re telling our children and spreading around the world?” Dawson asked. “That ‘I’m sorry’ suddenly brings lives back, and think it’s O.K.?”
Director and actor Tim Robbins, who lives in Greenwich Village, spoke at the start of the rally.
“I used to play in this park. I protested the Vietnam War in this park,” he told the roaring crowd.
Robbins went after Clinton when he urged people not to follow the media narrative about which Democrat is the most electable.
“Don’t surrender your ideals to political pragmatism and by choosing a candidate entirely entrenched by the political culture of the past,” he said.
Robbins also acknowledged Sanders’s difficult path to win the Democratic nomination. But he said New Yorkers know something about coming from behind.
“In 1969,” Robbins said, “the New York Mets were down… . Then they came from behind and what did they do? They won the World Series!”
Director Spike Lee attempted to lead the crowd in a cheer for Brooklyn’s hometown candidate, before the mic was cut for Sanders, who took the stage to strains of Bowie’s “Star Man.”
Sanders speech seemed a bit long for the unusually chilly spring night, especially since much of it was his standard stump fare. Many people said they were turned away from the rally by the insanely tight Secret Security checks.
Notably absent from the stage was Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who had been slated to appear as one of the warm-up acts — and whose music no doubt would have livened up the older folks in the crowd. Perhaps he will show up at one of Sanders’s next rallies. There’s another mass gathering in Prospect Park this Saturday. Brooklyn rockers Grizzly Bear are scheduled to play an hour-long concert starting at 3 p.m., before Sanders speaks. Other speakers include Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and actors Danny DeVito and Justin Long.
And on Monday, the night before the New York primary, TV on the Radio will be performing at Sanders’s rally at Long Island City’s Hunter’s Point South Park, alongside actors Danny Glover and Fisher Stevens. Doors open at 5 p.m., and the music starts at 7 p.m.