We need a people’s response to coronavirus—and the Sanders campaign is uniquely poised to lead

    Our political revolution has an incredible opportunity because of our infrastructure, culture and leadership to seize this moment.

    SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
    Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

    The eve of Super Tuesday was just 12 days ago, a moment when many of us in the progressive left were feeling the possibility of a strong path for Bernie Sanders’ Democratic nomination. Today, leading up to tonight’s debate, many polls show that we are in a weak position to get a plurality of delegates that can lead us to a Sanders victory at the convention.

    However, as of the past week, election conversations have given way to a major national dialogue around the coronavirus. America is experiencing a stark encounter with its health care and economic systems — where its shortcomings are brought to the surface and exacerbated by the inadequate response of the government, as well as the massive amount of needs during a pandemic.

    Elections aren’t just fought in the voting booth and Bernie Sanders’ campaign is uniquely positioned to rise to this nationally unprecedented crisis and address the coronavirus pandemic in ways that can manifest concretely the vision of his campaign beyond the electoral arena. 

    Together, we can mobilize a people’s movement that can, during this void of leadership, transform its national campaign infrastructure of volunteers towards the development of mutual aid networks and advocate for concrete policy wins during this emergency.

    As community organizers, crises like these have propelled us and others to study what we refer to as “moments of the whirlwind,” or moments where the conditions and events are volatile enough that the rules of engagement change. We’ve witnessed similar moments to these in the past, like in 2006 when the “sleeping giant” woke up and millions of immigrants were in the streets responding to proposed anti-immigrant legislation. We also saw this during the financial crisis of 2008 and during Trump’s Muslim ban when there were hundreds of unprecedented airport mobilizations.

    The current conditions might allow us to do considerably more things that we weren’t able to do just 11 days ago, when the results of Super Tuesday were announced. 

    Repurposing our objectives 

    As observers, we know that there have been three major objectives that the Sanders campaign has been seeking to achieve. One is to polarize and bolster support for policies that can benefit the widest range of people and centers the issues of marginalized communities in this country. Another is to elect and endorse candidates like Sanders that support progressive issues across various congressional races in the country like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and more. And last, but not least, to build a political revolution beyond Bernie’s election, that’s about a movement of people who hold a similar vision for this country and can build a mandate for strong progressive policies.

    The difficulty of the moment we’re in is reflected in the fact that these objectives are being tested all at the same time. As we see the diminishing chances of a Sanders election, we begin to see a schism between Democrats largely supporting Bernie Sanders’ agenda while not seeing him as electable as Biden. Meanwhile, due to the coronavirus, the movement is undergoing a tremendous test as people and volunteers who share this progressive vision are unable to go out on the streets to gain more support for Sanders. Even more so, continuing to campaign is contradictory to the reality people are facing.

    The volatility and uncertainty that arises from our circumstances obfuscates us from seeing all the possibilities that we actually have to meet our objectives in a variety of ways. It’s important to understand that moments of the whirlwind have the potential to be transformative, where the population is finding themselves at odds with their situation.We need to understand what this moment requires and the new possibilities it opens for all of us. In particular, we see three new possibilities that this crisis presents for the Bernie campaign. 

    1. Becoming electable in the vacuum of presidentialism 

    Our collective uncertainty and our government’s inadequate and piecemeal responses have led many to take actions that directly and indirectly harm others. In the past week we’ve seen countless stories of people panic shopping and hoarding supplies leaving many who are unable to easily shop to be greeted with empty shelves; low-income families asking for schools to stay open so that their kids can receive a meal; college students being told to move out of their dorms without having a place to go or stay; workers in hospitality sectors being laid off or told to go home without pay. This does not even reflect the effects of the February public charge rule, which punishes immigrants by making them ineligible for legalization if they seek public services.

    We need Sanders to rise up to the occasion and show — in a vacuum of presidentialism — what is possible.

    As organizer and scholar Marshall Ganz has explained, “Leadership is accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.” We need a leader who can provide certainty. This does not mean delivering all the answers but rather an understanding of what is taking place and the emotional fortitude to lead us through it. We need a leader whose scope is beyond electoral politics and is transformational enough to, as Ganz said, “engage followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world.” 

    During these troubling times we need to demonstrate leadership, to guide us as a nation through this uncertainty. Who we decide to be in this moment of transition will lead us to who we’ll become in the future. As Malcolm X said, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” So this isn’t just about issues on paper; we need Bernie and our campaign to show that there’s a greater moral to the story — to be there for us, to guide us through the difficulty of this time and to remind us that there will be lessons learned. 

    If the biggest hindrance to Sanders’ executive trajectory is voters questioning his electability, then we need Sanders to rise up to the occasion and show — in a vacuum of presidentialism — what is possible. Moments where normalcy is questioned are the instances where we seek a resilient, certain and guiding force. Who is better poised than someone who has a track record and vision of a better government approach to our health and economy?

    2. Not me. Us: Towards a national culture of solidarity

    We are all paying attention to the same issues, going through very similar problems, all at the same time. In our age of social media and perpetual distractions, this is a very special moment. Right now, there are public debates about hoarding versus sharing resources, about the role of our government in providing to its people (within our health care system or the role of schools in providing food to children, etc), and about the role of corporations in how they treat our social welfare (providing paid leave, etc). These are essential debates between “me” and “us,” a key distinction in Bernie’s campaign narrative about the country we want to see. A country that is not just about an individual or a set of wealthy individuals, but about the country as a whole, and especially the most marginalized — like those who will be most impacted by the virus.

    From washing our hands to staying at home, people all over the country are experiencing day-to-day the strengths and weaknesses of our collective culture, in every single act of reciprocity and selfishness. In this moment where the elderly and the immunocompromised are most at risk, it’s important for us to understand that our choices are more than just for ourselves. We’re living in a defining moment for our culture. 

    We must embody democratic socialism by creating massive numbers of local mutual aid support networks and taking care of each other.

    This is our time to organize and bring people towards an experience of what Bernie means when he says “democratic socialism.” Whether our return to some form of normalcy takes place in six months, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on “The Daily Show,” or whether it’s a year, this is our time to dramatically increase support for the progressive issues we are fighting for. 

    There are so many ways to fight. The 198 methods of nonviolent action that scholar Gene Sharp documentedreminds us that even from home we can organize and protest for “us.” We can use social media to polarize more people to join our cause. We can put signs, posters and banners on our windows and homes for paid sick leave, Medicare for All and an eviction moratorium. We can make noise with our pots and pans at our doorfronts at noon every day to remind everyone of the aliveness of our in-home mass protest. We can even chant “Not me. Us.” every night at 8 p.m. to remind our neighbors that we are here for each other. We must liberate ourselves from the thinking that the primaries and elections are the only way to build a movement for “us” so that we can use all the organizing and protest tools at our disposal.

    We must embody democratic socialism by creating massive numbers of local mutual aid support networks, taking care of each other, and being the line of defense of our welfare system and our culture of solidarity. What better way for Sanders to demonstrate the slogan “Not me. Us.” than by encouraging his thousands of supporters and campaign volunteers to do just that?

    3. The revolution takes on the pandemic 

    The greatest test we are facing in our country (and globally) is the strength and support of our social welfare system. A key issue with the virus is the core message of why people should physically distance in order to avoid infection; it is because of the inability of our health care system to respond to a mass contracting of the disease instead of manageable rates over a longer period of time. At the core of this idea is that we as a society must protect and strengthen our health care system.

    We are seeing the private sector and the government trying to respond to this crisis, but that won’t be enough without a civic society that can take leadership to protect its social welfare institutions. We have to be a second line of defense.

    There are many needs that we need to meet. For example, an elderly couple in Oregon waited in their car for 45 minutes outside of a supermarket because they were too afraid to get out. They asked for help from a young woman nearby who gladly got them their groceries. Now, imagine if our community consciousness was acute enough to notice an elderly couple in their car, to reach out to them, and to ask how to support them in this moment? This is why we need mutual aid networks. 

    Our political revolution has an incredible opportunity because of our infrastructure, culture and leadership to seize this moment.

    We need an army of volunteers across the country, in every block and every neighborhood that can create mutual aid networks; that can track each other’s health; support one another with food, resources, information; and to be with each other while physically distanced to show solidarity and emotional strength. We have some examples recently in Siena, Italy and Wuhan, China of neighbors doing just that.

    However, as more localized mutual aid networks keep bubbling up, we’ll also need more robust national infrastructure. The infrastructure of our campaign — livestream capabilities, volunteer networks, staff structure, texting technologies, etc. — can provide the resources millions need.

    Examples include creating a national emergency database — we already have millions on our list — that can help us address the need of testing and seeing who in our localities has symptoms and needs. Bernie volunteers and staff have built up and demonstrated their capacity to lead for years and have an infrastructure that shouldn’t be in limbo or feel disheartened because of the state of the primaries. 

    We have hundreds of thousands of volunteers who can embody the culture of solidarity through creating and supporting their local mutual aid networks. The impact of our involvement en masse, coupled with politicians advocating for changes, will set us up to withstand the storm that is coming. 

    Our political revolution has an incredible opportunity because of our infrastructure, culture and leadership to seize this moment. This will also be a test for all of us, to see whether our organization can be nimble enough to generate effectiveness and resiliency beyond the election cycle.

    While we are all trying to make sense of the moment of the whirlwind we are in, there are many variables and important decisions ahead of us. The work of believing in a new country and working for it is difficult, and it comes with a huge share of disappointment. 

    In times where everything seems to feel closed and unmoving, we must be reminded that there is a real opportunity to push for transformational change right now, that there is still organizing to do, and that we have the resources, the creativity and the will to bring forward this political revolution.


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