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👢for Bernie. We explore Bernie's influences and early projects that generate impact and stimulate new enthusiasm for peoples participation in democracy. We hope to promote context and create energy to support Bernie's shared vision of a better world.
In Burlington, Vermont, 242 Main Street was originally the location of the city's water department. A nondescript building situated near the campus of the University of Vermont and across from a jewelry store, it would look more like an old middle school if not for the graffiti covering the front door and the sign next to it that reads, "Celebrating 25 Years of Art & Music." Beginning as an offbeat government-funded effort to overturn a draconian city ban on live music 242 Main resulted in the transformation of an old administrative building into a municipal youth center.
The leader of that effort, and the person perhaps most responsible for the founding of 242 Main, was Jane O'Meara Sanders, the director of the Mayor's Youth Office. The mayor at the time who was partly responsible for this DIY, youth-run venue that played host to bands like Fugazi and opened the same month that Husker Du released Candy Apple Grey, was her husband, Bernie Sanders, now a Vermont Senator and Democratic candidate for US president in 2020.
Bernie Sanders studied at Brooklyn College for a year before transferring to the University of Chicago and graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in political science in 1964. He has described himself as a mediocre college student because the classroom was "boring and irrelevant," while the community was more important to his education. Sanders later described his time in Chicago as "the major period of intellectual ferment in my life." While there, he joined the Young People's Socialist League and was active in the Civil Rights Movement as a student for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Under his chairmanship, the university chapter of CORE merged with the university chapter of the SNCC.
In January 1962, he went to a rally at the University of Chicago administration building to protest university president George Wells Beadle's segregated campus housing policy. "We feel it is an intolerable situation when black and white students of the university cannot live together in university-owned apartments," Sanders said at the protest. He and 32 other students then entered the building and camped outside the president's office. After weeks of sit-ins, Beadle and the university formed a commission to investigate discrimination. After further protests, the University of Chicago ended racial segregation in private university housing in the summer of 1963.
Not long after graduating from the University of Chicago, and fresh from a stint on an Israeli kibbutz, Sanders arrived in Vermont in the late 1960s on the crest of a wave. The state’s population jumped 31 percent in the 1960s and ’70s, due largely to an infusion of over 30,000 hippies who had come to the state seeking peace, freedom, and cheap land. Sanders and his then-wife bought 85 acres in rural Vermont for $2,500. The only building on the property was an old maple-sugar house without electricity or running water, which Sanders converted into a cabin.
What Sanders shared with the young radicals and hippies flocking to Vermont was a smoldering idealism forged during those college years as a civil rights activist. Sanders bounced back and forth between Vermont and New York City, where he worked at a psychiatric hospital. After his marriage broke up in the late 1960s, he moved to an A-frame farmhouse outside the Vermont town of Stannard, a tiny hamlet with no paved roads in the buckle of the commune belt. He dabbled in carpentry and tried to get by as a freelance journalist for alternative newspapers and regional publications, contributing interviews and political screeds. Sanders was aimless. Then he discovered Liberty Union.
The Liberty Union Party was conceived in 1970 as part of an informal network of leftist state parties that would uproot the two-party system and help end the Vietnam War. In Vermont, the party’s leaders hoped to find a receptive audience amid the hippie emigrants. Its cofounder, a gruff, bushy-bearded man named Peter Diamondstone, had predated Sanders at the University of Chicago by a few years.
By the fall of 1971, Liberty Union was floundering. “We were lost as a political party,” Diamondstone says. That October, Sanders showed up with a friend at the Goddard College library, for a Liberty Union meeting. The school was a favorite lefty gathering spot, and its alumni include Mumia Abu-Jamal and the members of the band Phish. It was a large crowd by the group’s standards—maybe 30 people. The party was struggling to field a candidate for the upcoming Senate special election. Sanders, with dark hair, thick black glasses, and his two-year-old son in his arms, stood up impulsively in a room full of strangers. “He said, ‘I’ll do it—what do I have to do?'” Diamondstone recalls.
Sanders lost that race, the first of four losing campaigns over the next five years (twice for Senate, twice for governor). In addition to opposing the war, the party pushed for things including a guaranteed minimum wage, tougher corporate regulations, and an end to compulsory education. (Vermont’s schools “crush the spirits of our children” Sanders once remarked). Sanders floated hippie-friendly proposals, such as legalizing all drugs and widening the entrance ramps of interstate highways to allow cars to more easily pull over to pick up hitchhikers.
But through these campaigns, Sanders emerged as one of the leading voices within the organization and as its spokesman to the rest of the state. Within a few years, he was named Liberty Union’s chairman. “He was a mouthpiece, he was an orator—we called him ‘Silvertongue,'” Diamondstone says. During his years with Liberty Union, Sanders’ uncommon political views helped him get headlines, but not votes.
The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society — we are on the eve of universal change.
- Eugene V. Debs, Open letter to the American Railway Union, Chicago Railway Times 1897
In those early years, Sanders, a member of the Young People’s Socialist League at the University of Chicago, was a true believer in what might be called small-s socialism, and had little patience for lukewarm allies. He believed in the need for a united front of anti-capitalist activists marching in step against the corrupt establishment. Sanders started a small monthly zine to promote the Liberty Union’s agenda. It was called Movement. “I once asked him what he meant by calling himself a ‘socialist,’ and he referred to an article that was already a touchstone of mine, which was Albert Einstein’s ‘Why Socialism?‘” says Sanders’ friend Jim Rader. “I think that Bernie’s basic idea of socialism was just about as simple as Einstein’s formulation.” In short, according to the physicist, capitalism is a soul-sucking construct that corrodes society.
Sanders built his campaigns against a theme that would sound familiar to his supporters today—American society had been pushed to the brink of collapse by plutocrats and imperialists and radical change was needed to pull it back. “I have the very frightened feeling that if fundamental and radical change does not come about in the very near future that our nation, and, in fact, our entire civilization could soon be entering an economic dark age,” he said in announcing his 1974 bid for Senate. Later that year, he sent an open letter to President Gerald Ford, warning of a “virtual Rockefeller family dictatorship over the nation” if Nelson Rockefeller was named vice president. He also called for the CIA to be disbanded immediately, in the wake of eye-popping revelations about the agency’s misdeeds.
But Sanders was beginning to question whether Liberty Union had a future. He drew just six percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 1976 (the three other campaigns didn’t fare any better). Sanders had reason for introspection. He was struggling financially—a newspaper article during his 1974 race noted that he was running for office while on unemployment. His income came from sporadic carpentry and freelance articles, which made paying bills on time a constant struggle. Sanders, now single, was helping to raise a young son, and living in a city in which the working poor lacked access to daycare. Increasingly, Sanders’ political gaze was focusing on his own backyard.
Sanders quit the Liberty Union party in 1977, and dismissed the party’s future on his way out the door. “It certainly has not gone as far as I wanted it to go,” he told the Associated Press, “and in that sense it’s a failure.” Sanders emerged from his experience with the Liberty Union as confident as ever of the need for radical change in the nation’s power structure, but less sure how to get there. First, he had to get his life in order. “He was living in the back of an old brick building, and when he couldn’t pay the electric bill, he would take extension cords and run down to the basement and plug them into the landlord’s outlet,” says Nancy Barnett, an artist who lived next door to Sanders in Burlington. The fridge was often empty, but the apartment was littered with yellow legal pads filled with Sanders’ writings. When he was eventually evicted, Sanders moved in with his friend Sugarman. “The fact that neither of us could afford to live in the city where we worked was a source of great consternation to us and I think the beginning of a mayoral platform, honestly,” Sugarman says of their roommate days.
Sanders kept busy building a company he had started with Barnett called the American People’s Historical Society, which produced filmstrips for elementary school classrooms on topics including women in American history and New England heroes. It was a DIY operation—Sanders did all the male voices; Barnett did all the female ones. They used Sanders’ son’s walkie-talkies to create a beeping noise that would signal when to move to the next slide. The work took them up and down New England’s back roads, as they sold copies of the slides to school administrators. “His cars were always breaking down,” Barnett says. “He was extremely frugal. It was never important to him.” When it snowed, Sanders (or whoever was in the car with him) would have to reach into the glove compartment to pull out a spare wiper blade and clear the windshield manually.
Sanders had little interest in making a profit from his educational film enterprise. Instead, after his falling-out with Liberty Union, he poured his share of the profits into his pièce de résistance—a documentary on the life of union leader Eugene Debs, who won nearly a million votes running for president from prison on the Socialist ticket in 1920.
When Sanders tried to get the documentary aired on public television in 1978, he was rebuffed, either because of the political agenda, or because the documentary just wasn’t very good. Sanders, fearful perhaps that even humble Vermont Public Broadcasting had fallen under the dominion of corporate media, cried censorship and fought back. Eventually, the Debs documentary was aired. “That was a breakthrough of sorts,” Sugarman says. “That was actually our first successful fight.”
The incident only hardened Sanders’ skepticism of corporate power. Television, Sanders wrote in 1979, was a particularly pernicious evil, rooted in “the well-tested Hitlerian principle that people should be treated as morons and bombarded over and over again with the same simple phrases and ideas.” Television stations were “attempting to brainwash people into submission and helplessness.”
Not long after making the Debs documentary, Sanders got back in the political game. He ran for mayor of Burlington in 1981 as an independent, and he crafted a hyperlocal platform that cut across party lines—he opposed a waterfront condominium project, supported preserving a local hill for sledding, pushed to rein in utility companies, and urged bringing a minor league baseball team called The Reds to town. Sanders ran a proudly amateur political operation, he took pride in refusing to hire a professional political consultant for many years. Two of his oldest advisers were professors of poetry and religion at the University of Vermont.
He did almost everything in-house: His radio ads were written and recorded at his kitchen table with friends; his TV ads (including a famous 5-minute long spot of him speaking with his wife) were made by documentary filmmaker friends; his pollster was another friend with no background in the practice, who used the volunteer phone bank as callers. His kitchen-table focus was underscored by his most popular campaign swag—free paper grocery bags with his name on them. He won by 10 votes out of 8,650 cast, knocking off the longtime Democratic incumbent Gordon Paquette. After a decade on the outside, Bernie Sanders finally had a foot in the door—and a steady job. “It’s so strange, just having money,” he told the Associated Press at the time.
In the mayor’s office, and later in the halls of Congress as a representative and then a senator, Sanders has followed a similar course to the one that got him to Washington. It’s hard enough to be elected as part of a major party, but let alone as independent democratic-socialist. He essentially created his own political party in Vermont to get allies elected to the Burlington City Council after Democrats on the body refused to work with him. In Congress, he created the Congressional Progressive Caucus to advance his agenda. Today, it's the largest Democratic Party caucus in the House. He’s unafraid to raise hell about the corporate forces he fears are driving America into the ground.