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"It'd take Jesus himself to tell them to vote": how Baltimore's Bernie fans see his loss

Bernie Sanders with civic leaders in Baltimore, Maryland, close to the site of Freddie Gray's arrest last year. Sanders lost the city to Hillary Clinton by huge margins on Tuesday.
Bernie Sanders with civic leaders in Baltimore, Maryland, close to the site of Freddie Gray's arrest last year. Sanders lost the city to Hillary Clinton by huge margins on Tuesday.
Mark Wilson/Getty

BALTIMORE, MD — Baltimore already tried having a political revolution.

About a year ago, tens of thousands of poor people, most of them black, stormed the streets of the city for weeks to protest the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died while in custody in a police transport van.

Joseph Kane, a 30-year-old community organizer, reflected on the heady atmosphere during the protests at an after-party for Bernie Sanders's supporters in Baltimore on Tuesday night.

"After the riots, you had a moment to get into Baltimore and help them understand what the political revolution is about — about how we have to radically change how money works in this country," Kane said. "The kind of thing Bernie has been talking about."

But today, Kane said he thinks the city's problems look as far as ever from being solved. The one year anniversary of Gray's death has been marked by stories about how "nothing has changed" in Baltimore.

Freddie Gray protests
Demonstrators in Baltimore protest the death of Freddie Gray last year. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This may sound like a local story, but it's not: Bernie Sanders is losing the Democratic primary in large part because his "political revolution" has failed to take off in cities like Baltimore.

Sanders recently lamented the fact that poor people haven't turned out in the primary — an unwitting acknowledgement of the shortcomings of his campaign. It happened again on Tuesday night: Hillary Clinton took the city by a 61 to 38 margin last night.

Bernie himself seemed at a loss for an answer as to why. In Baltimore, though, some of Sanders's young fans have an explanation: It's going to take much, much more than a late campaign push and a little-known Vermont senator to awaken those who have given up on politics altogether.

The young, black Sanders supporters trying to ignite change in Baltimore

I arrived at Ware House 518, a bar in downtown Baltimore, on Tuesday night as the election results were beginning to trickle in.

In Ithaca, I had found the Bernie crowd made up of overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly young upper-middle-class liberals. Baltimore was different. About 60 people crowded around tables and along the bar; more than 70 percent of them were African American.

About three dozen staffers worked Sanders's office in Baltimore yesterday, located at the city's Freddie Gray Empowerment Center, according to volunteer Natasha Malone. Roughly 90 percent of them were African American, she said.

"No, not every Sanders supporter has a man-bun," Malone, 24, says with a laugh.

Mark Wilson/Getty
Sanders at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center ahead of Tuesday's primary.

This shouldn't really be too surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. Most press accounts say that Hillary Clinton is clobbering Sanders among African-American voters, and that's true.

But as Collier Meyerson writes at the New Yorker the black vote is far from "monolithic." Clinton has won less than 50 percent of the vote from African Americans younger than 24, according to polling cited by the New York Times — and some national polling has put Sanders 3 points ahead of Clinton among black voters ages 18 to 29.

Moreover, several prominent social justice activists in Baltimore — including former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous and Kwame Rose — have endorsed Sanders.

"A lot of the younger folks in Baltimore involved in bringing the city together after Freddie Gray's death to create real change have really been part of the Bernie coalition," says Symone Sanders, 26, a Bernie 2016 spokesperson in Baltimore. "We feel this sense of urgency for people living in a rigged economy — there's this notion that Sen. Sanders's platform doesn't appeal to people of color, and in Baltimore that's just not true."

So Sanders's message has resonated with some younger African-American organizers. The question is why they've been unable at getting their elders to follow suit.

"It would take Jesus himself to come down and tell them to go vote"

The April 2015 Freddie Gray protests sparked three weeks of riots, $13 million in property damage, more than 60 building fires, endless national media attention, and hundreds of arrests. And in response … the political system barely budged.

Why, then, would anyone here be expected to get excited that a little-known senator from far off Vermont could make a difference in just a few weeks?

"It would take Jesus himself to come down and tell them to go vote," says Malone, a Baltimore native who began phone-banking for Sanders three weeks ago. "It's going to take a miracle from heaven above to change that."

Bernie Sanders pumping his firsts (Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS/Getty Images)

Malone lives in one of the poorest sections of Baltimore, and says she's constantly talking to people who have given up on politics altogether.

"If you sit down with people who live in inner-city Baltimore — where the riots happened — you'll be depressed beyond belief. None of them give a damn, and they are convinced their vote doesn't matter," Malone says. "We’ve been told for hundreds of years that we don’t matter, so why would our vote matter?"

Carde Cornish, 25 and a Baltimore native, became a Bernie fan a few weeks ago after reading about him on social media. He says he's learned a lot this election cycle about politics — about how the economy is rigged, about political power, about Sanders's plans to tackle wealth inequality.

"What Bernie is fighting is a sense of classism not just racism," Cornish says. "We’re all affected by classism."

But, for now, Cornish adds that few of those close to him have agreed. Fewer still voted in the Maryland primary that almost certainly put a nail in the coffin of Bernie's campaign.

"I say most of my friends are opposed to voting: They never believed in the system," Cornish says, "and that's because for decades and decades and decades it's been here to oppress us.'"

Joshua Kane, the brother of the community organizer, is not quite so pessimistic. To him, the problem isn't so much that it's impossible, but that the Sanders campaign — which only set up its campaign office in Baltimore a few weeks ago — didn't put enough time or effort into doing so.

Symone Sanders, the organizer, agrees. "I think the fact that Sen. Sanders national profile was seemingly non-existent ten months ago played a factor," Sanders says. "If we had more time, who knows what would have happened?"

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