Photos via Boston For Bernie unless otherwise noted | Graphic by Kent Buckley
Ed. note: I commissioned this recorded narrative, compiled by a journalist-supporter of Bernie Sanders who peripherally volunteered for Boston For Bernie, not out of political motivation (obviously, since Bernie Sanders is no longer in the ballgame), but rather because the story of the group’s early and responsive organizing yields immensely critical lessons for progressives. With the fifth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and its legions nationwide approaching, it’s important to consider that both widespread agitation as well as mass grassroots momentum comes in waves—from the anti-nuclear proliferation front in the 1980s, to the emerging post-Sanders movement today. Here’s how it was done this time around, in their own words. -Chris Faraone, News+Features Editor
On a recent windy summer day in East Boston, on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean, about 20 Bay Staters gathered at an artist’s loft to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Boston For Bernie, a local group charged with the task of winning votes in Massachusetts for the Vermont Senator’s now-failed bid to become President of the United States. It was a happy occasion considering the circumstances, as we were filled with optimism for the future and appreciation for everything our crew of strangers achieved in the past year: namely, battling heart and soul for a gruff old socialist from Burlington and his “fringe” candidacy, as the effort was derided by the media at first.
Over the past year, this ragged batch of activists—from first-timers to weathered social workers, young idealists to longtime politicos who have lost more races than they care to count—rushed around the city and throughout New England and beyond, many of us getting caught up in the whirlwind. We worked tirelessly, often just to stay afloat, and a lot of us for no pay or guarantees. What there was, however, was a mutual faith in a beloved champion, as well as in each other.
While it would be impossible to speak with all the tens of thousands of people who helped bolster Bernie in the Bay State, the story of how grassroots grew around the dark horse here is a memorable one, and so with recollections still relatively fresh, I used the opportunity in Eastie to collect stories from central organizers in hopes that their tales can help inform like-minded efforts in the future.
Boston For Bernie Mission Statement: We are an inclusive grassroots group of engaged citizens working to elect Bernie Sanders and to take action for social, political, economic and environmental justice. We are here to build a broad coalition.
JULIANN RUBIJONO (local artist, environmental activist, founder of Boston For Bernie): I can probably trace [first hearing about Sanders] back to just memes and wise sayings about things that I valued and care very much about. How we live in nature and with nature and the health of the environment …
I’ve been an environmental activist, kind of in a private way. I’ve done stuff with Mothers Out Front and Oceana, but it’s really been just myself. And I remember going to the Climate March in New York in 2014, which, you know, ‘Maybe we’ll get 70,000’ [became] ‘Oh my god maybe we’re gonna get 100,000’ [became] ‘Holy shit we went to 400,000.’ …
It’s amazing how many people came, and I learned that Bernie had walked in this march. Among the people … And he was the only government official, at least to our knowledge, who was there. That was really impressionable …
I remember last year, when he announced [his candidacy for POTUS] on the Senate lawn. I remember being like, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome if he were actually the President?’ And then in the next paragraph I’m reading is that he doesn’t have a shot in hell …
That really triggered something in me … I found that to be, frankly, offensive.
And then I began to look for any existing Bernie groups or anything like that. I discovered that there were a couple Boston for Bernie pages up that only really had a handful of people—I mean literally like five people in each of them, and one maybe had like 15 people in it. So I wrote to the administrator of the page and said, ‘Can I be an editor on the page? Can I contribute views that I’m shuffling around just to help people become aware of Bernie and learn about him because I think he’s really awesome? And the news isn’t getting it right, so let’s find a way to get it right.’
And then it was this constant process of meeting new people virtually, meeting people who I’ve never met before who had interest in Bernie and saying, ‘Hey, you wanna have a cup of coffee and let’s talk about this? How we can get the word out about this guy?’
JASON LOWENTHAL (social worker, political activist, organizer): I studied politics at BU in the ’90s, so I’ve been aware of Bernie Sanders for a long time. But in the context of a presidential run, I got a T-shirt for Christmas in 2014. I think it was one of the first [Progressive Democrats of America] T-shirts [for] ‘Bernie Sanders for President’ …
[The PDA] played a significant role in showing Bernie that there was a path to the White House in this election cycle. And, yeah, it’s no surprise that I guess they sort of happened to factor into me learning about Bernie running for President …
That was Christmas of 2014. April of 2015 Bernie made his announcement. In between that time I had a friend who also was plugged in and well aware of the goings on in politics. And they set up a Boston For Bernie domain on Facebook and on Twitter. As it turns out, there was [Juliann Rubijono], I had no idea she existed, and she had set up another Facebook page called Boston 4 Bernie and a Twitter account Boston 4 Bernie. And I believe Jacob Lefton, through Reddit, sent an email message to the admins of Boston For Bernie and Boston 4 Bernie … and I was sent [to combine the two] and, you know, we just kind of immediately hit it off.
NICK BOKRON: (Local 7 ironworker, co-founder of Pass Mass Amendment): A fellow colleague of mine mentioned that Boston For Bernie was having an event. I’d been working to get money out of politics since Occupy Boston, and when Bernie announced, I made my first check in contribution to a political campaign … It was kinda like, ‘Here it is, I’ve been trying so hard to get money out of politics, what am I doing at a political fundraiser?’
MARK KATZ (volunteer, retired veteran of numerous progressive campaigns): Last spring, I was asking around to find out, ‘Where is the Bernie campaign?’ And the Bernie campaign itself hadn’t hit Massachusetts yet. And most people said, ‘It just isn’t here.’ And then eventually I saw some references to Boston For Bernie. My initial reaction was, ‘This is just a Facebook page with people posting references to articles.’ I didn’t really get that there were actually meetings and a conglomerate of people getting involved. And then something caught my eye … I went to an event at Jeff Herman’s house. That was the beginning.
JEFFREY HERMAN (volunteer, retired U.N. worker): When Bernie Sanders sounded the bell, I found out about this group, came, and participated in various activities … I’ve seen him three times, each of the times I was on the staff. And I like the vibrations I feel when I listen to him. He’s not perfect, because if he were perfect he probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has.
MICHELLE STOLWYK (volunteer, young professional, transplant from St. Louis): I knew about Bernie before he was running. I was intrigued and I wanted to know what other groups were doing about it. A quick search and I found Boston For Bernie and a bunch of other ones, but that was one that was more active, actually doing things.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: I went up to New Hampshire, to Keene, and I saw Bernie speak at a town hall, and that just sealed it for me. The main thing he said that hit me was, ‘It’s not about me, it’s not about anybody who becomes President. The only way anything’s going to change is if a massive group of people become engaged. Get into a movement. It’s up to the people to show up.’ …
After that I posted a meeting on Facebook. I just said, ‘Come to my art studio. Let’s talk about Bernie and just see what happens.’ And then it just kinda grew organically from there because I was entering into it from a spirited discovery in camaraderie.
JASON LOWENTHAL: We both recognized immediately that we were doing some things that the other person was doing, and we set out immediately to figure out how we could help [each other].
JULIANN RUBIJONO: It really just started taking off like wildfire. [Originally] 13 folks came and then the next three meetings really created the mission statement. I just opened up the floor to people and said, ‘What do we want to be here? Should we be just a fan club of people who get together or do we want to do something? Do we want to be something?’ And that was the consensus from this really organic space of people who’d never met each other.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: Because the campaign wasn’t in town yet—I think there was something like 14 people on his staff when we started, like, his official campaign staff—people were finding us through Facebook or through whatever means, and holding us accountable for his campaign. [We would say,] ‘Well we’re not the campaign, we’re a grassroots group.’ [But people would still ask,] ‘We need fliers, we need this.’ So from the minute we started we were racing and throwing the bricks down, trying to build the road as we were going …
We would reach out to other folks around Massachusetts and see what they were doing, and try to head out to Western Massachusetts and find out what the progressive Democrats were doing and listen in on conference calls from People For Bernie or other grassroots organizers who were kind of spontaneously putting out how-to information on what to do and how to communicate.
JASON LOWENTHAL: We threw a fundraiser literally, I think, like, a week or two later. On July 3 at the Middle East in Cambridge we had Boston Bands For Bernie 1. I think we were gonna call it ‘Bernie Man,’ but then I think we got scared that too many people were going to take over the [club]. So we set up Boston Bands For Bernie 1 and we took off from there. [Ed. note: I spoke at this event, speaking on stage as a voter and a citizen, and was met with hostile looks from the crowd when I insulted the Democratic Party and shouted out Green Party nominee Jill Stein. -CF]
JULIANN RUBIJONO: Our very first event happened spontaneously because Jason Trefts at the Middle East said, ‘Hey let’s do a Bands for Bernie.’ … We had no time [but] we said, ‘Alright, let’s run with this.’ And [Trefts] had some beautiful, already-established relationships and had called in some people … That was the first expression of bringing in political [speakers], bringing in Bernie themes, and coupling it with music …
We had probably over 300 people at the concert over the course of the night and that’s where we got a lot of our first volunteers from. These were early adopters.
MICHELLE STOLWYK: I came to a meeting [in East Boston] before I phonebanked or canvassed or anything like that. And then the first actual volunteer work I did was canvassing in New Hampshire … But what kept me was the community. The shared sort of varieties of goals.
MARK KATZ: In my experience working on campaigns, I gravitated to being the data person. In a bigger campaign, there’s databases, there’s voter files, stuff like that. In this organization, at that point in time, we didn’t have access to a voter list. We didn’t have any money, I guess we still don’t. So our primary focus at that point was just spreading the Bernie word and making up our own list of contacts.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: I call Mark our dragon because he sits on our gold. We’ve been very protective of the list that we’ve gathered organically to try to keep it secure.
JASON LOWENTHAL: We held this thing on the 15th [July, 2015] and like a thousand people showed up [at Dewey Square]. And not only that, they stayed, and civilly listened to speakers. And then after that—and I completely expected the event to fall apart by that point—everyone wanted to break up into smaller groups and break down into committees.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: We had to act really, really fast and find a venue immediately, with no resources, no money, no organizational structure. Making it up as we go. Which was OK for me on some level because I’m a theater director by training and by practice, but I hadn’t done it in a long time.
JASON LOWENTHAL: This was before the first 10,000-person rally, this was before the first 5,000-person rally, this was before the first rally … The fact that there was such a thirst for that, spontaneously demonstrating itself, spontaneously crying out, ‘Feed us,’ that was amazing …
Bernie had been running for about two-and-a-half months at that point, but there was very little indication that it was gonna be like this. At this time a year ago we were looked at like, ‘You people are crazy. This guy isn’t gonna make it’ ‘til February 1, he’s not gonna make it to the New Hampshire primary’ …
The next big event was October 3, when Bernie came to [Boston] … The campaign sort of asked us to try to round up as many volunteers as we could get to come the night before to prepare, and we did … Hundreds of people came to volunteer to help the tens of thousands of people that were expected the next day … The unofficial number was 32,500 through the [Boston Convention and Exhibition Center] door.
JASON LOWENTHAL: It was right around Thanksgiving that the campaign started getting ready to come to town. [The official Bernie Sanders campaign set up shop in Massachusetts, in Charlestown, in November 2015.]
JULIANN RUBIJONO: This is where we were at a bit of a crossroads. Here we were representing grassroots, but Bernie’s campaign was supposed to be grassroots.
JASON LOWENTHAL: I think the conflict had been going on … but we didn’t really know—and I think this has been a central conflict through the whole thing. It was ‘grassroots organizing’ vs. ‘textbook organizing.’
JULIANN RUBIJONO: So I applied to the campaign and said, ‘OK, is there a way we can make this an official thing?’ Jason and I applied to the position as a team because we had been doing this as a team all along … But they could only hire one person. So they ended up hiring me. Jason and I split stuff up anyway so it worked out. But they ended up hiring me as grassroots liaison, really more of a field organizer …
In a way it became a conflict because my existing relationships couldn’t be nurtured [by the official campaign] … That became a challenge …
Boston For Bernie just kind of merged into the campaign … A few [Boston For Bernie] members also represented us at other events that grew out of other national stuff … But Boston For Bernie essentially wasn’t, while I was working for the campaign, its own thing … They encouraged me, ‘Just hand it off.’ But that’s when I really realized what my role was. So I hadn’t really appreciated that.
MARK KATZ: The campaign came to town in early- to mid-November. I jumped right on that, as did a lot of other people from [Boston For Bernie]. A lot of these other people, it was their first time working on a real campaign. For me it was another campaign, but it was a unique candidate.
ZACHARY HOLLOPETER (East Boston social worker, joined Boston For Bernie in early December 2015): Not long after I came on board we started to get into into campaign mode. When the campaign came into town, essentially most of us who were very active with Boston For Bernie really went all in and volunteered as much time as possible. For four days a week I was running the shift for phonebankers at Bernie’s headquarters in Charlestown, and I was teaching people how to phonebank. I also did some canvassing and was the town captain for East Boston.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: Zach held it together.
JASON LOWENTHAL: I think that by March, we realized that it was happening very quickly … I was on the phone 12 hours a day from New Year’s through March 1.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: We were so close. It was a virtual tie because Bernie got 45 delegates and Hillary got 46 delegates … But the narrative, obviously, is that we lost Massachusetts. And of course people were very disappointed …
When [Massachusetts State Campaign Director] Paul Feeney first came on board he told us, ‘You guys, Massachusetts is ahead of every other state in the country, other than Texas. You have laid the foundation down. You’ve laid the foundation down to the point where we can go from here. There’s enough momentum.’ So that felt really good. It felt good to have that acknowledged.
JASON LOWENTHAL: It feels like March 1 was just yesterday … [After losing Massachusetts] I think we all jumped back. The stakes might have felt lower, but they were also higher because there were fewer delegates left. Most fighting isn’t in your backyard. It was just like, ‘We’ve got to do more.’
JULIANN RUBIJONO: There wasn’t really a break because the field team moved right into the out-of-state team and helped with New York, so we had people going down there. Then help with Connecticut and Rhode Island. So there was a lot of exodus-ing going on.
JEFFREY HERMAN: I canvassed in other states, made phone calls.
MARK KATZ: I continued to work with the same people when they transitioned to run the Connecticut campaign. I did some remote work for them during the campaign. And now we’re back, figuring out what we do next.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: There was debriefing, that airing out. There was the, ‘Do I want to still keep doing this?’ I wanted the movement to keep moving. But we’re still trying to feel out how that infrastructure can work. We dwindled all the way down to like three people at one meeting. I was like, ‘Is this gonna keep going?’ And then the next meeting we got back up to 10, and then someone called and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got some gigs lined up at the Midway, let’s start it up again.’ So it’s like, ‘Okay, the interest is still out there. People want to keep at it, so I’ll keep showing up.’
JASON LOWENTHAL: It was a different kind of urgency. Like, right now I’m spending a bunch of time beginning to organize for the Democratic Convention … Our vacation is just having a chance for the first time to plan ahead as opposed to leaning back on our heels, responding to what’s happening.
BERNIE OR BUST
NICK BOKRON: I can’t vote for [Hillary Clinton]. To me she’s a corporate militarist. I have no problem at all with a female candidate, I think guys screw things up bad enough. We need a female candidate, but it’s just not Hillary for me …
MARK KATZ: I’m not Bernie or Bust. My second biggest nightmare would be Hillary as President. My biggest nightmare would be Donald Trump as President. So I’m just not, not going to do anything to help that happen.
JEFFREY HERMAN: I don’t trust [Clinton]. Everything she says she colors with a little bit of innuendo. That it’s the right thing to be doing, that it’s the right position to take. But I don’t take her for her word … I don’t trust her at all.
ZACHARY HOLLOPETER: I’m fortunate enough that I guess I can dodge the question by saying that I live in Massachusetts, so I don’t have to make that choice. But I think if it came down to it and I lived in a swing state, the reality of it is I’d probably drive to the voting booth and hope that all my tires went flat and there was a very good reason that I couldn’t end up getting there.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: I know for me, I’m loving that we have privacy, so I don’t have to reveal who I’m gonna vote for … But I think what’s valuable, as you can see, is the diversity of [responses]. What is it about this guy [Sanders] that brings that many perspectives together?
JASON LOWENTHAL: I would never vote for Donald Trump, but I would vote for Donald Trump before I would vote for Hillary Clinton.
THE AFTER PARTY
ZACHARY HOLLOPETER: Right now I’m doing different administrative work like working on the newsletter for Boston For Bernie … and trying to keep everyone on the same page …
The overall game plan is to kind of look down-ticket after Bernie. Kind of help prop up other candidates who are running for office … There’s a real movement building here that’s gotten so much bigger and stronger than Bernie Sanders.
NICK BOKRON: Through Jason I found Make GE Pay. We [filed] an amendment … in the [Massachusetts] Senate to alter the [deal] given to [General Electric to bring their headquarters to Boston].
MICHELLE STOLWYK: [Bernie] is sort of in it for the long haul. It’s not just about the [election] … After the election, he’s still in it … Educating people. Just keeping people active in all the different elements, and engaged. People have concerns. They are upset, they are angry about things but they don’t see anywhere to go or any way to fix it. And so I think organizations like this are gonna keep moving forward.
JASON LOWENTHAL: We have a chance to leverage what we’ve all accomplished this past year in terms of organizing the left into something lasting and meaningful. I think that is the urgency of what’s happening right now …
Are we then gonna be changing our vehicles? We might be. Are we gonna be changing the course that we take to where we’re going? We might be. But we’re holding true at least ‘til Philadelphia. And most likely, in some way or another, through the general election.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: I registered massmovement.org because I think the next step will be creating a digital platform … for all the different regions in Massachusetts to have a mode of communication, what actions they’re taking, educating people, and bringing about a reenfranchisement.
JASON LOWENTHAL: I think that what brought us together is we all recognize that the way the American political system is structured needs to be radically reorganized. We all have different ways of doing it, but we see this as a chance for [all] those ways to be heard.
JULIANN RUBIJONO: The group has always been whoever shows up. It isn’t anything other than that. Whoever shows up.
This feature was produced in coordination with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.