Bernie Sanders Takes Los Angeles: 12 Hours in the Maelstrom

Jim Ruymen/UPI/Newscom

Topless women! Giant puppets! Fainting spells! The Vermont senator and presidential hopeful's surprise stop in Koreatown was a political circus-cum-rock concert that drew thousands to his messages of inclusion and Wall Street reform.

Heartburn, sunburns, razor burns — I’ve experienced them all in my 15-odd years living in Southern California. But on March 23, I was determined to feel the Bern: those hot flashes purportedly induced by a certain avuncular socialist currently running for president. Yes, Bernie Sanders was scheduled to make a pit-stop in Los Angeles well ahead of the June 7 California primary, where 475 delegates hang in the balance. 

The night prior, as polls closed in Idaho, Utah and Arizona, Sanders addressed a capacity crowd of 9,000 at the San Diego Convention Center. His visit to L.A. would be significantly cozier, however, as it was scheduled to be held at the Wiltern Theatre, an Art Deco landmark in Koreatown that holds no more than 2,300. By comparison, he drew a crowd of 27,500 the last time he was here, speaking at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in August. It was therefore bound to get a little crazy.

10:00 a.m.

Things did not get off to a promising start when Sanders’ digital director, Kenneth Pennington, sent out a mass email informing supporters that their tickets were worthless. “I regret to inform you that your tickets for this evening’s Bernie Sanders rally in Los Angeles must be canceled,” it read. “Due to an unfortunate error on our website, RSVPs for this evening’s rally in Los Angeles were distributed far beyond the venue’s maximum capacity.”

12:00 p.m.

Pretty soon word spread that the event was dispensing with tickets altogether: It was to be a first-come, first-serve affair. The lines began to form at around noon. First to arrive was Steven Treminio, 23, who wore a Bernie T-shirt that riffed on the self-portrait cover to John Lennon’s "Imagine." A few yards down, a rowdy group of Nurses For Bernie handed out Bernie temporary tattoos, his bald pate covered in a Robin Hood cap.

Holding a "Bernie for President" sign aloft and encouraging honks from passing cars was Jerry Garcia, 43. (“No, my parents weren’t Grateful Dead fans,” the Long Beach dockworker said. “It’s just a coincidence.”) What did he love about Bernie? “I love him like a family member. He reminds me of my father.” 

Nearby, a half-dozen senior students from Brea Olinda High School in Orange County were heatedly discussing their favorite sex scenes from Netflix’s House of Cards. There was the one from the current season in which New York Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) takes his wife over the bathroom sink. Or another from Season 3 in which Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) mounts her husband Frank (Kevin Spacey) as he sobs at his desk about campaign funds. ("Disgusting," one girl noted.)

I asked one of them, 17-year-old Gavin Armstrong, if he would vote for Hillary Clinton if she were the only choice. With reluctance, he said that he would. I asked him if he could envision Bernie as her running-mate. He thought for a moment and replied, “There’s a good line from House of Cards: ‘A VP can either be a doormat or a matador.’” He paused. “But let’s talk about Hillary being Bernie’s VP, not the other way around.”

A few feet away, his friend, Brent Gutgowski, president of the Brea Olinda student council, held himself presidentially as he spoke with a local TV news crew. I asked Gutgowski what he thought of the term “Bernie Bros,” a popular expression to describe a certain kind of Sanders fan. “It’s an exaggeration to make Bernie supporters sound sexist on the Internet,” he said.

There was some mystery as to what Sanders was doing in L.A. at all, as his schedule had him speaking on Wednesday in Wyoming, whose primary is April 9. One man, a video game developer, postulated that the Brussels terror attacks might have required Sanders to scramble his itinerary at the last minute. Another woman suspected a surprise announcement was coming. Neither proved to be true. As Sanders later informed the crowd in his endearingly blunt fashion, “We were supposed to be in Wyoming. It’s snowing a lot in Wyoming, so we figured we’d come to L.A.”

2:00 p.m.

The line grew to about 60 people, almost reaching the Denny’s restaurant on the corner. The doors wouldn’t open for another three hours — but the air was ebullient, optimistic. A homeless man asked for food, resulting in a donation of chicken tenders. Another homeless man dragged a piece of luggage behind him, singing, Buh-buh-buh Bernie and the Jets.”

The upbeat mood was momentarily doused by the editorializing of a musclebound passerby. “Bernie Sanders. Look at these f—king retards,” he said to the woman on his arm. “If he weren’t taking it out on Bernie he’d be taking it out on his girlfriend," a woman in line responded, drawing nervous laughter. Two African-American men in their 30s strolled by and shouted, “Hillary!" They were ignored.

4:30 p.m.

The line wrapped around the block and had grown denser and rowdier — but remained peaceful. News crews and photographers were seemingly everywhere, as were uniformed Secret Service. A pair of women in their 20s strutted up and down the sidewalk wearing nothing above the waist except some strategically placed electrical tape. They entreated the crowd to "free the nipple." (They were later arrested, according to the Los Angeles Times.)

Another woman in her 20s hoisted a crudely painted sign reading, “I didn’t beat up a Trump supporter 4 Bernie.” The sign drew jeers from a group of Bernie volunteers for evoking violence.“ They’re trying to make us look more radical than we are,” said Don Ford, an actor and screenwriter with peroxide-blonde hair who canvasses for the Sanders campaign. (Ford then passed the time describing a project he's trying to sell — a Netflix-ready crime series “that can be watched backwards or forwards.” The woman next to him smiled and nodded. “My roommate has three Daytime Emmys,” she said.)

There were chants of “Feel the Bern!” and “Not for sale!” Still, signs of exhaustion had begun to set in. “Pretend it’s another ride at Disneyland,” said one woman, a millennial in a Star Wars-themed T-shirt that read "Save us Bernie, you're our only hope."

“Except this is more exciting!” another woman chimed in.

“And it’s not a company that’s taking of advantage of people,” a third woman said.

“Well, I work for Disney,” the second woman admitted. “But they’re getting better.”

5:30 p.m.

The doors swung open and crowds were guided through metal detectors manned by several massive — but friendly — Secret Service agents. The Bernie 2016 Playlist (“Disco Inferno,” “Redemption Song,” Muse’s “Uprising,” Pharrell’s “Happy,” “Uptown Funk”) sailed through the loudspeakers. Concession stands served sodas and doughy, lukewarm pizza. The floor began to fill up: No celebrities in sight. A musical duo took the stage and launched into a bland set.

“Where’s Killer Mike when you need him?” someone asked.

7:00 p.m.

The Wiltern was at capacity and the energy was crackling, like we’d somehow all gotten into a secret Rolling Stones show. Then Rosario Dawson emerged onstage — the first legitimate celebrity sighting of the night — and the crowd went wild. “I wish you could have seen all the folks still outside,” she said before laying into the “corporate media, who have given Trump $1.9 billion in free media.” Boos. “Bernie has gotten 16 percent of that.” More boos. “Love trumps hate!” Cheers! “Bernie is turning to all of us and saying: ‘You’re hired!’” More cheers!

Several rows of Bernie fans were then walked out and guided onto raised platforms downstage. The Brea Olinda kids occupied the highest platform (or, in Bernie language, “the top 33 percent of the platforms"). A teen in the front row was ordered to cover his T-shirt, which read “Bernie F—king Sanders” in the shape of the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo. The audience: still pumped but getting restless.

7:50 p.m.

Finally. FINALLY. Bernie took the stage. He had, if not quite the moves of Jagger, the wild arm gesticulations of a man half his age. (And, it’s worth noting, the 74-year-old has only two years on the “Satisfaction” singer.) He powered through a tight 90-minute set of all the hits.

Some highlights:

On Clinton’s $225,000 speech to Wall Street: “It must be written in Shakespearian prose and I think she should share that speech with all of us!”

On tough love: “We’re doing something pretty radical: We’re telling the American people the truth. Truth is not easy stuff.”

On income inequality: “Women are tired of working for 70 cents on the dollar. They want the whole damn dollar!”

On prison overcrowding: “Jobs and education, not jails and incarceration!”

Halfway through his remarks, while Sanders was praising the nurses and advocating for universal healthcare, one of the teenagers behind him grew lightheaded and collapsed. Sensing something was amiss, Bernie paused, spun around and calmly announced, “We need medical attention!” After the boy who'd become overcome by the Bern was guided offstage, Bernie explained in his reassuringly authoritative way, “It happens when you’re standing a lot and dehydrated.” Then he launched back into his speech. His wife Jane Sanders stood nearby, watchfully observing it all.

He ended on a rousing call to arms: “On June 7, there is going to be an enormously important primary here in California. If there is a large voter turnout, we will win the California primary. If we win the California primary with a decent vote, we’re going together to the White House!” Do the numbers dictate otherwise? Do any rules, including those of math and physics, apply to this particularly bonkers election cycle?

The crowd went wild.

9:30 p.m.

I stumbled out of the theater to what seemed like many hundreds of Bernie supporters who couldn't get in but who stuck around anyway for an impromptu Bernie rally. Two women were operating a giant Bernie puppet that stood 15 feet high. I was starving, so I walked over to my favorite Peruvian chicken place at Western and Eighth. By midnight I was feeling the heartburn again.