Adrian Hayes-Santos (left), a candidate for the Gainesville City Commission's District 4 seat, talks with rally attendees as they exit Thursday at the University of Florida. (Michael Stone/WUFT News)
On Thursday morning, just after 8 a.m., a crowd poured into the University South Village field, most wearing blue- or black T-shirts with six letters on them: B – E – R – N – I – E.
Signs were lifted. Banners were raised. An abrupt applause filled the field.
Thousands of people showed up for Bernie Sanders as they awaited his scheduled speech.
Just after 11 a.m., Sanders took the stage. Cheers and chants grew louder.
In unison, thousands chanted, “Feel. The. ‘Bern.’”
The crowd ranged from devoted supporters to skeptics, from college students to senior citizens, from African Americans to Latinos to Caucasians.
Jessica Schulte said she was happy to attend the rally, but wasn’t fully won over by Sanders just yet.
“Unlike my peers, I’m not completely sold on Bernie Sanders,” Schulte said. “I like who he is as a person, but I have concerns that his policies wouldn’t work in Congress. I’m here to hear what he has to say.”
Sanders encouraged the crowd to vote as a way of fighting the “corrupt campaign-finance system.” He deemed democracy to be about one person having one vote, not “billionaires buying elections.”
“That’s not democracy; that’s oligarchy,” Sanders said. “And together, we’re going to change that.”
Voter turnout will play a role in this year’s election.
“I have a civic duty to vote,” Katie Brown said. “I just hope that my vote for Bernie means something on March 15th.”
Sanders said that one-tenth of the top 1 percent had almost as much wealth as the bottom 98 percent. The senator said he plans to make economic by “taxing Wall Street” to revive the American dream.
“My father came to this country without a nickel in his pocket… so that his kids could do better than he; that’s the American dream,” Sanders said. “I want your kids to do better than you, and I want you to do better than your parents. I want to see the American dream go forwards not backwards.”
Sanders said he would repair the criminal justice system with his plans to invest in jobs and education instead of jail and incarceration. He advocated rethinking the “war on drugs.”
“Drug addiction and alcohol substance abuse are not criminal issues, but mental health issues,” Sanders said.
He discussed raising the minimum wage, which Sanders referred to as the “starvation wage,” from $7.25 to $15 an hour to aid the fight for pay equity. He also spoke about his hopes for making college tuition free and decreasing student debt.
“People should not be punished for getting the education they need,” Sanders said.
“As a college student, I’m really excited about the possibility of reducing student debt,” Taylor Smith said. “But overall, I think he’s going to completely change the way politics is run in the United States.”
Sanders touched on a variety of other issues such as health care, LGBTQ rights, abortion and immigration reform. He contrasted his beliefs against those of Republican nominees.
Sanders’s campaign has refused to accept donations from Super Pacs. Instead, his campaign has been run solely off of individual donations, averaging $27 per donor.
“Our campaign has received over five million individual contributions, not from Wall Street, not from the truck companies, not from the fossil fuel industry, but from ordinary Americans,” Sanders said.
Quoting the Gettysburg Address, Sanders reassured the crowd that his campaign was “of the people, by the people, for the people.”