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Bernie, Because I Was Poor

Poverty, Predation, and Understanding Love

The lovely Black woman who'd posted this didn't want her picture taken

I was prepared to love Bernie Sanders almost thirty years ago.

Me, testifying age

I was barely a decade old when I testified against a pedophile. He sat only a few feet away from me as I described how he’d once placed a hand on my breast.

My court-appointed attorney had coached me to cry. He told me the jury would be more likely to believe me if I cried. Expecting tears, they’d be affronted if I showed anger.

I couldn’t feign tears. I seethed through my testimony, angry at the predator, and knowing the truth had little to do with what twelve jurors would end up believing.

Rache, testifying age
Rache, testifying age

My little sister, Rachael, cried when she testified. I watched her sob through a pane of glass, heartbroken that I could not help. Devastated that I had waited to tell my mom what the predator had done to me.

While he’d only touched me once, he’d touched my little sister repeatedly. I was, I knew, partially at fault for anything that happened to Rache after he touched me. I could’ve stopped it.

The court-appointed attorney was right about tears. Two jurors believed me, compared to four who believed Rachael. Tears made a difference, but not by much.

Regardless of what happened in the courtroom, something beautiful happened outside it.

When Rache fled the courtroom after testifying, a young woman followed her out. The woman knelt down in front of Rache and spoke the three most moving words I’ve ever heard: “I believe you.”

I’ve loved her ever since this angel who not only believed but said so.

What does this have to do with Bernie Sanders? Everything, for me.

Growing up poor in the United States means constant distress. I learned this watching my single mom struggle to raise me and my three siblings.

Poverty in the U.S. means forever worrying about food, shelter, transportation, child care, health care, and that the next paycheck won’t come. It means isolation, predation, and the constant, vocal judgment of the many who believe worth determines wealth. Poverty is a vulnerability, for predators understand that the mother who can barely afford food cannot possibly afford attorneys.

I testified against one predator, but my sisters and I met at least eight more between us. We were unpeople to society, and predators knew it. We were vulnerable; our frailty, a gift to predators.

Of course, we didn’t need predators to show us that we were worthless. We saw it every day when children and adults alike told us our clothes were funny, our manners strange, and our mom a failure.

It was important for our betters to say these things. Saying them affirmed our comparative social standings. They were worthy, while we, the poor, were worthless.

Many slights were unspoken, including looks of distaste, jeers, ignoring us in conversation, shifting, and pointedly leaning or stepping away from our physical proximity. The many poor people I have loved have learned to categorize these slights and also to limit what parts of themselves they expose to people who treat poverty as a form of leprosy.

Poverty-judgers aren’t the only people in the world, of course. There are many who don’t perceive poverty as a personal failure, and who simply treat poor people as people.

A poor person can escape poverty, but never the memories of its myriad cruelties. I was reminded of this about a year ago. I saw a video that deeply troubled me. In the video, Hillary Clinton is talking to some Black Lives Matter activists.

My gut response watching her was, “Oh, my God. She doesn’t even see them as human.” Her posture, facial expressions, tones, and words screamed this to me. I’d seen them thousands of times growing up as the daughter of a poor single mom. (Of course, I knew from decades of experience that I couldn’t make anyone else see what I saw.)

I suppressed my discomfort. What was I supposed to do? Vote Republican?

I’d heard Clinton had a contender, but I’d never seen him. Besides that, everyone around me was confident he didn’t stand a chance.

When I visited Oregon last April, my siblings told me about Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders. I liked what I heard but still intended to vote for Clinton the Inevitable. I leaned that way until I saw a video of Bernie.

The moment I saw Bernie speak, I saw hope. I saw possibility. I saw someone who would’ve looked my poor mom in the eyes and treated her as his equal.

I voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary. I actually almost forgot to vote, since the AP had already assured the nation Clinton was its victor.

When Sanders lost, as ordained, I grudgingly committed to voting for Clinton. The alternative was far more horrifying.

Then something funny happened: President Obama said allegations of election rigging were ridiculous … unless it was The Russians! Until I saw that, I’d perceived Clinton as the source of troubling imbalances in the Democratic primaries. Seeing that, I instinctively understood the problem was much bigger than I’d fathomed.

I began researching. I created a blog, Learning to Speak Politics, to document what I learned and to practice speaking Politics, a language I’d never before cared to learn. Before long, I’d discovered the truth was far grimmer than I imagined. I won’t rehash that here, but I’ll sum up my findings in the simplest way possible: both Republicans and Democrats serve corporations.

Together, both parties’ officials took loaves of bread from the hungry, offering them in tithing to those already surrounded by more than plenty. Democrats simply cast back enough crumbs to maintain the illusion of choice.

As I practiced, I got really, really good at explaining why I couldn’t vote for Clinton. I could list dozens of reasons why President Obama’s slick smile made my skin crawl. I never did explain why I could, and would, vote for Bernie a million times over.

I could give you a list of facts, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Facts followed instinct. I’ll tell you the truth, then: it comes down to my mom, and what I learned growing up in her shadow.

She endured relentless hardship day after day throughout my childhood. She kept going, doing everything she could to ensure my siblings and I would never suffer as she did. She endured mental illness for several long, lonely years before dying of cancer caught too late because health care costs too damn much in the United States.

As Democrats yammered on about free markets, incremental progress, and efficient systems, Sanders advocated for more humane systems. He passionately demanded universal health care, checks against ongoing governmental redistribution of wealth from people to corporations, living wages, and countless other measures that would’ve eased my mom’s burdens if implemented earlier.

In the TV show Scrubs, the protagonist often translates real life situations to fictional likenesses. I do this, too, including while thinking about U.S. politics and health care.

090819 Mom in the hospitalMore than once, I imagined talking to Clinton in the hospital where my mom received her cancer treatments. I could only envision Clinton in the hallway, keeping a safe distance while explaining why I shouldn’t fault the system for my mom’s suffering. “I’m sure this is all very distressing, but we must consider how the costs of caring for people impact the market.”

I couldn’t imagine Bernie standing in the hall. Instead, I saw him standing at my mom’s bedside.

“It hurts so much. It hurts. It hurts. How do I show you how much it hurts?” she groans to him. She’s spent so much life being disbelieved, it’s important to her to find people who believe enough to care.

He squeezes her hand. “No need to prove anything, Christine. I believe you.”

Three decades ago, in an Oregon courthouse, I began to learn that some people will only believe you when you show the “right” emotion as if there is such thing as a right emotion. Others will believe solid evidence salted with tears. Some simply don’t care.

A few will look you in the eyes, see your suffering, and say, “I believe you.” Only the best, the very best, stand with you and then add, “Now let’s do something about it.”

Outside an Oregon courtroom, one of the best took my sister for ice cream after saying she believed. Sharing ice cream was a small act, but it was enormous to my little sister.

Today and every single day, Bernie says, “I believe you when you tell me everything’s broken.” He shows it by working to change systems that value fictions of efficiency over painful truths of humanity.

Many politicians try bending human bodies and lives to fit systems they favor. Bernie is working to bend the system for the health of its people.

Having known so many people who don’t even appreciate the need for change, I will be forever grateful that Bernie saw, stood, and fights … for millions of people like my mom, whose lives and families depend on others rising to the fight.


Written by Deborah Bryan

Deborah Bryan grew up poor and afraid. She has a pretty good life now, but can't rest easy until everyone, everywhere, is fed, sheltered, and free from harm.

Deborah is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.


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  1. Powerful, as always. I appreciate hearing your voice. Have you read the book White Trash about poverty and classism? I don’t imagine that it will reveal much new to you, given your experience, but I was excited to hear about it. Perhaps it will help tell stories like yours, the experience of being in poverty.

  2. I understand and relate. I love Bernie too. The only politician I trust. I feel so dejected since he lost , or rather was robbed, of the nomination. It al could have been so different. Thank you for giving a voice to poverty. I am not poor now but I’ll never forget it. And yes, predators hunt for us, especially when young and female.

  3. Thank you for clarifying my feelings for Bernie and for writing these profound words. Your mother raised an outstanding woman.
    I shared your article with my mother and this was her response. (She raised 5 kids on her own in the 1970s.)
    “This is so beautifully written. This is you. It is me. We share a past with this woman and her life. You never get over it even when your problems become fewer and different. Thanks for sharing. Now I’ll shed a tear for us and give a smile for the truth and Bernie.”
    I look forward to following you on Twitter.

  4. This made me cry. The difference between Bernie and the candidates put forward by the machine is rooted in his own childhood in that rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. Immigrant parents shaped his ethics. And we are all richer for his warm authenticity, huge (yuge) heart, and fighting spirit. He was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate for many of us. More’s the pity. More’s the pity.

  5. I saw someone who immediately acknowledged the fairness and reality of what the speaker said — and then jumped to how to Get Things Done. A politician who gets things done shows me she really cares — far more than someone who talks sympathy and then can’t even influence his own state to pass $15 wage. Or, more to the point, who doesn’t sympathize with victims of gun violence but sympathizes instead with the gun lobby and gets stuff done for the gun manufacturers.

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Bernie, Because I Was Poor