Whittier College’s opportunity Berns in the summer ‘16

William Maxton

Did you feel it? Back before Donald Trump became the president-elect, were you part of the other political revolution ­— the one that felt the Bern? 

While many of us may be wondering what might have been, most Whittier College students don’t know about a chapter in the story of Bernie Sanders’ inspirational campaign that happened here ... almost. For a brief, hopeful few days this past summer, it looked like Sanders would be holding his final rally before the June 7 California Primary right here in our home and community of Whittier College. 

Here’s what (almost) happened: Senator Sanders’ “Get-Out-The-Vote” concert and rally was originally scheduled for Saturday, June 4 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.

Those plans derailed, according to the Los Angeles Times, when the Sanders’ campaign accused Los Angeles city councilman and Hillary Clinton endorser David Ryu, who represents the district The Greek is located in, of putting up “roadblocks” that “caused the venue to be changed.”  The Times reported that Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor said, “The Sanders’ campaign did not have a ticketing system or a plan for addressing traffic congestion, which is required for every group that holds a concert or a rally at the Greek.” Clinton was scheduled to speak at the Greek Theater the following Monday, June 6. 

This left the Sanders’ campaign staff scrambling for a new venue. So, of course, they got on the hotline to senior Amer Rashid, who was then just two weeks into his term as President of the Associated Students of Whittier College Senate. The project manager for Sanders’ campaign rally (who could not be reached at this time) called him after being connected by alumni working on the campaign and floated the idea of holding Sanders’ June 4 rally on the Whittier Campus. 

  “I thought it would be a phenomenal opportunity for our students, regardless of their political affiliations,” said Rashid. “It would have been a great thing to say that we hosted a candidate before one of the nation’s most historical elections and before the state’s most important primaries because it was the first time our primaries were ever predicted to be close… They were very friendly and eager to work with us. They liked our campus and were open to either hosting the rally in the upper quad or at the football field.”

Following the call, Rashid met with senior Whittier College administrators, including: Vice President and Dean of Students Joel Perez, Vice President for Academic Affairs Darrin Good, Executive Assistant to the President Kristen A. Wiberg, and Executive Director of Athletics Robert Coleman. 

President Herzberger was en route from China and unavailable. Members of Sodexo (The facilities management company on campus at the time), Campus Safety officers Flavio Sanchez and Jeremy Adcox, and the Director of Communications Ana Lilia Barraza were also at the meeting. 

According to Rashid and school officials, the Sanders’ campaign offered to compensate the College, provide Homeland Security, Secret Service, and hire the Whittier Police Department to provide security for the event. Campus Safety would be responsible for parking. The campaign also offered multimillion-dollar insurance coverage to protect the institution from any claims or damages. The campaign said it would set up and take down the event at the football field and allow Whittier College to advertise the school and display its logo during the nationally televised event. 

The administration, however, struggled with the two-day notice.  “It was a safety concern more than anything; our bleachers’ capacity is about 6,000 people so what would happen if thousands more showed up?” Athletic Director Rob Coleman, who oversees events at the College’s athletic facilities, said.

Dean of Academic Affairs Darrin Good added, “It was an enormous possibility for us, and we were very excited. However, when we were looking at what we could pull together on short notice, we truly felt we could not protect all the people the way they needed to be protected.  It ended up ultimately being an issue of safety.” 

According to Coleman, reserving campus spaces such as the football field normally requires submitting a proposal weeks in advance for review “to see if we can handle it,” Coleman said. “Then we send a contract out.”  

While security and safety were singled out as the primary concerns, Good explained, “Many of our Campus Safety leaders were not going to be here and they were not here at the time we needed to make a decision. Just because they bring in Secret Service and they bring in other sources of safety, such as the Whittier Police Department, the issue is that they do not know our campus. None of them would be able to adequately protect people at the rally. They would need a lot of our Campus Safety expertise.” 

Officer Flavio Sanchez was the only Campus Safety representative at the meeting. “They [Homeland Security, Whittier P.D, Secret Service] are not here 24 hours like we are, so we know the campus best,” said Sanchez. “We felt that we were understaffed at that time in the summer to collaborate with them.” 

In the end, the College wasn’t confident the Whittier Police Department could handle an emergency if one were to occur.  Adding to the potential logistical concerns, according to Good, “There was a mention of a band [Foster the People], that we were not aware was going to be performing at the rally,” said Good. “We were concerned with the noise with the neighbors that night.” 

Whittier College director of communications, Ana Lilia Barraza also expressed concerns about the College’s ability to handle such a big event without time to plan accordingly. “Each office that would have been involved on campus during this event would have had to drop everything and make this its priority,” said Barraza. “And if you do something and it doesn’t work out well, that would be detrimental to the institution and affect our relationships to be able to host an event such as this one. When it is a high profile event you want to make a good impression.”

Rashid did his best to make the case for going ahead despite the challenges. “I pleaded to the table that I think that it is imperative that when we discuss issues of retention and when we discuss issues of school pride and how to move forward from a year where students have already expressed discontent with the institution, what a cool thing it would have been to say that my school hosted a presidential candidate in one of the most historical elections,” said Rashid. 

“I believe the rally would have been the highest attended event from our commuters, who make up about half our students.” Good said in accordance with Rashid’s sentiments. “It would have been good publicity; it would have been national news that he was on our campus.” 

Administration called Rashid the next day to tell him the school would not be hosting the Sander’s rally. “Our school loves to mention that we educated a president, but hesitated when this opportunity came along,” said Rashid. “I thought it would have been a showcase to our resilience and show of respect of our values and legacy.”

On Saturday, June 4, Sanders, the pride of the millennial generation, held his “Get-Out-the -Vote” concert. This rally on June 7 had 13,500 “Berners” at the Los Angeles Memorial Colliseum across the street from the University of Southern California.