UCF's Knights for Bernie brings youthful enthusiasm to an unusual political primary season

Knights of the Bern Table

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UCF's Knights for Bernie brings youthful enthusiasm to an unusual political primary season
Photo via the Bernie Sanders campaign

I'm bothered that other people my age aren't bothered," says Daniel Koster, a junior political science major at University of Central Florida. "If you were dropped into this world and saw the unfair things going on around you, what would you think? You would do something."

In June 2015, Koster and classmate Steven Lynch formed Knights for Bernie, an organization that helps build student support for Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Though College Democrats at UCF was already in existence, Koster and his like-minded friends learned that the political group doesn't endorse candidates, which struck them as ineffective. There was also the suspicion that College Democrats would likely support the "establishment" (read: safer) candidate, Hillary Clinton. Despite naysayers, Knights for Bernie applied and were approved to become officially recognized as a student group, which makes them eligible for funding through school grants, should they choose to apply. Koster is the group's president.

Much has been made of the 74-year-old Sanders' ability to connect with young people; it's a wondrous anomaly in a country that places little value on the contributions of senior citizens. The crowd at the recent Super Tuesday opening of the Sanders campaign headquarters in Orlando, located in the Mills 50 neighborhood, was made up primarily of 20-somethings and early-30-somethings watching the results come in. The creation of Knights for Bernie itself bears witness to Sanders' appeal, though there is fear that the slacktivism of youth will betray the presidential hopeful by not following through – or as Bill Maher recently put it, "Bernie's problem is he has a lock on the demographic that doesn't show up."

"If the percentage of voters 18-30 that turned out in 2008 turned out this year, Sanders probably would have won Iowa, Massachusetts and Nevada, among others," suggests Alex Storer, a double major in journalism and theater who was elected treasurer of Knights for Bernie in October. "I'm definitely worried about the turnout amongst college students, and one of the things we're doing with Knights for Bernie is trying to make sure as many UCF students will vote as possible."

Koster – who won't confirm his field of study will lead to public office, but admits with a boyish grin that he is already careful who his picture is taken with – takes that statement a bit further. "We want local politicians to think of UCF as a voting bloc."

UCF does appear to be waking up the sleepy east side of Orlando politically: Donald Trump made the campus his pre-primary stop on March 5, and alum Gregory Eisenberg is among those giving County Commissioner Ted Edwards a much-needed run for his money for the Orange County District 5 seat. That section of town is the gateway to the region's long-ignored sign of systemic failure, Bithlo, so the wake-up is overdue.

Like many who support Sanders, members of Knights for Bernie say the candidate's platform resonates on a personal level. Storer tells of working for Taco Bell in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, for $7.25 an hour. He calculated one day that he would have to work 40 hours a week every single week for over 1,400 years to earn the annual salary of the company's CEO. Koster relates the story of a former classmate who had to drop out of UCF due to excessive medical bills and still owes the school more than 20 grand for an education he won't soon complete. That's an inequitable injustice, Koster feels, considering the fact that UCF President Hitt earns a salary that's substantially more than that of the President of the United States.

In December, Knights for Bernie hosted the first tangible presence of the Sanders campaign in Orlando with a "Bernstorm," during which a campaign worker explained the simplicity of the "Bernie Dialer" software, which enables supporters to create phone banks in their own homes, or wherever they'd like, to help the candidate get his message out. The Knights have conducted and participated in such phone banks, canvassed housing on and off campus, registered several hundred people to vote, and even sent members to physically help the Sanders campaign in primary states.

For the Iowa caucus, for instance, Knights for Bernie took part in a trip arranged by Brevard for Bernie. Those who went tell stories of the grueling canvassing work of trudging through sludge and snow only to find homeowners unreceptive to the Bern. Storer was impressed with the amount of celebrities they encountered in Des Moines who were actually working for the campaign. ("Two of the members of Foster the People were in there, picking up a turf and going canvassing just like we were," he says.) They even got a taste of the underbelly of American politics when the Clinton campaign insinuated that the Knights were in the state to tamper with the caucus, and a few members stayed in their hotel rooms and missed the caucus they'd come so far to witness.

"We also got to see [Sanders] speak at a rally in Des Moines, which was incredible," says Storer. The Knights for Bernie group engaged in a good-natured competition to see who could get the best selfie with Sanders. None of them actually managed to capture a selfie with the candidate – at least not one that the Vermont Senator was aware that he was in. It's the kind of behavior you'd expect from people at a Beyoncé concert, not at a rally for a septuagenarian politician.

Then again, Bernie Sanders' run for President of the United States as an unapologetic social democrat hasn't been business as usual.

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