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Eyewitness to the DNC: spectacle and revolt

Occupy DNC - photo by Kevin Taghabon
Kevin Taghabon

August 16, 2016

Held in the Wells Fargo Centre in downtown Philadelphia, the Democratic National Convention peaked with the foreseen coronation of their preferred presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. After months of campaigning against her and successfully building a massive grassroots network, Senator Bernie Sanders finally threw his full weight behind Clinton.
Like all presidential conventions, the DNC brought together disparate groups of activists from across the country to the streets of Philadelphia. Unlike most other conventions however, Sanders delegates, staffers, and volunteers were a large part of the dissident voices at the marches in the streets. The happy ball shown on all major cable news networks did not reflect the reality of what was happening inside the Wells Fargo Centre.
Sanders people mistreated inside the DNC
On the Wednesday of the DNC (July 27) I caught up with a mother and her two daughters on the subway to City Hall from Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. They all held pro-Sanders or anti-Clinton signs, one reading “Feminist for Bernie.” She told me that her oldest daughter (not present) was a Sanders delegate. On Monday night, when they walked out as a group in protest, they were not allowed back in. They had no way to get on the shuttle buses inside, and were stranded 45 minutes from their hotel rooms. I asked her who made this decision, but she did not know.
The next night at the gates of the Wells Fargo Centre, protesters informed the crowd using the People's Mic technique that Sanders delegates were now not being allowed out. The DNC also intermittently shut the lights out on Sanders delegates when they chanted protests or held anti-Clinton signs. Sanders supporters mostly had hand-made signs confiscated at the door. Clinton supporters did not.
The contradictory behaviour seems like petty vengeance against the Sanders people, but perhaps it was also lack of organization. I spoke to one of the bus coordinators working inside the DNC on our way home Thursday. He told me that the buses “were completely disorganized. Septa (local buses) were mixed in with delegate buses and no one knew which was which.” This despite the Department of Homeland Security giving Philadelphia $50 million for this National Security Special Event. It should be noted that this lavish party (as well as the often-closed Democratic Primaries) is funded with public money.
Grassroots has no love for Clinton, moving to Jill Stein
In three days on the streets, parks, and public spaces, I encountered fewer than a dozen people with pro-Clinton signs or apparel. On the other hand, I saw tens of thousands of Sanders supporters floating around Philadelphia. Perhaps Clintonites feared the atmosphere outside the DNC gates. Of about 20 pro-Sanders people who I actually interviewed at some length, not a single one said they would be voting for Clinton (or Trump). Most immediately said they would be moving their efforts to the Green Party's Jill Stein.
Stein spoke at Socialist Convergence at Friend's Centre in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Her co-panelists included author Chris Hedges and Bhaskar Sunkara (editor of Jacobin Magazine), among others. On her entry, the 500 in the auditorium crowd stood and roared at fever pitch for a full minute. One of the most interesting things she mentioned in her brief talk was that in many districts, the Green Party is using its ballot line to put non-Green leftist candidates from other third parties on the ticket. This includes candidates from Socialist Alternative and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. This exemplifies far more respect and unity than what the DNC was able to feign. Stein has already garnered high-profile endorsements—including from Socialist Alternative Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, Marxist economics professor Richard Wolff, and professor Cornel West.
Philadelphia: everything is not okay
The circus inside the Democratic National Convention and the polish of the downtown core is completely misrepresentative of Philadelphia. In the Philadelphia City centre, most municipal buildings were draped with dozens of massive red white and blue banners and cloth. The blue Democratic National Convention flags lined light posts all across the city, and subway stops’ windows were decaled entirely in DNC promo. This likely cost tens of thousands of dollars alone, if not more. It would be comical if it wasn’t sad.
Looking 100 yards in the other direction one could often spot homeless people sleeping in church doors’ archways or underneath the buildings’ shade in JFK Plaza. I was told by a subway-goer this was after a concerted effort to remove homeless from the city for the convention. The above-ground trip to my Northeast Philadelphia hotel was even more telling. There are closely cramped dilapidated houses for miles, with used car lots packed tight dotting the landscape every few blocks. There were also many abandoned lots and some large buildings wholly missing windows, either former factories or office parks. These looked like they had not been used for decades. On a few streets I saw mattresses on sale for $29 and $39. They were leaned up against the side of businesses facing the street. None of them looked like they had ever been stored indoors, and were covered in soot.
Beyond Sanders and the Democrats
Beyond the material conditions of the city, there are the implications of what the DNC specifically in this year, this week, represented. This is namely Sanders’ capitulation to the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. Instead of keeping the moral high ground, maintaining his base of support behind him and throwing the energy behind him into a worthy movement, Sanders chose to back Clinton.
This was why many of the Sanders delegates say they walked out. I saw the defeat and sense of wandering in the wilderness first hand in the eyes of Sanders supporters. One middle-aged man with buttons covering both his bags was silently crying on the way home Wednesday night. I saw him leading chants at the DNC gates the next night. At a Black Men for Bernie rally, speakers disagreed on whether to “Demexit” to leave the Democratic Party en masse in protest, or to stay in and try to take it over. The tide was turning strongly towards a mass exit.
I rode the train to my hotel one night with a young Sanders campaign staffer. The (now former) staffer could not identify himself he says because he is working an upstart political organization which orchestrates civil disobedience actions. He said he was politically galvanized by his brothers’ mental health situation. For five years he watched his brother “slowly dying” from schizophrenia. Because there is no single-payer (universal) healthcare system in the US, he says, there will never be preventative mental health treatment available to anyone. Additionally, he explained that if you do not live in a major city with a good hospital, you will never get necessary treatment. “Short of being in the 1%, we were in the best position possible, and it was still…” he nodded and trailed off, indicating it was very hard for their family to get anything. His father was a former police captain and so he said their plan was quite comprehensive. They were subject to long wait times despite this. Without Sanders on the Democratic ticket, without universal healthcare, he says he can no longer support the Democrats.
Still, there are glimmers of hope in Philadelphia. Beside JFK Plaza, a church held an open wellness space and interfaith “Oasis for Activists” for people to unwind and relax together or alone. Democracy Spring, a nascent political movement which staged a march to Washington D.C. this year and a civil disobedience action in which 1300 people were arrested, was present. On Thursday they hosted a teach-in discussing tactics for non-violent civil disobedience and the theory behind their practice. The most important of these was support from the public. They cited Erica Chenoweth’s comprehensive book on successful movements and revolutions Why Civil Resistance Works. In short, every historical movement with active participation from 3.5 per cent of the public has succeeded, and these have all been non-violent. In recent memory, Occupy Wall Street’s demands had particularly high public support, only collapsing because the Obama administration physically destroyed the encampments.
Democracy Spring is aiming to have Citizens United overturned and establish publicly-funded open elections within a year. They are establishing decentralized chapters across the country and, crucially, are not trapping themselves into the horse-race politics of an election, but movement building. The type of simultaneous momentum, defeat, and renewed rage flowing through Philadelphia could do well to benefit mass movements. With any luck, the political revolution will not have died with Sanders' campaign.

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