July 25th – July 28th
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – The mood in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, situated just outside the Wells Fargo Center, was decidedly laid back. Just behind the ball diamond a roadie checked equipment on a makeshift stage while people lounged lazily in the hot Philadelphia sun. They were sitting at picnic tables, sipping water provided by the city, and discussing fair-trade. A Nora Jones album played over the speakers. I settled down in the grass to consider how I’d come from the mad world of the RNC’s Cleveland to this hippie hangout and looked over and found a man napping in the shade of a tree.
In the distance were encampments. Longhaired, shirtless hippies sprawled out on blankets and in camp chairs. From their phones and computers came jam band music. At worst Rage Against The Machine. Their signs and tents were all decidedly positive and pro-Bernie. NOT US, WE. NOT FOR SALE: BERNIE SANDERS. There were dozens, maybe a hundred or so, all of them trying to beat the heat and, by all appearances, remain positive despite the fact that the Bernie Sanders campaign that defied all expectations and drug eventual nominee Hillary Clinton to the left, along with the entire Democratic Party, had been more or less dead since mid-June. Nearly two weeks to the day he’d endorsed Clinton and urged his supporters to follow his lead. The people I saw seemed in denial, but at least a peaceful state.
It wasn’t an hour until I spied my first BERNIE OR BUST sign, a blue piece of cardboard with white lettering tethered to a woman’s backpack. She had a Sanders tattoo on her right arm, a design with Bernie’s trademark unkempt hair and glasses amalgamated with David Bowie’s Alladin Sane face paint, and I followed her and her ink around a path and into a gathering under a thicket of shade trees where a band was covering The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” for a circle of dancing supporters. At the edges of the crowd people were sitting barefooted in the grass smoking joints and hand rolled cigarettes, Sanders signs and memorabilia at their feet.
Here it is, I thought, a final farewell to the Sanders campaign. A festival of inspired supporters who came to Philadelphia to revel one last time in a movement that shook politics and inspired a new generation of progressives to buy into the system.
Then I looked over and saw her. A woman lying in the grass next to the ball diamond, her arm shielding her face from the sun. She was trying to keep her body within the ever-changing shade with little success. Propped up next to her against the fence, a homemade sign: DNC DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?
Last Friday WikiLeaks released over twenty thousand hacked E-mails that’d been stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee, a fairly benign batch that’d exposed the unseemly business of national politics, including bits that brought to light the unpleasant communiqués staffers regularly share, spitballs that read a whole lot worse when the world gets a chance to peek inside.
The timing of the release couldn’t have been more perfect. Clinton was announcing Tim Kaine as her running mate and just as she revealed the new Democratic ticket here came a nagging news story that could, if covered the right way, derail what was universally seen as a paint-by-numbers clinic. Most of the information, however, was banal, the stuff of D.C. cocktail rumors and Hill dirt sheets. There didn’t seem to be much fire to go along with the smoke, until an E-mail titled RE: No Shit from Brad Marshall, the CFO of the DNC, was uncovered:
“It might may(sic) no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”
Though Sanders wasn’t specifically mentioned by name, the inference is clear. For over a year now Bernie’s faithful had been claiming the DNC was playing favorites in the primary and now they had their smoking gun. The man in charge of the party’s finances had been caught red-handed not just rooting for Clinton but strategizing on her behalf.
The story survived Friday’s news dump and the weekend’s hangover from the RNC, a virtual miracle in the age of twenty-four hour news cycles, and incubated with every passing minute. By Sunday the writing on the wall was clear: someone had to go.
Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who had said repeatedly that the DNC manipulating the primary was a “conspiracy theory”, was a natural candidate. Her bumbling as chair of the DNC, and her barely hidden allegiance to Clinton, had threatened to tear the party apart for over a year and now the check had come and someone had to pay. Long a critic of Wasserman-Schultz, Sanders seized on the opportunity and publicly stated he thought she should resign. By Sunday afternoon she relented.
The original plan was for Wasserman-Schultz to gavel in the convention and oversee it before leaving her post afterward, but Monday morning, as she addressed her Florida constituents, she was booed mercilessly by crowd members holding up pieces of paper reading E-MAILS.
She didn’t make it to the gaveling.
While rumors swirled that the Russian government had hacked the DNC, protestors gathered in the park with signs calling Clinton a criminal. A woman next to me wore a tie-dye shirt with the words NEVER HILLARY STOP THE DNC’S COUP printed on the back.
The mood changed quickly. Signs popped up along the street. Rhetoric was intensifying. Soon everyone I overheard was talking about Benghazi, using the words “crooked” and “liar”, their voices rising as they complained about the conspiracy to steal the nomination from Sanders.
“I think he still has a chance,” a guy told me by the free water tent. “People are saying there’s a plan.”
The plan, as I gathered, was for Sanders to demand a roll-call vote for the nomination and then, via parliamentary subterfuge, switch delegates’ votes and necessitate a second vote in which no one would be bound by primary and caucus outcomes.
“It was voter fraud,” another Sanders supporter told me when I asked if it was democratic to go against the will of voters. “There were millions of votes that got erased. Millions of people were disenfranchised.”
Then came the delegates.
A block away they were exiting AT&T Station and walking behind the safety of tall fences that divided them from the protestors. The Sanders supporters flocked to those fences and pressed their signs against the chain links. They chanted “Bernie/Bernie/Bernie” and then “Bernie Beats Trump/Bernie Beats Trump” as the delegates streamed by. Some, most of them wearing Sanders shirts and gear, gave them thumbs up and paused for pictures with the crowd.
Somebody played “This Land Is Your Land” on the bagpipes.
I heard voices in the distance.
When I turned I saw them marching. Hundreds more. Some flying the red flags of socialism, others holding signs calling Hillary a criminal, others with Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president who offered to serve as vice-president if Bernie wanted to join her ticket. They were chanting “Hell No DNC / We Won’t Vote For Hillary.”
The crowd swelled and changed unpredictably. The mood transformed from calm and disgruntled to active and angry. They lined against the fences, eight to nine deep, and beat them as others waved Sanders signs and chanted right along.
I puzzled over them. Who were these supporters of Sanders, a liberal-as-they-come, Vermont senator who delighted the world when a tiny bird landed on his podium and he regarded it with unbound happiness? How was his iconography and name being co-opted by this angry mob?
That night Sanders took the stage and did Clinton what could only be described as a solid. Telling his supporters to throw their weight behind her, he built a bridge between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the establishment that has held the reigns since Clinton’s husband took office in 1992.
In his appeal Sanders was unequivocal. A Donald Trump presidency was too dangerous a concept to mess around with third-party politics or protest votes. Earlier in the day he’d sent a message through the media that he didn’t want his supporters interrupting the convention – which they did anyway, booing whenever Clinton’s name was mentioned – or walking out of the party altogether.
Back at the park the signs made his supporters’ feelings clear. They were ready to execute what they called “the Dem-Exit,” or a mass exodus from the Democrat’s caucus. They were ready to take their ball and go home, whether that meant sitting this one out or giving Jill Stein their vote. Many had taken their SANDERS 2016 signs and written JILL STEIN underneath, a makeshift ticket they hoped would come into fruition.
To go along with this fantasy: Bernie had sent another signal. In his address of the convention he’d mentioned a preference for a roll-call vote for the nomination, a state-by-state tallying of delegates that would showcase just how much support his campaign had earned in their fight. Stalwarts were certain this is where Sanders would spring his trap and snatch the nomination.
The protest started in the subway, where every platform and car was stuffed full of protestors arguing loudly with commuters how the process had been rigged and manipulated. They started impromptu chants that rung through the tunnels and filled the train.
At the fence there were hundreds, if not thousands. They chanted, stomped, played drums and carried more signs. Things were getting uglier. Clinton signs and shirts were being torn apart or defaced. A banner strung across the fence, facing the convention, read PICK $ OR US.
When the time came for the roll call protestors hushed one another and gathered around people streaming the numbers on their phone before making their way into the park with the stage, where Nora Jones had been replaced by a live stream from inside the hall. They lounged in the grass and booed whenever Clinton’s name was mentioned and cheered like mad for their candidate. One man held an appeal over his head: SAVE US WIKILEAKS.
The mood grew sour when it became apparent that votes weren’t going to change, that Sanders didn’t have a grand strategy in place, and the couple next to me called Clinton a bitch under their breath and wondered how far into her term she’d be arrested.
South Dakota sent Clinton over the top in terms of needed delegates, but word didn’t disseminate among the crowd. They were still cheering and booing every vote, several of them wondering when the plan would take hold.
Then, Vermont passed.
“What’s that mean?” a girl nearby asked.
I told her there was a rumor that Vermont wanted to go last so they could voice their support of Sanders as a parting gift.
“So they’re not being stripped of their votes?”
By the time it came back to Vermont the deal was long since done. Hillary Clinton was the first woman nominee of a major political party. Nothing Bernie Sanders or his followers could do could erase that fact. And then Sanders took the mic and they cheered.
This was the moment, they thought. The time and place for the revolution. Bernie was going to challenge the lawlessness of the primary and seize control. When he moved that the convention suspend their procedure a man in front of me raised his hand in victory. All of their work, all of Sanders’ work, was coming to fruition.
And then he moved that the convention nominate Clinton by acclimation.
There were tears.
People hugging and consoling each other.
Somebody threw down their BERNIE OR BUST sign and stomped on it.
A few tried to start a “Bust/Bust/Bust” chant but their hearts weren’t in it.
Then: “To the wall!”
It echoed between groups as they marched out of the park and to the fence that kept them from the Wells Fargo Center. They amassed there. They were in a full-on rage as they beat the fences in rhythm with their chants. Charging the DNC with selling out their country. Calling Clinton and Wasserman-Schultz every name imaginable while others bent down in the streets and grass and drew and painted Jill Stein posters.
That night they’d clash with police, burn flags, and chant that democracy was dead.
I can still remember sitting in my pitch-black room the night of February 18th, 2004, the night that Howard Dean withdrew his name from the Democratic primaries. If I spend enough time and concentrate on it, I can go back to that very evening and feel the sickness in my gut as I realized Dean wouldn’t be president.
Twenty-two years old, I was immersed in the counterculture of the Left. My days were spent reading Kerouac and Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman. I was drinking too much, smoking too much pot, and generally pissed off at the world. When I went to class I spent my time slumped down in my seat and writing anti-war poetry. When I skipped, which was usually, I’d find some rally against the Iraq War or George W. Bush, usually in the campus square or in front of the Vigo County Courthouse. The movement was real and it was everywhere. It was all I wanted and it was all I had.
Howard Dean was the embodiment of that spirit. It’s easy to forget now, but the Iraq War in 2003 and 2004 was impossibly popular. Just questioning the conflict, whether in person or in print, was enough to get yourself labeled a traitor. Dean was among the first public figures to take a stance against the invasion and in my young mind he was a hero of the highest order.
What made it worse was that Dean gained traction. Before he lost the Iowa Caucuses and melted down spectacularly in his post-loss speech, it seemed to the world that Dean had every chance to unseat Bush and return some semblance of sanity to the White House. His was a movement and I bought in big. I made my first political contribution – twenty dollars I couldn’t spare – and travelled to Iowa to help the campaign. I gave my time, my blood, my sweat and my tears to that movement.
When he dropped out I shut off the TV before he could finish his speech. I missed him thanking me and the rest of his supporters. It was too much to bear. His quitting meant the United States, a country I thought was spiraling out of control, was going to continue with its fascist march toward imperial injustice. It meant George W. Bush would be reelected and the madness would only worsen.
The specter gnawed at me in a way I can’t even begin to explain. If somebody would’ve let me I would’ve grabbed the political establishment by the lapels and caved in its skull.
Political losses are bad enough when you’re invested, but when you’re a true believer? When that candidate marshals something in you you thought had been lost?
That’s another matter altogether.
These Sanders supporters aren’t typical Democrats.
Well, they are and they’re not.
Social media has branded them children in need of a timeout, and maybe that isn’t far past the truth, but the majority of them are fringe-left activists who want to change the world. They’re socialists. Anarchists. Movement members like Move On and Democracy Spring and the like. They are the idealists of our culture who look at the political circles you and I follow and feel disgusted by their shallowness and craven attitudes.
There is right and then there is wrong.
Hillary Clinton, a career politician who has left decades worth of tracks, is most assuredly wrong to them. By their own accounts, she is just as bad as Donald Trump.
That idea undoubtedly just rolled some eyes, but consider this: to these people, there is business as usual and there is revolution. There is no in-between.
Bernie Sanders was a once-in-a-generation figure whose genuineness and rebuking of standard politics was believable enough that he pulled into the Democratic Party, a party that has been drifting centerward, if not toward the Right, for twenty years now – ever since Bill Clinton took office – a group of individuals who had all but given up on politics as a method of change.
For these people, the only option is to raze the system and try again. So when they chant “Burn It Down / Burn It Down” they mean it. It isn’t a petulant tantrum. If given the matches, they’d burn the country to the ground like the flags they burnt in the streets this week.
Bernie was their last and best chance. A politician who came so very close to the nomination and the levers of power that he gave them back something they didn’t realize they’d lost or ever wanted in the first place: hope.
By Wednesday morning the protestors seemed hungover. Lethargic, they lounged again in the park and listened to a speaker on the stage talking about GMOs and the need for organic food. There were signs everywhere, these less clever and more just a lashing out against Clinton, including one that called her a “lying cunt” and another that said, rather simply, “Fuck You, Hillary Clinton, I Hate You.”
Strung from the fences where they’d raged so hard and so long were their leftover trinkets. Bernie stickers stuck to the links. The DNC DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING poster abandoned, I assume, when the owner went searching for more shade. Small pieces of cardboard left for future historians as explanation: DEM EXIT. On the streets were scrawlings that laid the blame at the feet of Hillary and the political establishment and promised days of rage and retribution.
That night, while President Obama called for unity and higher cause, they’d have one last impotent outburst. In clashes with police they’d break down the fences and attempt to swarm the area beyond, perhaps hoping to carry their burning flags to the convention center to start the fated fire they’d called for. They’d chant that democracy was dead and that the DNC had stolen their voice.
As they were being arrested, perhaps they’d wonder what it is they came for in the first place.
To maneuver their way into the seat of power?
To wrest control of the Democratic Party and the nomination from Hillary Clinton?
They had to have known, from the very start, the ugly, inescapable truth – they hadn’t lost.
To lose you have to have been in the game in the first place.