A year and change ago, I was one stoked guy: duffel bag in hand, I was hopping a plane to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t be going as a delegate but as a volunteer – or rather, a “supervolunteer” for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Our job would be to help with logistics, act as drivers for campaign surrogates, or work the floor, helping our 1,865 delegates maneuver their way around the confusing new terrain of a convention.
A quick word on terminology: I was certainly no more of a “super” volunteer than the thousands of people who put their lives on hold and donated money and time they didn’t have to fight for the campaign state by state, territory by territory, caucus to primary and back again. I had been a part of the Grassroots Digital Team of volunteers, working in social media as well as GOTV and liaison work in English and Spanish. In that capacity, I saw, for example, how the Puerto Rico primary was rigged against Bernie from the get-go, something which I reported on here and here. When the opportunity came to go to the convention, I was honored to accept.
A clarification, too, before proceeding: supervolunteers paid our own way to get to Philadelphia. College dorm rooms were available for sleeping, and a little money was available to defray food and local transportation, but everything else was on us. That was all right: we were going to working with our team, just as the Clinton campaign would have volunteers working on their side. It never occurred to me that the DNC would renege on its word. It should have.
TYT’s Jordan Chariton interviews other supervolunteers denied entry to the DNC.
Where Are the Credentials?
At the training session, held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Sunday afternoon, the news came first from the podium: Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had resigned as DNC chair. The room erupted. We then split into groups according to assignment – I was to be on the floor team, which I was happy about. But the meeting ending inconclusively: there was no word yet on when we’d get our convention credentials. We’d be notified. A bunch of us from the Grassroots Digital Team, meeting face-to-face for the first time after so many hours spent sweating together over screens, went out for the obligatory cheesesteak and a walk around the downtown. MSNBC was encamped in Independence Park with its revolving door of talking heads. Delegates and protesters were streaming into the city. The place was abuzz.
By Monday, there was still no word on convention passes or our job assignments. After a stormy morning meeting with Bernie, delegates were supposed to be heading to the Wells Fargo Center in the afternoon for the first session of the convention. Were we going with them? No, as it turned out. Not until late afternoon did the word come down: we were going to be allowed in that night to hear Bernie’s speech, but as spectators only. No floor work. At six o’clock, we lined up in the Convention Center to get our credentials. From there, we were herded onto buses and driven south. As we advanced slowly through the traffic, it started to rain, then pour. Dropped off well outside the security perimeter, we had to run through sheets of water to get to the security checkpoint located in a temporary covered area in the parking lot; once we cleared security, we had to run through the rain again to get to the main entrance.
The lobby of the Wells Fargo Center was a study in contrasts. Elegant men and women in suits and dresses ambled, chatted, and laughed. Meanwhile, huddling by the door and blinking in the sudden bright light, we stood, sullen and soaked. “Coffee,” one of us said in a sudden illumination. And so we made for the nearest concession stand. But there was already a long line ahead of us. “This is one of the worst-run conventions I’ve ever seen!” carped a delegate from Michigan who withstood the line with us. “And I’ve been to a few.”
A half-hour later, when it was finally our turn to order, we were informed that there was no coffee or hot beverages left. The delegate from Michigan had been right, damn it. There was nothing left to do but find some seats. The attendants at the downstairs doors waved us upstairs. That was to be expected. But once we were upstairs, the attendant at each door, as if on cue, would glance at our passes and wave us down. “No seats here!” It was like Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” only with a Borges twist of infinite doors to get blocked at. After this had happened enough times, it became clear what they were trying to do: shunt us off to the Ueckerest of Uecker seats behind the stage, behind the cameras, where absolutely nobody was sitting. And that, indeed, was where we wound up, taking off our shoes and wringing water from our socks, until salvation came in the form of a text message from our liaison in the Sanders campaign: “There are seats for you in Section XXX.”
Back we marched, only for the attendant at the door to again try to give us the round-around. “But look,” one of us said. “There are seats up there.”
“Um, yes,” she said. “But they’re for the State Department.”
“And those over there?”
We were about to question the likelihood of government officials being sat so far up when a young man in a suit stepped forward and let us in. We were going to be… in the back row. But with other humans. And facing the stage.
Back-Row Truman Show
The wait for Bernie to speak was agonizing. Paul Simon sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a sure-fire draw for everyone except the demographic the Democrats desperately needed to win over. Eva Longoria came out to remind us that she was with her. Sarah Silverman and Al Franken launched into some good old-fashioned Sanders-delegate shaming, at which point a young woman about three seats down broke into tears. “I’m a friend of Sarah’s,” she said. “And that’s not Sarah down there.” I wondered who it really was. Cory Booker gave a plastic, aspirational speech about… nothing, really. Michelle Obama spoke. And Elizabeth Warren rapped on her chest three times with a closed fist and said: “Thank you, Bernie.”
We were, effectively, trapped on the gigantic, arena-size set of a vapid infotainment program. Policy was nowhere to be found, and the few average Americans who made it to the podium were simply human fronts for a made-for-TV identity-politics agenda that preferred looking good to doing good. The real excitement was on the floor, with the delegates and their protests, but they were far down below. Up where we were, ushers came around with signs for each speaker that we were to wave as they spoke. When they finally distributed Bernie signs in anticipation of his speech to close the night, I dared to wave mine while Warren was still speaking. The usher came back and stopped me. She left. I did it again. She saw me and motioned. “I’ll get in trouble!” she said. Even in the way back row at the top, where cameras were sure to never find us, Truman-Show rules were strictly in force.
When Bernie finally got to the podium, the ovation was deafening and went on for so long that, several minutes in, even he was wagging his hands to get us to stop. We refused: this was our only officially-sanctioned, TV moment and we were going to make the most of it. What else was there in Convention-land? After thanking the volunteers, the delegates, those who voted and donated, and his family, Bernie went on to do the heretical for an infotainment program: he mentioned the 1%. Then he said the word “poverty.” He talked about the grotesque levels of wealth and income inequality, the need to overturn Citizen’s United, break up the banks, oppose the Trans-Pacific Protocol and combat climate change. He did the whole “Hillary Clinton understands” bit, subtly trying to lock in his ideas. For those of us who’d worked on the campaign, we knew those ideas by rote, but in this context, it was a different thing altogether. For one half-hour, it was almost like we were at an event that had something to do with real politics. He tucked his endorsement of Clinton quickly at the end and quickly scooted off the stage. We got out as quickly as we could as well into the humid Philadelphia night. At least the rain had stopped.
We wouldn’t see the inside of the convention again.
Film credit: Kurt Hackbarth (with commentary in Spanish)
Things to Do in Philadelphia When You’re Expelled from the DNC
Denied entrance to the DNC in the days that followed, we took to the streets, joining in the marches that swept down South Broad Street to FDR Park. There, we heard from the Sanders delegates about the machinations that were being used to silence them inside the arena: revoked credentials, lights being turned out, signs ripped out of hands, the delegate walk-out after the roll-call vote, the Clinton delegates’ telling choice of counter-chants (“USA!” used to drown out “No More War”?). We listened to speakers outside of City Hall and swapped stories with people from across the country. We wandered into the Marriott to watch the roll-call vote in the bar. I got to take a picture with Rosario Dawson. Mostly, though, we watched the cars pile up on the slow-motion wreck that was the Clinton 2016 campaign, the one that couldn’t possibly lose until it found a way to do precisely that.
If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. Last year’s TPP fight, for instance, seems to have faded into the past – that is, unless Trump resurrects it under a different name. But the one thing that hasn’t seem to have changed is the Democratic hierarchy’s stubborn unwillingness to look itself in the mirror. If our experience in Philadelphia is any indication, it will be a slow and painful process – if it happens at all. It could start by learning to keep its word.
Film Credit: Kurt Hackbarth (with commentary in Spanish)