The convention was an overwhelming experience—and a deeply sleep deprived one, sleep deprivation on the new-parent scale. Only now am I able to process a bit, and I invite you to join me.
I headed into the convention with no expectations; I had never been to one before, and wasn’t sure that past conventions would be much guide, anyway. But the fact that I had no expectations is actually important, because it reflected to me the failure of Bernie’s campaign to organize, train and/or instruct us much as we headed into the convention. In the vacuum, we self-organized. We created a Facebook page closed to all but delegates. We created Google groups; we created Slacks; we created grassroots whips.
But we had no unity of vision about our purpose as delegates; we had no guidance on the possible, or on what Bernie wanted us to do. Sure, he held a couple of conference calls in the run up to the convention, telling us in the end that we might have a floor fight about rules, but nothing else, the platform and nomination was set. And the floor fight on the rules may not be necessary, Bernie told us. Why then, was it so important for us all to be there?
By and large we really were ordinary people, true grass roots, for whom the costs of the convention were very high; why did we have to go—as Bernie kept telling us to go—if we weren’t going to fight for his nomination, his platform, a rules change? Were we simply leverage in the committee negotiations?
Rumors flew: Was the lack of a ‘minority report’ on the platform—specifically on the TPP—a deliberate choice by the campaign, or an accident? No minority report foreclosed the opportunity for floor action. Should we lobby superdelegates, try to get them to flip for Bernie? Or would we just piss people off? Should we object to being human props in a four day Clinton commercial, and if so, how? Quietly opt out of applause, quietly protest, or be more disruptive? Not only was there discord on tactics across state delegations, there was discord within delegations as to the proper way to behave.
In the days before the convention I opted into helping organize an action I found on a Facebook post—the neon Bernie shirts for the night of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech. The point of the shirts was to be visible—boy, were they visible in the end—and to be pro-Bernie without being overtly anti-Clinton. On front and back the shirts said: “Enough is Enough” –Bernie Sanders and had a Bernie birdie. The original concept had been rather confrontational; to put them on suddenly when Clinton began speaking Thursday night. Instead many arrived for the seven-hour stretch in the convention center already wearing them. To me they were a marker of the strength of the Bernie wing of the party, a sort of visual reflection of the ‘coalition’ he was pitching instead of our being subsumed into the mainline party.
We successfully distributed some 800 shirts, probably 750 of which went to delegates, and the rest to spouses/kids. Fewer than that were worn on Thursday, because some shirt-possessors left early; some because they hadn’t realized the shirts were for Thursday and wore them early, some because they chickened out. Others were very disappointed to only at the last minute clue into the opportunity, when all the arrangements had been finalized a week before the convention. Still, we were visible enough to make the news, and many of us appreciated seeing Dennis Kucinich don one.
I realize the shirts read like a digression from my riff on: Why were we there? But it was a tangible answer I could relate to: We were there to be visible; we were there to show our commitment to issues and values we didn’t believe the national party or our nominee embodied. We were there to insist enough really is enough.
Heading into the convention, this was my answer; but we were 1800 delegates, and many had other answers. California came organized for protest, leading many chants, holding many signs. California was stashed in a corner that made it less visible in general camera sweeps, but the news found them anyway. New York—very visibly on the floor, front and center, because New York is Clinton’s ‘home’ state—had some who booed, some who protested with signs, some who joined chants—but in all it was a much tamer delegation than California, more cowed by all the DNC and Clinton people coming to get them in line, get them on message—and to block them with bodies and official signs when the New Yorkers had the temerity to hold up anti-TPP or anti-fracking signs.
On Thursday night, California had been infiltrated such that Clinton delegates received counter chant instructions for Clinton’s speech; the idea was for them to drown out CA-inspired protestors. Protest chant first, then the counter chant:
No More War vs. USA
Walk the Walk vs. Hillary
Stop the TPP vs. Hillary
Ban Fracking Now vs. Hillary
Twice the instruction was to join in:
CAB: Love is Love vs. HD: Love is Love
CAB: Black Lives Matter vs. HD: Black Lives Matter.
(An aside about chants; I’ve participated in hundreds over the years, the first being One Two Three Four US Out of El Salvador back in the mid-70s, and Bernie delegates used three tautologies that just really irked me: Love is Love, Walk the Walk, and The People United Will Never Be Divided. That last bothered me the most, because the original: ‘The people, united, will never be defeated’ actually means something; it’s a call to ordinary folk to have the courage to face power. Similarly people don’t Walk the Walk unless we’re talking dance moves; Walk the Talk is all about integrity and also has a purpose. And what’s the point of Love is Love?)
Speaking of walking the talk, during Hillary’s speech New York had a chant and self-made signs that was neither drowned out nor hidden, either because it threaded the needle between protest and support or because it was so impotent (it didn’t catch on much past the delegation). Regardless, the chant was: Get It Done, and was used for Clinton applause lines like building an economy that works for everyone not just those on top. It was a riff on her mantra that she’s a ‘Progressive Who Gets Things Done’ but was also really a way of saying ‘Walk Your Talk’. Official “Together” signs became, with a bit of construction paper, marker and tape “Get It Done Together” signs.
The National Nurses came with Robin Hood hats for the Bernie delegates, a couple thousand in all, and I wore mine with pride daily. The point wasn’t just general redistribution, we were to use the hat as a way to talk about a financial transaction tax—Bernie’s tax on Wall Street Speculation.
The angrier Bernie delegates, and some of the resigned but issue-committed, looked to California’s militancy with longing and respect. Others questioned their judgment; I spoke to one Bernie delegate who was a state legislator in her day job, and said California was being counterproductive. She told me a tale of a prized progressive policy that died in her state house because of the disruptive protests and rude protestors on the hearing day (I’m being deliberately vague because I didn’t ask permission to use her story publicly). Now the topic is taboo, not because of the merits, but because of the protestors. Nor was she anti-agitation as a whole; she admitted that sometimes she’d call up grass roots allies and ask them to make noise, to demand policy progress, because it helped her move things forward. Her critique was more time and place, more tactical, and she pointed out the Clintons’ long memories.
This protest disunity was reflection of the Bernie campaign’s failure to organize us and, frankly, of the grass roots activist nature of much of the delegation. Bernie spoke to us at breakfasts, and sent us messages, telling us that we should not protest from the floor. But a significant number of delegates dismissed the ‘don’t protest from the floor’ message as coming from his staffers who were newly loyal to Clinton, and not from him; others simply didn’t care, feeling his endorsement of Clinton was a betrayal that freed them from following his direction; others were sure he understood that his delegates would protest; rumors had it that he sat near California and gave them thumbs up.
Regardless of the wisdom of the tactics, anti-TPP protesters couldn’t understand the backlash against them—protesters were threatened with and occasionally faced the loss of their credentials, their key to the door to the convention. After all, the platform and Clinton are officially anti-TPP, so why were they off message? I mean, we Bernie delegates understood that Clinton is not to be trusted on the TPP even before Terry McAuliffe opened his mouth, but still, officially anti-TPP signs should have been on message. The fact that they were treated as treasonous reflected the commitment to controlling the optics and THE message.
How dare delegates want to be anything on the floor beyond human props? Of course, they couldn’t enforce prop-dom; enough Bernie delegates avoided the ‘card trick’ at the end that the cameras didn’t show it, and they couldn’t make us hold up the forest of signs they kept giving us. Still, we were constantly disabused of any notion that we were present for a meeting of a political party having a substantive conversation, and the only way to opt out completely of being extras in the commercials was to simply leave, which many did.
The most dislocating experience was General Allen’s speech, with so many military brass on display, and the ‘fight’ between No More War and USA. That was chilling. Note, No More War is not: War Criminal! Or similarly ‘disrespectful’ stuff; it’s simply a demand not to make our present worse with more ‘hawkish’ ‘interventionist’ ‘regime change’ wars and war-actions.
In many ways the highlight of the convention for me happened on Thursday, but not at the convention proper. Bernie delegates were welcomed to a panel of speakers that included Ben Jealous, Nina Turner, Larry Cohen, Rosario Dawson, and two others whose names I’m blocking on; she was newly-made national co-chair of the Working Families Party, and he was a young activist entertainer. There in that room of a few hundred Berners, hearing these organizers and leaders, I renewed my commitment to continuing the revolution. I was with my tribe, I felt the love, the purpose, the commitment.
As the panel said: So, now it’s true we have to play defense: the threat of a Trump presidency must be defeated, which means electing Clinton.* But we’re not going to just play defense. We’re in this struggle to make America ever more just, and that requires offense: changing the terms of the debate; setting the agenda; electing people who will carry out the agenda. We can play both defense and offense simultaneously; and Team Bernie is in it to win it.
*I agree with Bernie and his surrogates that Trump must be defeated. Yes, I think Clinton’s election risks more war, reinforces our grotesque political economy status quo, and risks the TPP. I am enraged she is my choice. But Scalia’s seat is open, and the court’s majority hangs in the balance–is Kennedy the swing vote, or someone to his left?–even if the other aged justices stay on the bench through the next presidency. And some may not. Equally motivating for me, Trump inflames our racists and xenophobes, hurting our nation. I believe we must soundly reject the hate on election day. Finally, I think his fragile ego and impulse control issues make for dangerous recklessness.
And, I’ll admit–though it does not motivate my vote–I’ll be glad we’ve had a woman president, albeit the wrong one, because I believe it matters. And not just to my nine year old daughter. I’ll never forget, when I was gathering signatures to be a Bernie delegate, the 97-year old woman who refused to sign saying: I don’t care if she’s wrong, I want to see a woman President before I die.
I realize many of you disagree with my decision to help elect Clinton. I’m not interested in arguing with you. Vote your conscience.