The following story was written by Bernie Sanders Colorado Delegate, Mark Lasser, who attended and participated in the four-day Democratic National Convention and lives to tell a very different story to the one of “unity” that we’ve been predominately fed by the Democratic Party and mass media at large.
“Freedom of speech is the right to yell theater in a crowded fire” – Abbie Hoffman
When I was in high school, as one of my co-curricular activities, I participated in theater. I was never cast in a starring role but had enough acting chops to land bit parts and ensemble roles. And while I have always liked theater, I hadn’t participated in any productions since then until July 2016 when, once again, I found myself in an ensemble role. This time with a disagreeable producer and director. The role was that of a delegate for Bernie Sanders in the four-day-commercial, otherwise known as the Democratic National Convention (DNC). The setting: Philadelphia, PA. The last week of July 2016. Temperatures are in the upper 90s and even hit 100 degrees with humidity that makes the city feel and smell like a homeless man’s personal sauna. The convention takes place in several locations and isn’t just what you see on the tube. Things get started early, around seven or eight in the morning with a sponsored $40 hotel delegate breakfast of powdered eggs, limp half-cooked bacon, stale coffee, and scolding’s from party insiders about how the Bernie delegates need to behave themselves, respect Hillary and her surrogates, “or else…” They never explicitly tell us what “or else” means, but we’ve been told, unofficially, that any signs, banners, or overt dissension will be reason for credentials to be revoked and a boot from the convention. So much for democracy and free speech… But for the time being, we don’t really give a crap; we’re optimistic that the 45% of Sanders pledged delegates are large enough in number that they can’t really kick all of us out.
This breakfast scolding is also where delegates get their daily credentials, which theoretically arrive by an armored vehicle — although no one actually sees this. Then delegates can either attend a day of programming at the nearby Convention Center on trade, veteran’s affairs, disability councils, or attend forums on improving race relations in the U.S. Most of the Clinton delegates that we have met use this time to go sightseeing with their spouses and children in-tow.
By two or three in the afternoon, people start looking for ways to get to the Wells Fargo Arena where the televised portion of the convention takes place. Theoretically, there are buses taking people the seven miles across town to the arena, but no one seems to know where they are located — especially not the myriad of people wearing the “Ask Me” T-shirts milling about the convention center. Most days I opt for the subway — which is free if one flashes one’s credentials to the booth attendant. After a mile or so walk, passing through multiple security screening areas, including one manned by the Secret Service, we arrive sweat-soaked to the home of the 76ers. Among the banned items are selfie sticks, mace, backpacks, and any signs or banners. And while I understand why they aren’t allowing in guns, knives, and the selfie sticks (annoying when hundreds of people use them simultaneously), the other items would have actually been useful — and yes, that includes the mace. And call it a pet peeve, but why is a backpack a security problem, while a messenger bag is not? Does that extra strap really have a lot of utility for a potential terrorist? This part of the convention with a little bit of business (passing of the rules and the approval of the platform) mostly comprise of speeches which start at around 4pm and go until 11:30pm. Then there are parties for those who still have some gas in the tank before starting all over again the next day.
So, theoretically, the convention is an event where elected delegates from around the country, along with the now over-discussed super delegates, convene to determine the party’s nominee for President. But in actually, this is a machined, hyper-controlled, psycho-manipulated, theoretical production, orchestrated not only to cover up any blemishes the party may have or to put its best face forward, but also to tell a story that all the players, including the media, have incentive to agree to.
This show takes place in four acts and regardless of how distending actors may want to alter the narrative, the show will likely prevail in the producer’s intended course through all four and until the curtains close. The order of the show is: Act I, Messy display. Act II, An even messier display and a “roll call.” Act III, Reconciliation. Act IV, Unity. On the first day, we are informed that the presumed Chair of the Convention, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the frizzy-haired Floridian woman with the New York accent who has been not only shilling but actively manipulating primaries and the media on behalf of Clinton for months has finally been exposed in a Wiki Leaks scandal and will not be gaveling the convention. (But this doesn’t stop her from appearing at the Florida delegation’s breakfast where she almost causes a riot before anything even gets underway.) The second choice of the party to run the show, Donna Brazile, is also nixed because she too has been so brazenly polarizing towards Hillary Clinton that the Clinton campaign has concerns that with her as director, we may never get to Act III. So, what to do? The party comes up with a Congressman who is black, female, and who no one — not even those politically obsessed, of which most of us count ourselves — has ever heard. Congresswoman Fudge? Uh, Okay.
To even get to this point, most of us in the Sanders delegation had to run for our positions, starting with primaries and caucuses, and then had to raise funds for the flight, food, and the hotels that have a “negotiated” rate of $400 to $750 per night with a 5 night minimum. Yes, not a typo. These are the same folks (the Democrats) that negotiate $1000 hammers and U.S. drug prices. Let me elaborate. When the convention comes into town it takes over all the hotel rooms in the area. It’s not just the 5,000 delegates who need to be housed. But also every Democrat official and aspiring politician who arrives hoping to rub elbows and become the next high-priced lobbyist. And, of course, any protesters that can get into a hotel. So in addition to the 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Arena, there are an estimated 30,000 more in town hoping to get into the big show, or at the least, working to meet people who could advance their careers. With this much influence one would think the Democrats could pit one potential convention city against another and negotiate favorable rates. In business terms, when it comes to the DNC, the Democrats are market makers and should be dictating the price as a condition of bringing the convention (business) to town. They don’t.
Here in Colorado — and to my knowledge this was similar in most states — the Sanders delegates are mostly working and middle class regular people who had to take a week off work, hit up friends and family for funds, and frequently launch GoFundMe pages to come up with the cash to “participate” in the democratic process. These delegates, while not naïve as to how icky politics can be, at least hoped to be included in the process of influencing the rules and platform and felt that with 45% of the pledged votes, would have their day to speak to the assembly through their own progressive firebrands such as Nina Turner, Cornell West, Bill McKibben, Susan Sarandon, etc. They believed this because, if for no other reason, they felt that the Clinton campaign leadership and the nominee herself not only wanted but needed the votes of the Sanders delegates. They also thought that the Clinton camp would need to appeal to the Bernie supporters at home who had elected the delegates in the first place. But this was not to be.
The Clinton delegates, on the other hand, often fit the mold of those with some level of political status. Again, here in Colorado, they comprised of party insiders, former party officials and those of the donor classes. Many of these establishment Dems make attending the DNC an every four-year family vacation. They see this as a week of political nirvana. They love it so much that for them, attending this political bacchanalian event is only exceeded by paying similar amounts for primo seats at Hamilton on Broadway or attending six figure fundraisers at the home of George Clooney or at any respective Governor’s mansion.
On the floor, one could generally identify the different camps by the wardrobe that had been adopted. The sharp suit and silk tie? Probably Clinton. The glitter-bombed, tutu-adorned man with the plastic marijuana leaf necklace? Probably Sanders. Smartly dressed woman from Georgia who looked like a red, white and blue accident had run over her? I’d guess Clinton. The three women who took sharpies to their arms and faces to write protests against the TPP and war? Yes, those are Bernie people.
Act I lives up to its expectations. Lots of booing at Hillary’s name. Sanders delegates sneak in some signs of protest against the TPP and fracking, and are mildly tolerated. While this is considered Bernie’s day, the producers and director of the show understand that in order to get to Act IV, they need to allow the masses to let off some steam. In fact, they plan for this, understanding that no one can boo and cheer at full bore for four days, and like Ali playing rope-a-dope, it’s smart to just let the “trouble makers” expend their energy early.
The most off-script moment comes when the otherwise respected Sarah Silverman ad libs and tells the approximately 1,800 Sanders delegates that if they don’t support Clinton they are being “ridiculous”. I watched this moment on TV when I got home and it sounded like the crowd was then shouting “Hillary, Hillary”. But from the floor, where I was during her speech, there was a roar of outrage. Seriously, who responds with being called ridiculous with a cheer of support? Silverman looked somewhat pained after her comment. Maybe she realized in that moment that she had crossed over the line from being that edgy alternative voice to becoming a part of the establishment script?
Finally, Bernie speaks. But is he the vitriolic man who has led the political revolution for the last year? Is he the progressive in the neo-liberal fortress that the Democrats have become? He seems to be so fully behind Clinton at this moment that the Sanders delegates are confused, crushed, and some even crying. I don’t think these were tears of frustration or the emotion of losing a race — although they may have been to some. For many, it felt like betrayal. Bernie was the voice of genuineness and the antithesis to the crappy political system that we had all been told that we had no choice but to accept. Everyone has their own explanation for why this endorsement occurred. I’ll give my thoughts at the end.
In the meantime, many of the Clinton delegates and guests walk out before he even starts. Are they getting a head start on the evening’s galas? Or do they simply not care a lick about the man who brought so much energy and new voters to the party? Who knows. But their dismissal is a massive first affront and sets a tone of disrespect for the next three days. The media stays consistent with the manufactured narrative and runs with the story of there being acceptable levels of discord and dissent. Anderson Cooper — rather hysterically — breaks away from a protest story that afternoon so that they can show the Boyz II Men performance.
Act II commences the next morning where the actual voting takes place. That’s right, the roll call vote that you see on TV where Connecticut claims to have invented pizza and hamburgers (Really? Not Italy and Germany?) is just for show. The actual voting took place during the morning scolding.
Here in Colorado, we had two Sanders delegates of whom most of us already knew were really Clinton surrogates with eyes on jobs as future political operatives or lobbyists. Both of these delegates came up with stomach aches the morning of the vote. Remember, this is actually the single most important reason they took the trip. Both were roused out of bed by other Sanders delegates. And while they did their best impressions at being wallflowers in the room while everyone else voted, they were eventually pushed to the ballot where they unenthusiastically signed their name to vote for Sanders. Understand, as pledged delegates representing thousands of people in their home state, they had an obligation to cast this vote.
During this second Act, things do in fact get messier. Clinton delegates start yelling at us to go home. Tell us we are losers and idiots for not supporting Clinton. Hundreds of Sanders volunteers who traveled on their own dime to be at the convention are denied credentials. And those lucky enough to penetrate past the Clinton security goons and get a credential are not awarded the floor passes that they were promised, but instead get guest credentials allowing them access only to the rafters where they are of little use as volunteers to the Sanders delegates. There is also now an increase in violent interactions on the concourse, in the bathrooms, and around the floor. (This is where the mace might have been helpful.) Sanders delegates from all over the country start sharing stories of being assaulted by both Clinton delegates as well as by the yellow vested volunteers who are actually Clinton campaign thugs with a mandate to provoke Sanders delegates so they can ultimately be removed from the arena.
Towards the end of the day, Sanders delegates, led by those from Washington state and California, walk out in protest and occupy the media tent just outside the arena. This is an attempt to get some recognition for the issues that 45% of the delegates came to represent and which were being ignored from the stage. In fact, the person expected to introduce Bernie, Senator Nina Turner — who failed to endorse Clinton — was not only denied the stage, but was also evicted from the convention for reasons that have still not been explained… So did the walkout get covered on TV? Unless you were getting your coverage from “The Young Turks” on YouTube, you probably had no idea it occurred.
Act III starts with the real exhaustion setting in. Delegates are getting very little sleep. Old people like me are clocking in four hours and the younger ones are getting only one or two. This is often because they are blogging back to their supporters who elected them or are getting up earlier than most since they are four or five people to a room and are showering off the Philly heat and cheese steak sweat from the day and night before–and it takes some time. I think the theme for this day — yes, every day has a theme — is “Stronger Together”, but it feels more like a contest of the yellow vested thugs to start filtering out the folks who are not fully on script. Verbal and physical attacks seem to be ramping up. At one point my delegation is waving signs that say, “Peace Not War”, “no Oligarchy” “No TPP” and “No Fracking.” A suited guy comes over to us, explains that he is a Sanders supporter and a Congressman from Wisconsin and that the Sanders campaign wants us to stop waving these signs. The one he says is really a step too far is the “No Oligarchy” sign. Seriously? That’s the one they find offensive? Some delegates collect the signs and, without proof of the origination of the request, willingly hand them over. Some refuse.
The yellow vests are now congregating around the aisles. Anytime a Sanders delegate goes up to wait in the 90-minute-long long for what is truly the worst arena food in America or to go pee, the Clinton organizers try to place a hired seat occupier in the seat. These are not temporary seat fillers like you hear about at the Oscars, these are people being told to not get up once they take over the seat, even for a credentialed delegate. So when you were watching at home and it seemed like slowly but surely the crowd was becoming more supportive of the established Clinton storyline, this is due to a forced manipulation. It is visually true but not because people are reconciling, but because the crowd is being forcibly transformed.
Perhaps the most surreal point of the night is when a military leader speaks to how much butt we’re going to kick once Hillary is elected, the Sanders delegates start the chant, “Peace, Not War”, and the rest of the arena drowns this out with chants of “U.S.A.” The DNC is now starting to feel like what most of us would associate with a GOP convention. It’s not that we also don’t like to chant “U.S.A” at things like Olympic events or at the World Cup, but using it in a combative manner is something many of us don’t affiliate with the Democrats.
Act IV is actually kind of boring. At this point people are exhausted. Many of the Sanders delegates that came to Philadelphia to raise differing points of view or awareness of progressive programs have been booted from the arena, are willingly not showing up because they don’t want to suffer the abuses, have thrown their credentials at the feet of their delegation chair’s in disgust, are so deflated, they’ve resorted to Facebook for any updates on alternative coverage, or are fending off attacks and accusations of being Trump supporters, morons, Don Quixotes, or worse. The energy is so sluggish it feels like the entire day is in slo-mo. The only sign of remaining disunity is the more than 100 people wearing fluorescent green T-shirts that say, “Enough is enough,” a favored Sanders quote. (In actuality, nearly 800 people ordered the shirts, and while I can’t be certain exactly how many were part of the fluoro protest on the day, it was at least 100.) The shirts literally glow whenever the lights are darkened in the arena and the black lights become the sole source of illumination.
As far as was apparent, only ABC News even noticed this passive protest. The other stations continued to focus on the narrative of unity, insisting that 90% of Sanders supporters were now aligned with Clinton. Is this really the truth or just a manipulated optical illusion that fulfilled the pre-scripted narrative paid for by massive corporate sponsors? You can probably guess what I think.
While I too suffered several abuses and indignities at the hands of the Clinton thugs and the DNC at large, I’ll share a specific incident. I happen to be a blind person. I carry a white cane to get around, and due to the noise, crowds, and time pressures of the convention, I had a sighted guide helping me throughout the week. As is typical of blind people, I am not 100% blind. I still have about 5% of my sight but cannot read printed materials, see the videos being played, or actually anything on the stage. That said, I pay a lot of attention to my surroundings and remember more than when I used to be able to see. I also watched the convention in its entirety when I got home, and, of course, received hundreds of notifications each day from social media. On the third day of the convention, the head of Colorado’s delegation, a Clinton super delegate, started to threaten my sighted assistant’s seat and told me that I may have to give up her seat and have her sit in the upper levels. This would, of course, entirely defeat the purpose of having a sighted guide. We held our ground. Towards the end of that third day, my cane slipped and fell to the floor. We were on the first level of inclined seats facing the stage and the cane happened to land on the floor in a way that it slid down about 8 rows in front of us. The delegation directly in front was from Louisiana, and several delegates helped locate the cane. When they realized it was recovered, they explained to the person holding it that I was blind and needed the cane. I am not sure exactly what happened next: one of the people a few rows in front of me said it was recovered by the Secret Service and another person said it was recovered by one of the yellow vested Clinton thugs. Whoever had my cane informed me that they would not give it back because I could use it as a weapon. Despite howls of protest from delegates from both camps, the cane was not going to be returned to me. I have to assume that the Secret Service is not this stupid and that it was probably one of the Clinton volunteers once again flexing their authority. But I had been taken beyond my tolerance point; I had a spare cane on me, and with it, stormed out of the arena and headed to the nearby park where the protests were being held. This move freaked out my guide as well as many in my delegation. I’m sorry for the extra stress I created for them, but I’m also so incredibly grateful for their support. At that point, I had no intention of returning for the last day, but was eventually convinced to attend the final chapter of the play.
The last and most pressing question is: What happened that made Bernie decide to convincingly endorse Clinton? Some take him at his word that he simply thinks Trump is so incrementally horrifying that he had to get in bed with the filth of the party and humble himself to align with all that he had so diametrically opposed for months in his opposition to Clinton. Others think he had to do this to get Clinton to adopt a more progressive platform. Others think that he may have been physically threatened or that his wife or children may have been threatened with violence if he did not get on board.
I am generally not much of a conspiracy theorist but struggle to reconcile Bernie’s actions. I think he should have taken up the Green Party’s offer, run as a third party candidate, and maintained his integrity. Now Bernie will be viewed as part of the establishment and his believers will never know how much fortitude he really has. Will he stay the course in the future or will he again endorse other politicians who are hawkish, big bank and oil supported puppets? He did seem beaten down and his lack of visibility in the weeks before and after the convention confused supporters.
I can’t tell anyone which of these theories is the truth. What is evident though is that we are now faced with a choice between two candidates so universally disliked and even hated that many people will likely sit this election out, vote third party, or simply buy into the fear and vote against instead of for someone. This is a loss for most of the country and especially a loss of what many of us felt was a unique opportunity to finally rise above the fray and elevate politics.
Feature image source: sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com