From the DNC: In Search of the Bern


I went to the DNC to attend a Bernie protest. I expected aggressive, radical politics. Instead I got a contact high and a free sandwich. Politics is forever unpredictable, eh?

Wandering through the gigantic, empty parking lot of Citizen Bank Park — the closest my Lyft driver could get me to the Wells Fargo Center — felt like walking through a desert in search of water. I could see a Dunkin Donuts tent, but it was being taken down, and the heat was so oppressive, it could have been a mirage anyway (the heat index hit 108º during my hot, blustery trek to find protesters outside the DNC).

After what felt like months, I finally found a food truck and ordered a cheesesteak (in Philadelphia, Philly cheesesteaks are just “cheesesteaks”). While waiting for my local delicacy, I chatted with a Bernie delegate and her friend, the latter of whom was wearing a felt Robin Hood hat covered in Bernie pins (I thought it was a Peter Pan hat until I remembered I was at the DNC and not Disneyland).

As we spoke, a woman walked past covered in delegate swag and wearing a Hillary 2016 shirt. “I’m team Hillary, but I oppose the TPP. We’re on the same team. I love you,” she said imploringly, unprovoked, as she passed by. It was my first brush with a heartbreaking reality of the 2016 Democratic Party: People feel compelled to walk around apologizing to strangers because they’re voting for the presumptive nominee of the party that could beat Donald Trump.

After grabbing our chow, the delegate gal walked off into the convention and her Robin Hood friend (who’s asked not to be named) was stuck with me. He said protesters were meeting at FDR Park. The lady in the food truck told us FDR Park was “across the street” and motioned vaguely behind her. Eating while we walked (spoiler: Bernie protesters can walk and eat at the same time, but amateur journalists cannot!), Robin Hood and I groaned about the barren hellscape of Citizens Bank Park Parking Lot. “I have a terrible sense of direction, so I’m following you,” he told me. Ironic, I thought smugly. I walked us a block in the opposite direction of FDR Park.

Just as we’d given up hope of escaping the parking lot, a wave of protesters flooded Broad Street and, like a beacon of hope, carried with them a giant, inflated joint.

We rushed to catch up to the giant joint and I told Robin Hood a little anecdote about the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland concert: they lit a huge blunt on stage, performed all night, and in the morning made everyone breakfast. He said, “That’s cool!”, but in the way polite adults appease their grandparents’ needlessly detailed stories about what they had for lunch.

Immediately after catching up to the joint, we realized we’d been tricked. This wasn’t a protest. I mean, it was full of people who identified as protesters for a variety of issues: There was the Party for Socialism & Liberation, a group holding up three fingers and a piece of cardboard with a Mockingjay drawn on it yelling “I love you”s, the giant joint group for (you guessed it) marijuana legalization, and a massive number of individuals shouting at everyone else about the importance of standing up for what you believe in and fighting against “The Man.”

But it wasn’t really a protest so much as a loud walk; a brief foreplay for what could be leading to a chill outdoor concert (organized by, replete with free ice-cold water passed out constantly and bagged lunches provided by Food Not Bombs. I tried offering to pay for what I’d been given, but people wouldn’t even accept a KIND bar in exchange.

“They’re socialists! Of course they’re not going to let you pay them!” Robin Hood laughed.

“But this system is unsustainable!” I cried out in exasperation. I started to wonder if hanging out with socialists would make me more fiscally conservative.

A heartbreaking reality of the 2016 Democratic Party: People feel compelled to walk around apologizing to strangers because they’re voting for the presumptive nominee of the party that could beat Donald Trump.

Robin Hood seems to me like a perfect snapshot of the ideal Bernie supporter: He got involved in activism because of the Bernie campaign and he’s a diehard, but won’t get into a high-intensity argument with someone just because they have differing opinions from his. He expresses his views with compassion rather than eye-crossing passion. He listens rather than lectures. Bernie Sanders would be proud of him.

Of course, his politics make it pretty clear why he’s pro-Bernie: According to him, social change should and can happen quickly, and can be effected by pushing socialist and far-left policy into the mainstream, like a colonic. We spent a few hours at the park chatting and enjoying the sun.

Across the road, a large tent set up for a Jill Stein rally filled with what I can only describe as a fuckton of white people. Cornel West was there, but I admit to leaving before he spoke (if he even got a chance to), because a massive rainstorm rolled in and after seeing lightning on the horizon, I was extremely not down to be in an open field by a tent supported by metal poles.

Robin Hood, who was interested in possibly supporting Stein, started voicing his intense discomfort at the event for non-meteorological reasons: “It’s like a party of people who think knowing about social issues makes them exempt from being racist.” One speaker (a white guy) said, “I want white people, and only white people, to say ‘Black lives matter’!” Robin Hood and I shared a glance and cringed for the four non-white people in the crowd.

After we left, Robin Hood was distressed. “I don’t know who I’m voting for now. I thought maybe I’d want to support Jill Stein… but if that’s her party…” He winced when I suggested Gary Johnson and rippled with kneejerk repulsion when I meekly said, “Hillary?” His confidence seemed further shaken after I gave him a brief rundown of this piece.

The “protest” I’d joined hoping for a piping hot story turned out to be a giant burn sesh followed by an uncomfortable Green Party rally and then a massive downpour. Even the protesters who were “arrested” were really just zip-tied for show and cited for civil disobedience. Matt Pearce, a journalist for the LA Times, caught video of the protesters jumping the retaining fence surrounding the convention. They went calmly, one at a time, with police officers signaling when it was the next person’s turn to jump, like employees working a slide at a waterpark.

This wasn’t really a protest so much as a loud walk.

I’ve been to a number of protests. There’s always a few people who try to get arrested just for the bragging rights they think comes with it, and there’s always some who come to hang out because they think being subversive is cool. Usually, the majority of attendees are focused on the message and the outliers don’t detract from it.

But from this protest, it sure seems like Bernie protesters are the two extremes and none of the middle, focused on either hanging out and getting stoned or being just disobedient enough to get zip-tied so they have a cool new profile photo. And it’s not surprising why: Their message is a cacophony of messages, warped and distorted into chants opposing or supporting any number of issues, drowning each other out for the sake of sound, being so passionate they forget their purpose and thus can only satisfy their activist cravings with a quick, loud walk down the street followed by hanging out with like-minded people for a few hours. It’s like #OccupyWallStreet having a frat party. It’s a fun group to be around, but protesters forcing change they are not.

While Westboro Baptist Church members gathered slowly and quietly nearby, a group of guys who’d joined the protest walk to the park ran up to Vermin Supreme and begged him to join their party — “The People’s Party For Carnitas.” They chatted about how they want to have carnitas sold across the United States. Eventually, the protesters noticed the WBC and stood in front of their signs with their own signs for the protest and chanted “love not hate.” One guy (who looks like the type who’d bring his guitar to a protest) later joined and played an acoustic guitar. A woman working for the event came out on stage to tell people not to engage or counter-protest because that’d keep the Westboro Baptist Church there longer. Most didn’t listen.

Talia Jane is a Brooklyn-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter here and see more of her work here.