Why Bernie's Delegates Refused to Be Silenced at the DNC

For the fourth straight day of the Democratic Convention, I’m sitting in the California delegate section, and anxiously taking in the start of the final night’s program. In a couple of hours Hillary Clinton will accept her nomination as the first female presidential nominee, breaking the glass ceiling. It will be a historic exclamation point for women and the country at large; the red, white and blue balloons are in flag formation on the ceiling ready to drop and the whole stadium is vibrating with excitement.

Just as I am settling in, I feel a slight nudge on my shoulder and then my neighbor, a twenty-something blonde girl in jeans and a neon-green Bernie “Enough is Enough” T-shirt, points upward to a newly installed, gray speaker-type thing on the wall behind us. This contraption definitely wasn’t there yesterday. My fellow California Bernie delegate claims that it’s a white noise machine, installed last night to drown out our section’s chanting. “Wow,” I thought. “I really am in the eye of the storm.” 

For the record, this drama was later debunked by the DNC after a photo of it went viral—it was just a wi-fi antenna. Still, it underscored the anger, tension and paranoia that permeated every corner of the hall. In that moment, it became clear to me that while from the outside this convention was going to be judged a glowing success, many on the inside were going to view it quite differently.

If you’ve been paying attention to the media, you may be disgusted, outraged or a bit perplexed by the persistent shouting and in-your-face sign displays of the rowdy Sanders delegation, particularly the 200 or so members from California. Why would they boo, hold up signs, stage walkouts and act as general malcontents when their losing candidate had gotten so much out of his deal with Clinton? Actually, Bernie achieved much more than most losing candidates have ever garnered in the past, through hard-fought negotiations that resulted in a platform that was indeed much more progressive than it’s been in many years. This should be grounds for unparalleled unity—so what went wrong?

I can tell you one thing: it’s all very complicated. In reality, there were two conventions going on in Philadelphia—the formal Clinton coronation and the Sanders insurgency, and both movements were operating on different planets in completely different solar systems. This convention was never going to be the harmonious melding of two campaigns, because this isn’t standard issue politics. The Clinton campaign was not fighting a candidate, but a wildfire, whose goal by definition was to grow and thrive, not flame out. Bernie’s foot soldiers are highly emotionally involved and willing to fight to the bitter end.

Political conventions have evolved from forums for political activism and negotiation to very expensive, well-choreographed infomercials. The Philly convention in particular, because of the highly contentious nature of the primary, the activist delegates, the very real Trump threat, and the importance placed on the appearance of unity, was understandably extremely controlled by the Clinton campaign. This management of the message may have worked for the outside world, but it backfired with Sanders delegates and the tens of thousands of progressive activists from all over the country protesting on the other side of the Wells Fargo Center fence, who came to have their voices heard and who felt completely ignored.

Mainstream media reviews of the convention have been fawning—party unity has been achieved. However, there is an underbelly of progressive discontent, particularly among some politically active grassroots organizers who should be party unity ambassadors, that I hope can be addressed. In my view, it’s imperative that we all unite to vanquish the threat that is Donald Trump.

Why Was I There?

Demographically, I fit the profile of a standard-issue Hillary Clinton supporter (which post-primary I now am). I’m an affluent white female University of Chicago MBA of a certain age, a lifelong Democrat who has been in the entertainment industry for years and lives in Beverly Hills. However, I lost my heart to Bernie years ago and never looked back (I religiously listened to his “Brunch with Bernie” weekly segments on the Thom Hartmann radio show for over a decade). I’ve always been very progressive, and my somewhat leftie roots go way back to my childhood and my political science undergrad studies, particularly my university year spent in Manchester, England, the heart of the industrial revolution. If one is supposed to outgrow these idealistic tendencies as one gets older, I never got the memo.

I’m in Hollywood now, and during one somewhat awkward evening here last October, the day after the first Democratic debate, I hosted Bernie at my home for a meet-and-greet with Hollywood writers, actors and producers. Although we ended up having an amazing two-hour discussion and some fantastic ideas came out of it, it was clear that this was not Sanders' turf and he was full-bore cranky about it. Bernie repeatedly reminded the enraptured crowd that we were not living in anywhere close to the real world here in La La Land. However, one thing was for sure, all three of my millennial kids (and their friends) were more awe-inspired by Sanders than I’ve ever seen them before—Bernie is clearly a new-age rockstar for this generation.

Because of my ardent support for Bernie and my connections with the campaign, I was fortunate enough to be selected by the campaign as an “at-large delegate” to the DNC convention, ratified at the California State DNC Convention. Most of my friends are Clinton supporters—I’m in Hollywood after all—and during the past year I’ve been an active Sanders supporter in the community and of course on social media. I phone-banked and worked the Nevada caucuses, where I watched Harry Reid, when the polling numbers got too close for comfort, change the rules at the last minute allowing union leaders to march their workers in and vote en masse for Clinton under their watchful eyes. It’s been an interesting and frustrating year.

This is not my first Democratic Party rodeo. In 2004, I was on the John Kerry finance team (meaning I raised a lot of money), resulting in a position on the platform committee. As such, I ventured into a DNC convention full of celebrities and parties, hobnobbing with the political and cultural elite, fancy restaurants, and a whole lot of fun, all probably akin to what the Hillary donors experienced in their tony skyboxes in Philadelphia this year. I’ve been back to the two conventions since in various capacities, and it’s always been an invigorating, inspiring and totally enjoyable experience. Then came 2016.

The California Bernie Delegation

Let me state upfront that most of Bernie’s California delegates are among the best, most impassioned, idealistic, caring, hardworking, inspiring people I've ever met, and it’s safe to say I would not have ever met them in Beverly Hills. They are primarily grassroots activists who have been inspired by Sanders’ vision of a just society that works for everyone and not just the privileged few. This is a highly diverse group: laborers, union workers, students, aspiring politicians, nurses (the California Nurses Association in their omnipresent red shirts), social and philanthropic activists, government workers, gay, straight, Latino, black, you name it. Through it all they’ve become extremely close, as people who are united by a cause often are. They call themselves the Bernie family.

Our delegation included one of the youngest delegates, a 17-year-old Latina Bernified with sparkly eyes, glasses and an infectious smile. She became a delegate along with her sixty-something salt-and-pepper haired ex-laborer/union father, who had taught her the door-to-door organizing tricks of the trade: look for clues (war mementos, religious artifacts etc. in the home) and use them as a way in to begin the dialogue, convincing people to first believe in the system and then to vote for your candidate, all while making them think it was their idea.

Another key Bernie delegate I discovered was a climate warrior who wrote and fought for the platform plank that will force Hillary to have a climate summit within the first 100 days of her presidency. Alongside them was a tall, handsome, burly ex-jock who parlayed his organizing work for Bernie into a field coordinator position for an up-and-coming Latina state assembly candidate. These Bernieites worked tirelessly for the past year in their communities canvassing, phoning, bringing people into the Democratic Party, registering them to vote, and convincing the disenfranchised to vote for Bernie because he will help change the broken system that isn’t working for them.

It isn’t easy to become a delegate. Most are district level, meaning that they had to campaign and run in highly competitive elections in their districts. They’ve worked incredibly hard to be at this convention, giving up “Yuuuuge” amounts of personal time, resources and energy.

It was also quite expensive to attend the convention because the DNC “highly recommends” all state delegates stay at the assigned state hotel (about $3000 for five nights), and there are transportation, food and other costs to figure in. This caused a lot of uncertainly, confusion and anxiety for everyone. To cut costs, many delegates shared rooms with up to five people or found cheap digs very far away. Most had to create GoFundMe campaigns to raise money from friends, family and generous Bernie supporters. The Sanders campaign ended up chipping in some money at the end to help. To add insult to injury, delegates were asked to pay $200 for a daily breakfast package (that’s where you pick up your daily convention credentials) that included speeches by political luminaries. Delegates were free to attend the speeches without paying, but they couldn’t access the buffet. I am certain many did just that.

Pre-Convention Planning

Why was it so important for Sanders delegates, the representatives of the losing candidate, to sacrifice so much to attend the convention? The simple answer is that they wanted to participate and be part of the political process and represent those who they brought into the system and supported them in getting to Philadelphia. They wanted a seat at the table because they still believed in the system and the opportunity for real and lasting change. Going into the convention, neither candidate had enough delegates without superdelegates to win on the first ballot, so perhaps a few thought there was still a possibility to nominate Bernie. For most, however, they wanted to go through the roll call and proudly cast their votes for Bernie. They felt they deserved this. Most, though not all, came not to disrupt, but to be heard.

Our casually dressed Bernie street army took their cues from Occupy and their roles as delegates very seriously. For the vast majority, this was their first convention, and they genuinely felt they were representing the many thousands of constituents who sent them there. A lot of pre-planning was involved. They created a chain of command and elected district leaders to establish communication with the other state delegations. They held planning meetings at people’s homes where strategies, ideas and logistics were discussed, including lessons on civil disobedience and communications tech tools (e.g. Fire Chat, Facebook, Slack and text messaging).

Interestingly, there was very little communication from the campaign about what to expect at the convention itself, apart from logistical information about getting to and staying in Philadelphia. This was a relatively politically inexperienced crew, many new to the process, and I know that there was some confusion about what exactly our role was going to be and what to expect. It is entirely possible that some thought securing the nomination for Bernie was still possible—and that was never contradicted by the campaign.

A week or two before the convention, I attended a potluck planning session in the suburban backyard of our district leader’s home in Alhambra. As a group of about 20 or so of us discussed differing ideas for “actions” in the summer evening heat, I began to feel a bit uneasy about what was going to go down in Philly. It was unclear to me at that moment what these vaguely contemplated actions were meant to accomplish. Nobody had attempted anything like that at any convention I’d previously attended. The meeting ended with an older, wiser, politically savvy delegate, who later throughout the convention would constantly try to lend his seasoned, calming perspective, leading us in song, belting out lyrics specifically written for Bernie. I came away from this meeting confused about what was going to happen. At the same time, I admired their fierce passion and remained in agreement with them on the issues. I was committed to going along for the ride. I was a Sanders delegate, and this was my new posse.

Et tu Brute?

Just prior to the convention, Bernie supporters received a devastating one-two punch that left us all staggered and angry. First, Hillary picked the centrist, pro-TPP (you’ll see later how strongly the delegates feel about this), “right-to-work” Tim Kaine as her VP, dashing any hopes that she would choose a progressive like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown or a more diverse pick like Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Second, the hacked DNC emails confirmed what we all knew, that the party was not neutral and had “put their thumb on the scale,” in David Axelrod’s words, for Clinton. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the DNC, was fired—a good sign—but then was immediately snapped up as Honorary Chairperson of the Clinton campaign. She was then “eulogized” in glowing terms by all the Clintonites.

It was clear, beyond the platform concessions already negotiated with progressives, Hillary and her operatives were moving on and were already ignoring us. Now that the Bernie revolution had been co-opted in their view, the Clintons were now focused only on capturing those white, working-class males in danger of voting for Trump.

This was going to be “fun.”

Inside the Hotel: 'You Don’t Belong Here'

It was also becoming clear, perhaps before the opening gavel, that our delegation never felt anywhere near on even footing with the Clinton campaign at the convention. In the eyes of many, who might have still seen this as a contested convention, we were struggling to even establish ourselves as second-class citizens.

Every morning we filed into the grand hotel ballroom at the Marriott, where we were to pick up our daily credentials and attend the $50/person breakfast program. The cavernous room was outfitted with dozens of circular tables adorned with Hillary photo centerpieces and Pelosi rainbow wristbands, where Clinton and Sanders delegates were to mingle with each other and the lineup of power brokers in attendance.

On the first morning, our team replaced the Hillary decorations with Sanders stickers and bobble heads on our tables only. In theory, it was a wonderful opportunity to interact, but actually it became as segregated as a diner in Macon, Georgia in the '50s. Delegates gathered with their own kind, and although I didn’t really take note, I’m sure that there were Sanders delegates who did not partake of the buffet, having stopped at McDonalds beforehand for a more affordable meal. We were treated to speeches from a parade of political luminaries and a few wannabes giving talks about unity and coming together. At one breakfast, Barbara Boxer came to promote and sell her new book The Art of Tough. Suffice to say, our crew, some of whom could barely afford to eat, was not buying it, literally or figuratively.

The first day at breakfast, well before the 4:30pm opening convention gavel, organizers decided to wave a red cape before a crowd of snorting bulls with their tone-deaf decision to feature Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State, who had just presided over one of the most seemingly shenanigans-filled California Democratic primaries in recent memory. There were voter roll issues, and the ballots took weeks to count. A huge apparent win for Clinton later resulted in a much narrower victory after the Sanders campaign got involved to make sure every vote was counted. It didn’t help that the AP declared Clinton the winner the night before the primary, helping to suppress the vote.

For Sanders stalwarts, all this just reemphasized the notion that the fix was in. Hearing Padilla exhort and scold us into unity on Day One was almost too much for many in the delegation to bear. So the bulls rudely broke out of their holding pens: “Count our votes, count our votes” they shouted over and over again. Clinton delegates dressed to the nines and mingling, were shocked speechless. Who were these crude T-shirted riff raff and didn’t they realize who won? This was not supposed to happen.

I can say this as someone who’s been around the block: Many Sanders delegates, myself on occasion, were sometimes not treated well, particularly on a personal level at the convention center and around town, and this fostered a completely unnecessary us-vs.-them mentality. Of course it’s not all one-sided—the booing on the first day was awful and counterproductive and perhaps that set everything in motion; tales were told of being scolded, heckled and shunned by hardcore Clinton supporters on a daily basis, and in a few cases having food and water thrown in their faces. On the other hand, it wasn’t all bad, and there were many positive interactions with Clinton people as well.

Yes, we had determined to stick together for strength, but most of us were friendly, willing, available and even eager to talk to those Clintonites, and there were many positive interactions. I proudly wore my Sanders button and credentials, but made a point of smiling and saying hello to everyone I encountered in elevators and lobbies. These smiles were sometimes met with outright hostility and sneers. I looked and dressed like a Clinton delegate. Sanders delegates, many younger and most less affluent, did not, and were treated far worse than me. Almost everyone felt the need to chastise us for not wholeheartedly jumping on the Hillary train (“Don’t you know the stakes?”), without even knowing who we planned to vote for in the general (again, Clinton for me). I’ve got to say that many, not all, delegates arrived not quite “Ready for Hillary” and left full of resentment and even less ready.

My cell phone pinged constantly throughout the day with notices and commentary from our leaders and fellow delegates, providing instructions, calls to action or just plain information (e.g. “Take the subway, not the shuttles because they’re faster”). After breakfast each day, one of the omnipresent pings was to remind us to meet upstairs in an empty room by the pool for our daily meeting (on the second day we were escorted out by hotel security and forced to relocate elsewhere).

These meetings had an Occupy-like impromptu feel, yet they were run with military-like precision. Leaders debriefed, and then everyone who wanted to speak put their name in a queue and was allotted a strictly enforced 30 seconds to talk. And talk they did. As the week progressed and our delegation was getting media attention and things were getting rougher, people emotionally and often tearfully spoke of their extreme fatigue, stress and their love for their fellow delegates. They had to appear strong to the outside world, but inside many were crumbling while struggling to gather strength and love from each other. Delegates also offered suggestions on strategy (signage, chants, etc.) and distributed materials such as T-shirts, markers, buttons and signs. I often felt a high degree of cognitive dissonance, because while the leaders were reporting cries of solidarity and support from other states’ delegations, their own networks back at home, and even activists like Michael Moore, my Clinton delegate friends up in the skyboxes and the disapproving mainstream press were wagging their fingers. Once the press got wind of the meetings, they tried to get in, and when they couldn’t, microphones and cameras were shoved in our faces as we exited.

On Day 2, all 1,900 Sanders delegates were called together to meet in a large room at the convention center with our resolute leader Bernie Sanders (and the press), who urged us to unite and support Clinton. As was widely reported, resounding boos and jeers greeted Sanders when he said this. He tried again at the next morning’s breakfast: “It is easy to boo, but it’s harder to look your kids in the face who would be living under Donald Trump.” Again, not good. I know that Bernie, and most every delegate there sincerely wanted to defeat Trump, and I can only imagine the immense pressure on Sanders to get his crew in line. However, it was late in the game and his supporters were hurt, bewildered and angry.

A word about the Trans Pacific Partnership: This issue has become a flashpoint for the delegates because of the probability of an imminent ratification vote on it during the upcoming lame duck congressional session. Both Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine had previously promoted it, but due to pressure from Sanders and progressives they now oppose it. There are many signs that their newly found opposition is tenuous at best, and progressives are frantic to put them on watch and make sure it does not get passed. Our delegates reached out to Clinton delegates with unity petitions on the issue, and although many signed, some Sanders delegates were floored by how many did not even know what the TPP was. This was also true of a DNC lawyer, and the press. (One delegate reported that a major news reporter pulled him aside as he was holding a “No TPP” sign and asked what the TPP was.) Ironically, Trump has grabbed the anti-TPP mantle and will most certainly use it against Clinton with the vaunted white males the campaign so actively seeks if she doesn’t forcefully commit to opposing it.

The Convention Itself: The Shouting Continues

Day One was to be Sanders’ day, yet the convention cut our beloved Sanders surrogate Nina Turner from the program—she had been scheduled to introduce Sanders. She is apparently considered a traitor to Clinton, who she initially supported before switching to Sanders, yet this felt like a big betrayal to the delegates. If nothing else, Sanders' army proved to be exceedingly nimble and resourceful, so “I’m with Nina” stickers quickly materialized and were worn by everyone who could get their hands on one of them. Tulsi Gabbard and Jane Sanders were nowhere to be seen, and Sanders’ celebrity endorsers like Rosario Dawson, Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley were also not included in the program, but appeared everywhere around the hotel and convention center.

This did not send a strong unity message, and delegates were agitated. Many began booing at every mention of Hillary Clinton, interrupting the speeches. It got so bad that subsequent speakers seemed to hesitate a bit before mentioning Clinton’s name. The media was crawling all over us and shoving cameras in our faces for interviews and footage, further amplifying the chaos.

Our delegates held up their “No TPP” and other signs and were later told that many people had googled TPP because of it, so signage was deemed to be quite an effective tool. In fact, the Wall St. Journal just reported that the odds of its passage are fading as the tide is turning against it in both parties, accompanying it with a photo of anti-TPP protesters in our section at the convention (yes!). Sanders arrived on stage at the end of the evening to a three-minute standing ovation, and the delegation became very emotional, tears and cheers all around. It was a bittersweet moment.

Seating and access was always an issue. We would enter to find Hillary delegates admitted early in secret and the front sections taped off or with reserved signs. We sat behind our own Mason Dixon line. At times, they brought in well-dressed seat-fillers to crowd us out. As I left early one evening, I encountered a busload of them being let out and given credentials. On the days of the vote, with a hot microphone in front, no Sanders delegates were allowed near the area. On the last day, before the acceptance speech (at the same time as the Lady Gaga concert across town), it became clear that Clinton delegates were told to arrive very early, were let in and then the doors were shut behind them. When we arrived early for the convention but not early enough for their secretive plan, we were told that delegates were not allowed in until 3pm, clearly untrue. Along with several late Clinton delegates, I tried another entrance and when we were told the same story, one mistook me for a fellow Clinton delegate and whispered in my ear, “At least they all got the story straight. There would be trouble if they didn’t.”

After Day 1, it was decided to forgo the booing for the most part (thankfully) and pivot to issues, primarily because booing was ineffective and turning everyone off, and partially due to pleading from Bernie. Our leadership urged us to act with respect. TPP signs and some short bursts of non-interruptive chanting were the order of the day. Hillary’s team began to shout over our chants of “No more war!” “No TPP!” "Ban Fracking Now" and "Black Lives Matter" with cries of “HILL-A-RY! HILL-A-RY!” and “U.S.A!” 

Day 2 was the roll call vote. This is why we were here—to show strength in numbers and cast our votes for Bernie. Everyone was dismayed to see that on the first roll call, superdelegates were lumped in with pledged delegates—not what most were expecting, given the campaign’s lack of communication about things like this, dramatically overstating Clinton wins statewide and significantly decreasing to the viewing public Sanders’ significance in the election. This didn’t seem fair. Sanders delegates, upset at the whole process anyway, stormed out chanting and organized an Occupy-type sit-in in the media tent, though I had already left before this happened.

Relations between Sanders delegates and Clinton delegates were now circling the toilet. From my perspective, I saw a lot of harassment from the Clinton side. Our 17-year-old delegate was a victim of this and was badly shaken. The enforcers took away people’s credentials for no reason, barred some of us from getting in, and dealt with us in a very aggressive manner in general. There are agitators and flat-out jerks in every crowd, on our side as well, but the balance in my area tipped to the Clinton people and their handlers, who saw us as childish interlopers, perhaps understandably, as this was not what they came for.

Initially, organizers only allowed official signs, and our ”No TPP” signs were confiscated. Later this was only sporadically enforced, but our crew became savvy about hiding their homemade signs. When we actually wanted their official signs, as when President Obama spoke, we weren’t given any. I tried to get some, but our whole Bernie section was refused. The Berners around me still loved Obama and his family, some having worked hard for him, despite his support for the TPP. Plans were to hold up both the “No TPP” and “Obama” signs. The next day, the Hillary signs did not have as many takers, and some people used markers to turn them into signs that read “Liar.” (Just reporting the facts, ma'am.) As with the chants, the Clintonistas got smart, and banners were unfurled to cover our banners and American flags were proudly waved to mask our signs. By the last day I felt so uncomfortable about the whole situation, I watched most of the program from the bar.

I noted a severe disconnect not only between the Clinton campaign and this progressive army, but between the Sanders campaign and them as well. Sanders had negotiated his deal, and really did seem to want his people to fall in line. He sent us all texts, and his floor whips were probably more repressive than Clinton's. Former Sanders staffers I know really did not agree with the signage and texted me as much. One, now a Clinton staffer, asked if sending over surrogates or celebrities would work to calm the raging masses. As if. These Sanderistas are serious and concerned with issues: no celebrity, surrogate or politician—even Sanders himself—will lead them astray from their mission.

The Future

I do not want to romanticize what happened; however, I found the whole thing to be heartbreaking because most of the delegates had arrived in Philadelphia full of idealism and determination to continue the revolution. Yes, they were and will continue to be in varying degrees, militant in their beliefs and actions, and not much concerned with etiquette. Clearly there was a lack of information going in and an extreme culture clash with the Clinton establishment, and things spiraled out of control. One delegate told me he’s worried about convincing those they brought into the system with promises of reform to stay, now that their initial suspicions appear to have come true. Perhaps the system will not work for them.

At this convention, the appearance of unity seemed more important than unity itself. There were some quiet rebellions, astute teleprompter watchers who noticed that Reverend Barber’s ad-libbed cry for the safety of both Palestinian and Israeli children had probably not passed muster. By the end, many Sanders supporters were battle-hardened and determined not to capitulate. This had little to do with the fact that Clinton won the election, and more to do with the sense that they were not being heard, silenced by white noise, real or imagined. Most want to be part of the party, but they want the party to want them. Many in our delegation stated that they were ready to leave; I think that will change. Time may heal these wounds. I hope so because we need them. The Bernie nation really cares about the issues; they want a voice and a seat at the table.

Most of my friends and family have been with Clinton from the start, and now so am I. I know there is congruence between both sides on more issues than not, and the idea of Trump as president is unthinkable. Anyway, in my view (to quote Rumsfeld), you go to war with the army you have. Meanwhile, the revolution will continue. I do worry about our prospects in this change election, and I believe it’s essential that progressives become engaged and are included. Commitment to meaningful reform of the DNC (a progressive co-chair?) would go a long way, as well as strong, specific, full-throated commitments and plans to stop the TPP and fracking, taking big money out of politics, universal healthcare and at least being open to progressive viewpoints on other issues.

These Bernie delegates are among the best in the party, and I hate to see them dismissed and now demonized, however rude they might have seemed and actually might have been. Dissent has always been a crucial part of the political process—that’s how change happens. Some of the tactics used at the convention were clearly not well thought out and counterproductive, but they came from the heart. They’re the street warriors for social, economic, political and racial justice, though, and they are the future. Let them leave at your own peril, Democrats. To the DNC and the Clinton campaign I say, what you need most is not their silence, but their passion. They have been knocking on doors, canvassing and bringing many new people into the system to vote. They want to believe that the system can work for all of us. Help them. What you should fear most is not when they shout, but when they walk away.

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