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‘This Is What Democracy Looks Like’

Disgruntled protestors search for hope amid a tumultuous start to the Democratic National Convention.
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On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, an American revolution seems more than just history. Headed west on Chestnut Street — past the construction crew at work on the future Museum of the American Revolution, past the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall— Bernie Sanders supporters make their way to Philadelphia’s City Hall to protest Hillary Clinton’s nomination for president of the United States.

“Tell me what democracy looks like,” shouts a man with a bullhorn on the south side of City Hall.

“This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd chants in reply, over and over again. Some Berners wave “Never Hillary” signs at cars passing by, while a local vendor raises soft pretzels and bottles of water invitingly toward other Sanders supporters who’ve huddled in the shade of the corridor to the City Hall courtyard. It’s a brutally sunny day, with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees.

The movement is decentralized, chaotic. Briefly, some in the crowd seem to take their cue from last week’s Republican National Convention, screaming “Lock her up,” before switching to a far less confrontational cry of “We are Bernie.” There are eccentrics too: One young man is dressed in a onesie printed with Sanders’ face, while a group of young women wear green pasties in the shape of marijuana leaves over their breasts.

Many protesters seem to share certain frustrations. In the wake of the Democratic National Committee’s email leak and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s subsequent resignation, they believe their worst fears about a rigged national political system have been confirmed. And many are determined to vote this fall for a candidate who would force a re-alignment of that system — with or without Sanders. Their candidate may have lost — some may not have even had a candidate in the race in the first place — but they’re looking for wins elsewhere.

“Bernie was Plan A, Jill is Plan B,” says a man handing out buttons for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. “And, in many ways, Jill is better.”

Standing on the edge of the protest, Raven Hill says she’s considering Stein for her Plan B. This 68-year-old was a local and state delegate for Sanders in her hometown of Cle Elum, Washington, but came to the DNC just as a supporter. “He’s who I’ve been waiting for forever,” she says of Sanders. “He stands for everything I believe in.” Hill doesn’t believe Clinton and Donald Trump are viable candidates for president; she doesn’t want to be forced into voting between the lesser of two evils. But, like many others, she doesn’t know much about Stein yet either, and wonders whether the Green Party leader has the experience to be president.

“It’s not about who we’re against. It’s what we’re for.”

A considerable contingent of these protesters out on the street — including Jeff Taylor — are specifically critical of Clinton’s stance on fracking. Taylor, a 37-year-old heavy equipment operator, is concerned about the future of the planet. And he doesn’t trust Clinton with that future. So he’s “Bernie or Bust,” and he says his fellow protesters — the ones he’s met, at least — are feeling the same way. He predicts most of their votes will go to Stein.

But what about Sanders himself?

Sanders seems to agree with his supporters when it comes to Wasserman Schultz’s resignation. On Sunday, he released a statement approving the decision, saying, “The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race.”

But he doesn’t agree with his supporters when it comes to their votes in November. From the speech that he gives later that night at the convention:

It is no secret that Hillary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues. That’s what this campaign has been about. That’s what democracy is about. But I am happy to tell you that at the Democratic Platform Committee there was a significant coming together between the two campaigns and we produced, by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. … Our job now is to see that platform implemented by a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House and a Hillary Clinton presidency — and I am going to do everything I can to make that happen.

Many Sanders supporters boo. They can’t stomach the sight of their candidate falling on his sword. Sometimes it doesn’t matter who wins. It matters who loses.

It is precisely this conflict that’s in play during a rather loud argument in front of City Hall between a middle-aged African-American man pulling a cart filled with Clinton fliers and a young white man wearing a T-shirt reading: “Life’s a garden. Dig it.” As passersby gather in to listen, the young man shouts, “You’re saying that if we don’t support HRC, we are voting for Trump.”


“That’s fucked up,” the young man says, his voice rising on the last syllable.

“That’s what it is,” the older man says flatly.

“No, if we stopped voting for fear 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be faced with it here. If our parents had not succumbed to evil and fear, we wouldn’t be voting for it today. It is not selfish to vote for your morals and your principles!”

“But how else can you win?”

“It’s not a win! The only way we can win is if we vote for our values!” (“There are more of us than there are of them,” an onlooking woman chants in the background.)

The older man seems frustrated. “As an African-American man, do you think I enjoy any of this?” he asks.

Moments later, the protesters from City Hall begin streaming south on Broad Street toward the Wells Fargo Center. A disembodied voice calls out, “We need volunteers for the second joint!” A few volunteers make their way to a 51-foot inflatable marijuana joint, hoist it on their shoulders, and march on.

Winning seems an amorphous term over at City Hall. Would winning mean Sanders in the White House? Or perhaps Stein? About two miles down Broad Street in South Philadelphia, the term takes on a very specific meaning for one group of Sanders protesters determined to fight against racist symbolism. Maybe their candidate didn’t win, but perhaps his values can live on.

All along the protest route, the city is flying the flags of the 50 states — including, of course, the state flag of Mississippi, which bears the battle flag of the Confederacy in its upper lefthand corner. At first, it’s about a dozen people who notice the flag and sit down on the pavement. It is just before 2 p.m., peak heat on a blazing day. Steve Chandy, a 23-year-old Philadelphia resident, takes out his guitar and leads the group in riffs on civil rights anthems. “All we are saying,” he crooned, “is take down that flag.”

As the number of flag-sitters grows exponentially — additional waves of people marching down the street join in as they passed — the protesters engage in a peaceful stand off with the Philadelphia police officers who’ve also descended upon this patch of street. Self-appointed representatives ask officers standing nearby for a ladder. Taylor, the heavy equipment operator, is here too. He’s trying to climb the pole to dismantle the flag. Though he’s quickly told to stop by police, he concedes that the officer was “pretty cool about it.” By the second hour of the protest, police officers inform the protesters that they would remove the flag by the following day. That still wasn’t good enough.

Some in-fighting between the protestors starts to break out as the afternoon drags on. Some have had enough, and would rather the whole group walk south to Marconi Plaza, where Stein is expected to speak. But another, seemingly led by a middle-aged man in a gray Sanders shirt, opts to stay. “If you’re satisfied, walk away,” the man in the gray shirt lectures. “If this doesn’t mean enough to you, walk away.”

And still they stay another hour, chanting “Bring a ladder; black lives matter.” One tanned man wearing his brown hair in a bun loops together several shoelaces and ties them to his shoe, which he throws up toward the flag in hopes of tearing it down. But police officers surround him, foiling his shoelace ploy. A helicopter circles above. One police officer mutters something about how the flag shouldn’t even be up there. The city was planning to take it down, he promised. “I’ll believe it when I see it, bro,” sings Chandy, strumming his guitar.


Around 5 p.m., cheering erupts from the edge of the protest crowd: The city has sent a truck with a lift. “This is what democracy looks like,” the protesters chant with glee. Quickly, a city employee jumps into the lift and ascends to the flag, which he pulls down without ceremony. The truck drives away, as do most of the police officers. The whole thing is over so fast, the goal achieved so smoothly. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the protesters shout to the police.

Chandy looks proud as he watched his friends clean up the pizza boxes, empty water bottles, and assorted trash—all of it the byproduct of a successful protest. He’s not going to vote for Clinton. He was especially dismayed by the DNC email leak; he’d been sure that Sanders supporters were just paranoid about the system being rigged in Clinton’s favor.

“It’s not about who we’re against,” he says. “It’s what we’re for.”