It’s (Not) Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Matthew Petti, Columbia University:

2016 is not 1968, but it looks similar in many ways: in a year of global turmoil, the Democratic nominee faces strong opposition from the Left. As in the infamous summer of 1968 in Chicago, much  of this opposition manifested in street demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention. Although Philadelphia did not erupt into citywide riots, the demonstrations both inside and outside the Wells Fargo Center were noticeably disruptive. Some emerged from the embers of the Bernie Sanders campaign, while others were explicitly non-partisan. Emerging social movements will continue to be a nuisance for Clinton on the campaign trail, and if she wins come November, in the White House as well.

Demonstrations on the first day were mostly disparate. City Hall was a gathering point for groups of various ideologies, all of which had some grievance with the Democratic Party. Socialist parties handed out literature on the sidewalk, while Sanders supporters sported Bernie gear. A march called “DNC Cannabis Pride” paraded giant inflatable cigars down Broad Street, and a man with a sign that said “globalism will not win” told passers-by to vote for Donald Trump. The mood was light and spontaneous; when a group called the DNC Protest Socialist Contingent attempted to create a bloc of marchers with red flags, it ended with the flags scattered across several different marches. Inside the stadium, opposition was similarly disorganized. Although anti-TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) activists and Sanders supporters noticeably attempted to start chants several times during the speeches, they were not able to gain enough momentum to disrupt the speakers.

Events intensified on the second day on both sides of the security perimeter. After a roll call vote, Sanders delegates orchestrated a well-organized walkout and takeover of the media tent. On the street, a local Black Lives Matter committee led a march towards City Hall. Their demonstration unapologetically rejected partisan politics, denouncing the justice system itself rather than any electoral party. “I know people personally, still sitting in jail. They’re forty, in jail since they were sixteen or seventeen,” one speaker at the march said, “We have to talk about a revolution to free our people [from] these jail cells!” A broad coalition of groups dedicated to racial and economic justice participated, as organizer Cornelius Moody explained: “Blackness is a stigma attached to a group of people. These are the black people, the unwanted, the second class citizens…It’s not just about black people, it’s about Palestinians, it’s about all marginalized people as a whole.” Indeed, the steering committee of the march included groups ranging from Jewish Voice for Peace to the South Asian Workers’ Collective.

At City Hall, the Black Lives Matter march mingled with a variety of groups already gathered there, including a “Bernie or Bust” demonstration, a Marxist-Leninist-Avakianite party, and a Palestinian human rights group. After several hours, a contingent broke off from City Hall and marched on the Wells Fargo Center. Meanwhile, a roll call vote culminated in a Sanders delegate walkout, occupying the press tents. A contingent of Sanders supporters left the convention center to join a Green Party march led by Jill Stein; bizarrely enough, they collided with the demonstrators from City Hall moving the opposite direction. Battle lines were quickly drawn between radicals and moderates, and “Bernie peacekeepers” from the Sanders campaign futilely attempted to stop protesters from burning an American flag. The message of the day was clear: many factions of the Left rejected the results of the DNC, a significant number of which did not see the political process itself as legitimate.

The third day saw an eclectic variety of protests. A religious group badgered Bernie Sanders supporters outside of City Hall. A group of leftists camped out at FDR Park, near the Wells Fargo Center. A man in a clown suit smuggled himself past the Secret Service, performing a skit for delegates and journalists protesting neoliberal economics. Outside the press tent, the delegation from Puerto Rico formed a human chain, denouncing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) for giving the island a “colonial” status. Tensions ramped up later in the night as a contingent from the FDR Park encampment attempted to storm the Wells Fargo Center. According to activists who witnessed the events, seven masked demonstrators were arrested attempting to charge the security perimeter with bolt cutters. A dispute similar to that of the previous night broke out within the demonstration, and a Sanders supporter received second-degree burns trying to stomp out a burning flag.

Security forces in Philadelphia, perhaps fearing a repeat of Chicago 1968, were very careful not to provoke demonstrators throughout the convention. Several marches were allowed unharmed down Broad Street, and the local police promised to avoid chemical irritants due to the humidity. Nevertheless, some activists reported harassment away from the cameras. As Mr. Moody claimed, a fellow organizer who had been arrested for “disorderly conduct” the week before was told, “We know who you are. We know that you’re with one of those protest groups.” The organizer was given a $300 citation and left police custody with a broken toe and a torn ACL. Even more frighteningly, the pacifist Keith McHenry, one of the founders of the nonviolent anarchist Food Not Bombs network, reported a visit from the FBI the previous week. Inside the convention center, the Democratic Party attempted to thin the ranks of any attempted disruptors. Delegates were told that they would lose their security credentials for the remainder of the convention if they brandished Bernie Sanders paraphernalia. However powerful the demonstrators were, the police and Democratic Party perceived them as a threat.

Conflicts between moderates and radicals and police harassment notwithstanding, protesters at the DNC showed impressive amounts of solidarity and organization. Volunteer “street medics” treated injuries and handed out water in the sweltering heat, without financial reward or recognition. Protesters camping at FDR Park distributed food and coffee for free in the name of Food Not Bombs; Mr. McHenry participated himself. In spite of – or perhaps because of – their wholesale rejection of police, the Black Lives Matter organizers made sure to keep their own ranks orderly and safe. As an activist who wishes to remain unnamed recalled after the convention, “radicals from all over managed to find each other and make noise every night, which was very inspiring.” Indeed, it sometimes felt like a new social movement was spontaneously forming. This movement, which rejects both the populism of Donald Trump and the managerial liberalism of Hillary Clinton, is a growing force in American politics. It remains to be seen whether Philadelphia 2016 will be a watershed moment for the Millennial Left as Chicago 1968 was for the Baby Boomer Left.


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