The 2016 DNC is the first national political party convention I’ve ever attended. It will probably be my last.
It’s not that I’m swearing off future conventions. I just doubt that I’ll be invited again. As a Black, dreadlocked, social justice community organizer and Movement for Black Lives warrior, I’m not exactly a party regular. In fact, part of my day job is fighting entrenched political machinery and I lead an organization that, among things, is building a decidedly non-electoral power base in Central Brooklyn.
Which is why it took a candidacy like Bernie Sanders’ and recruitment from the Working Families Party to get me to run for a New York State Sanders delegate seat.
I get it: National elections affect our lives in profound ways. Wars, the Supreme Court, economic policies — these things matter. Still, I entered Wells Fargo Arena with a healthy amount of skepticism. I have little faith in the impact that Clinton, or even Sanders for that matter, can otherwise have on a political culture so deeply rooted in white American exceptionalism, militarism and corporate dominance. Measured that way, I’ve usually found the notion of a “change” election absurd.
But in other ways, the DNC managed to live up to its promise as an once-in-a-lifetime experience. It wasn’t Clinton’s glass ceiling break that made this convention so compelling for me, but the close-up view of the convention’s Hollywood-grade stagecraft and party propaganda, accompanied by the instructive scene of a party struggling with its identity.
It’s hard to argue that the speeches by Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and Rev. William Barber, for instance, were not poetic, effective and morally clear. But more often, standing on the convention floor as a dutiful delegate demanded submission to an untactful and relentless messaging machine that began around each day around 4:30 pm and continued past 11.
Most speeches were strewn with slogans and buzzwords that were reinforced by thousands of placards being handed out to the crowd, moments before the speaker uttered those exact scripted words. It wasn’t fully evident to television viewers, but behind each speaker on stage was a lit sign that projected the chosen theme of the moment – “Keeping America Safe”, “Social Justice” “Fighting Gun Violence,” etc. It wasn’t enough to choreograph what we said, but what we thought as well.
And it was this tight script that the Bernie or Bust delegates were intent on disrupting, although they seemed to sometimes confuse this sophisticated act of theater with an actual vehicle for collective decision-making. This confusion reached its banal peak as Bernie and Hillary delegates openly fought each other on the convention floor. Like overly-caffeinated, opposing cheerleading sections at a high school basketball game, the two camps literally clawed and traded elbows with one another in an effort to place their competing signs in front of the other and drown out each other’s chants.
On the other hand, it certainly didn’t serve the narrative of free speech and democracy, when, in a style reminiscent of a Trump rally, Bernie delegates were set upon by party officials, security guards and Hillary loyalists alike whenever they dared to protest TPP, war mongering or Hillary herself. The DNC stripped uncooperative Bernie delegates of their credentials before handing out a list of dos and don’ts that essentially issued a gag order on any public displays of dissent. No one doubted that the Hillary/Wasserman Schultz fix was in, but the DNC was so inelegant about it.
Meanwhile, in Bernie delegation meetings and other back-room discussions, debates swirled around whether we would remain loyal to Bernie’s directive to get in line with the Hillary nomination or whether we would collectively reject convention discipline by protesting at will. The intensity of the antipathy towards Hillary Clinton was almost indistinguishable from what you would have expected from a Republican. And the Bernie or Busters clearly rejected the argument that a vote for anyone other than Clinton was a vote for Trump.
I certainly can’t speak for all the Black and Brown Bernie delegates, but the handful I were hanging out with felt very outside that debate. Members of the largely white Bernie delegation were reminiscent of white lefties we had encountered all our lives, people who were largely oblivious to the entitlement they projected, accountable to little else but their personal political utopia. I imagine there was a long-term strategy or endgame in their protests, but it wasn’t obvious.
I harbor no illusions about the inauthenticity that Clinton oozes and the destructive neo-liberal policies that she and her husband have championed. But I can also distinguish between the demon-seed Hillary caricature that political haters and conservatives have created, and the abuse of power and soft-core political corruption that filters through virtually all national politics.
Does this make me cynical? Yes and no. Because for the first time in my life, I believe that the stakes are actually very high in this election, that the choices are real, and that dramatic change can come to Washington — in the form of Donald Trump. White supremacy and the predatory nature of capitalism are interwoven into the fabric of U.S., but rarely have they been so emboldened and center stage.
As a New Yorker, my vote won’t have the same consequences as if I lived in Florida or Pennsylvania. But for the sake of my family and community, I feel as though I still don’t have the luxury of ignoring the real and present danger of Trump or encouraging others to bolt the Democratic party for the promise of farther-left pastures where white privilege is often no less present. In the end, the commitment towards building a Trump-free world was perhaps the most important uniquely American conviction I had in common with all the people who walked across the DNC stage.