Dispatch from the Democratic National Convention
Photos by Liz Gorman.
Charlotte, North Carolina is a city with a steel vault in the basement of its soul. While Raleigh was built on drinking, and Greensboro was built on textiles, Charlotte was built on banking. The evolution of a city is not dissimilar to the evolution of an individual person—its resources, talents and choices over a period of a lifetime become its destiny. Its decisions are etched into its face—wrinkles and lines from suffering, a sneer in the lip to indicate unresolved pain and bitterness. Today, downtown Charlotte is a smattering of ominous, spire-like skyscrapers, plate-glassed chain restaurants, polished steel condo complexes and bad corporate art. In this way, downtown Charlotte is like so many other downtowns: terrible, unwalkable, anti-human. A commerce zone built expressly to service people who spend their days in skyscrapers, pushing buttons, sending e-mails, insidiously, innocuously affecting the lives of others.
Charlotte is an odd choice for the Democrats. It's a Bank of America and Wells Fargo company town—owned and operated by the billionaires Obama has expended so much rhetorical energy lashing. North Carolina is also the most anti-union state in the country. The DNC alienated the AFL-CIO by picking Charlotte. And then there was North Carolina's Amendment One debacle back in May. North Carolina is a conservative state with a progressive laquer.
Even so, the Democrats want it, bad. But I get the feeling that Beltway dems don't "get" the South. They like the taste but can't take the smell. Around downtown, you hear the out-of-towners and convention veterans complaining—The 2004 DNC in Boston was sooooo much better. This town is too small for a convention! Obama carried North Carolina in '08 (barely) but even with the DNC here his prospects for carrying it again don't seem great.
In her opening statement, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz lauded the openness and “inclusiveness” of the Democrat’s convention as compared to the Republican’s “corporate, invitation-only” affair in Tampa last week. She of course didn't mention the brutalist security fence that encloses ten square blocks of downtown Charlotte. Secret service guards at every entrance demand credentials.
Inside the white-collar ghetto of the convention area, well-dressed delegates, aides, security analysts, non-profit executives and journalists shuffle from panel discussion to luncheon to speech to party, networking with each other, smiling, trying to get it up like they did in 2008. The maids and caterers and drivers and security personnel move around them unseen, enabling their pageant, like an episode of Downton Abbey.
The comically bad weather seems manufactured to disrupt the convention. It alternates between torrential downpours and sunshine so quickly that there is no time to take cover. I watch herds of delegates and technocrats run under the eaves of skyscrapers, huddling by the doors of polished-steel wood-fired pizzerias, or under the sad little spindly trees of Bank of America's tiny parks. Signs on businesses everywhere say "No Public Restrooms." Even at this most elite of credentialed pageants, it's hard to find a place to take a dump.
The city has permitted the Occupy protesters to have their encampment in a lovely, fountain-filled park two blocks away from the convention center. Yesterday afternoon, about 100 Occupiers marched against the detention of Bradley Manning. They ended up getting kettled in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Across the street was the Orwellian 'free speech zone' that they always establish at these kind of events. The protesters refused to be put in there. They were free range.
One glowing, bearded protester with a syrupy Southern accent addressed the cops over a makeshift soundsystem:
To all you officers out here blocking us from entering, preventing us from exercising our first amendment rights—here’s a list of things you could be doing better with your time!
YOU COULD BE READING A BOOK.
YOU COULD BE LEARNING A NEW RECIPE.
YOU COULD BE READING YOUR KIDS A BOOK.
YOU COULD BE MAKING LOVE TO YOUR SPOUSE.
YOU COULD BE FEEDING THE HOMELESS.
YOU COULD BE FEEDING ANYONE FOR THAT MATTER.
YOU COULD BE QUITTING YOUR JOB. YOUR OWN GUILD SAYS STOP THIS—YOU DON'T STAND WITH YOUR OWN UNION?
Raise your hand if your conscience is clean here!
Nearly all of the protesters raised their hands and cheered. None of the cops budged.
It was a grueling day. At about four o' clock, my shirt was soaked through from the humidity and my socks were soaked through from the rain. Exhausted, I walked a mile out of downtown to the house where I'm staying. My photographer stuck it out for a couple more hours, but said she felt like crying.
Later that night, while most of my new friends and colleagues went out to a Buzzfeed party (which turned out to be uneventful), I sat around drinking whiskey on the front porch with another party-abstainer, a guy named Riley. Riley told me that up until this past January he had been just another disillusioned DC Beltway political blogger.
"It was all about the gets and the Twitter followers and catching gaffes and fact-checking mistakes. It was this whole culture of people getting into arguments with each other on the Internet and making a big deal about it. You know, it's like, I met Andrew Breitbart. But what no one wants to talk about, is that Breitbart spent his life getting into these stupid fights and then just abruptly dropped dead from a heart attack."
Riley told me that he had made so little money blogging that he had been forced to sign up for a $4,000 Department of Defense medical study to make ends meet. The study involved him being given experimental medication that was being tested to help soldiers stay awake. They kept him up for 90 hours straight. "They had electrodes hooked up to my head. When I fell asleep, the attendants knew and they would come shake me awake."
In the two weeks after the study, Riley could barely sleep. He said it felt like he was losing his mind. "I was hallucinating during the daytime. I wanted to blow my brains out." During that time, luckily, he met a Czech girl and they hit it off. This January, he quit political blogging and moved to Moravia to be with her.
He said he just couldn't ignore all the bad stuff and get behind the relentless rah-rah optimism of the Obama re-election campaign. "I just can't overlook what he's done foreign-policy-wise: The kill list, the gruesome killing of Osama bin Laden, the rapes, the tortures, and the never-ending drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal areas. Am I supposed to ignore my conscience just because Obama is good on 'social issues' like abortion and gays getting married?"
We drank more whiskey and talked about how things just seem to be getting worse and worse.