The Democratic National Convention was supposed to be boring —a soothing antidote to the Donald Trump freak show that was the Republican convention in Cleveland last week. But despite all the hype around Trump's volatile rhetoric, open-carry demonstrations, and possible social unrest over recent police shootings in America, the GOP confab turned out to be pretty uneventful. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's coronation in Philadelphia has turned into a surprisingly contentious affair.
As soon as I step off the plane here, I can feel the heat of the city. It's hot—real hot. Houston hot. And within a few hours of arriving, I've already seen way more protesting than I did over four days in Cleveland. At a McDonalds on Diamond Street, near Temple University—my first stop in a full day of demonstrations—a couple of hundred people have gathered on street corners waiting for a DNC Black Resistance March organized by a local group called the Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L. Justice.
The first people I see are observers from the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International, who are on site to monitor police activity surrounding the DNC. Dozens of demonstrators have already been arrested, so they're busy.
After milling around for a couple of minutes, I hear someone start calling for the crowd to "bring it out in the street," and slowly, the protestors line up behind a banner, signs raised. Black Lives Matter slogans rise above the crowd, along with a couple of black anarchy flags. And just like that, the intersection is blocked and traffic comes to a halt. Motorists from all directions blare their horns as they realize the march is about to fuck up their afternoons. An angry dude is forced to turn his truck around because of the traffic, and screams "Fuck black pride!" as he speeds off.
The march thus assembled, a black organizer calls for a mic check, and then asks all the white people in the group to get to the back of the march, explaining that this is a black resistance protest—that goes for "white media" as well, she adds, and says that organizers are not afraid to kick people out of the march.
A lot of people are confused by this, especially the white anarchists. But the mic-check lady won't budge. This splits the march in half. Black protestors seem concerned that the anarchists will co-opt their march and movement. The demonstration, they say, is a protest against the Democratic Party for taking advantage of black votes, and also against the gentrification of black communities as a result of the Temple University expansion—a local issue not likely to resonate with the carpetbaggers in town for the DNC.
As I walk through the crowd, I'm greeted warmly by organizers of the protest. A couple of artists hold up paintings of President Barack Obama and Louis Farrakhan. When a black man strolls by and says, "Fuck Obama!" the artists confront him about it—not physically, but in a debate, over the president's role in engaging the military overseas. It gets heated at times, but as soon as the march starts, everyone takes their respective places.
The usual protest chants begin, versions of which you've probably heard at a high-school pep rally: "Everywhere we go! People wanna know! Who we are! So we tell them!" Then, all of sudden, I see a rubber boot bobbing on someone's head in the crowd. Once again, it isVermin Fucking Supreme, right there on Broad Street.
A ghetto bird flies overhead, and I realize the march is running late. It was supposed to end at city hall, but it hasn't even left yet. But there's another demonstration starting across town, so I call an Uber and head over.
I get dropped off right in front of city hall, right next to a PT Cruiser with a "Black Men for Bernie" wrap around it. I see a guy with a "Free Hugs" sign, which seems par for the course at convention protests. Another guy has a sign that says, "The Police Killed Jesus"—now that's a new one. It seems the biggest contingency here is Animal Liberation Now, a sort of Anonymous of the animal right movement. A group of Guardian Angels walk past me in their custom red jackets—I had no idea they still existed. Good for them.
I walk across the courtyard, where an anti-DNC march is about to start on South Penn Square. The crew here is motley. Black activists mixed with pacifists mixed with anarchists, plus a few #BernieOrBust people. I spot not one but two ukuleles. The march is delayed because they're waiting for the previous march to get leave the square. So they start the chant "Hell no DNC! We won't vote for Hillary!" to pass the time. The sounds of traffic are drowning out the megaphone, so they set up a PA system, and announce their march will commence at 17:15, when the Black Resistance March arrives. It's only 16:00.
After hanging around for about an hour, the black resistance crowd still hasn't shown up yet. Meanwhile, the crowd here has tripled in size, to about 200 protestors. In response, the cops have started blocking off streets with police cars and human barricades. The confusion is multiplied by the everyday citizens of Philadelphia, who are just starting to get off work and navigating their way through the protesters. Communist flags aren't something you typically see on the commute home.
Finally, I see the protesters I'd been with earlier coming my way, only now there are dozens more of them. Something like 1,000 black resistance protestors come barreling down Broad Street, headed straight toward city hall, chanting "No good cops in a racist system!" The cops escorting them don't seem to notice, and go about their jobs. As their crowd melds with the protestors waiting at South Penn Square, the chants get louder. The police presence increases as well, but everything remains calm. I see several people holding up cardboard coffins painted with dead donkeys, and "DNC" written on the top. These guys are not fucking around.
The march is going from city hall to Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park, but my knees won't make that. And anyway the convention is starting, so I make my way to a watch party hosted by Jesse Jackson and Vivica A. Fox, and paid for by the Florida Coalition on Black Civic Participation. I'm not credentialed but I walk in with no trouble at all, and order a vodka and pineapple from the cash bar.
I enter the viewing area and make my way to the back. The attire business casual, but some people are dressed in their Sunday best. I see a seersucker suit that's actually pretty fly—I might need that guy to hook me up with his tailor, because in my camo shorts, I am severely underdressed, even for the press. At least VICE's photographer, Pete Voelker, had the decency to wear a long sleeve shirt. My shirt had long sleeves before I butchered them with my granddaughter's scissors.
I look up at the screen and see a group mothers of victims of police brutality and gang violence on the convention stage, billed as the "Mothers of the Movement." The crowd at Wells Fargo Center starts to chant "Black Lives Matter," before the mother of Sandra Bland calms the crowd and starts speaking on behalf of Clinton. Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, follows, along with Sabrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. Fulton closes out the moment, saying that she doesn't want to take the spotlight from Clinton, leaving the crowd with what she says God has given the women on stage: strength, love, and peace. The moment is visibly difficult for these women, but they are focused and determined. I pray for them.
After catching a glimpse of Vivica Fox, I walk outside, hit a blunt, and head back downtown. An Uber drops me off on the far side of FDR park, and walk to the gates in front of the convention. As I pass through the park, I see dozens of tents—a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters are camped here for the week. They don't have permits, but the cops are in a pickle because they can't legally arrest them. It's tricky.
When I get to the perimeter area around the Wells Fargo Center, I start to see people, and their numbers increase as I move closer to the entrance. They are protestors, waiting for the delegates to leave—but the delegates won't leave until the protesters clear the exit. On the other side of the gate are about 100 state police in riot gear. A gentlemen with a bullhorn is asking people to move back before there is a confrontation.
But the demonstrators aren't moving. I see red flags and bandanas over faces—the anarchists are in the building. Shit is going down. The ghetto bird hovers overhead as protesters talk shit to the police. Guys argue about different 9/11 theories. I hear a saxophone in the distance. I'm not sure what the fuck is going on. Even some of the protesters are confused by what is happening. A couple of activists are even trying to send demonstrators back to the park. But it's not working.
Eventually, a few delegates make their way out with no problems. It's anticlimactic, but I'm not mad at it. No one here actually wants to end their night staring down the riot police, and no cop wants to face off against a horde of anarchists. Given the violent alternative, I'll take anticlimax any day of the week. Hopefully everyone can live to take their aggression out on their ballots in November.
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