Bernie Blocs, Green Partiers, and Real-Live Diversity: Getting a Feel for Philly During the DNC

Bernie Sanders supporters march through downtown on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

This week, New Girl creator Liz Meriwether will be in Philadelphia covering the Democratic National Convention for Vulture. Last week she went to Cleveland to report on the RNC.

It’s nuts here. Cleveland was sleepy and empty and sad, and Philadelphia is wide awake and packed to capacity and buzzing. Where the RNC felt like it brought most of the city of Cleveland to a standstill, Philadelphia continues on around the convention, with traffic and people everywhere. There are more protesters and what feels like fewer cops. By the end of the RNC, I had seen the same protesters so many times, I felt a strange kinship with them, like: “Oh, there’s ‘Pornagraphy is a sin’ guy!” This week, it feels like Bernie Sanders is throwing a music festival, and the DNC just happens to coincide. Two Bernie supporters, Jeannie and William Otis who came here from Indiana, compared it to Woodstock. People are camped out in tents. There are spontaneous musical performances — mostly “folk-rock,” William told me. “A lot of them were smoking pot probably.”

We were walking together through FDR Park toward the sounds of the Green Party rally with another couple the Otises had met in a bar, who had convinced them to “check out Jill Stein,” the Green Party candidate for president. Along the way, we ran into a man handing out water wearing suspenders, a V for Vendentta Anonymous mask on the back of his head, and a tiny black hat with red streamers coming out (most commonly seen on teenagers in jazz-dance performances). Oh, and he was also carrying a small red-and-black parasol with a tiny ruffle. He handed everyone water with friendly smiles, and joined our party. Jeannie Otis was less enthusiastic about Jill Stein and the Green Party than her husband was, but both of them were having trouble letting go of the idea of a Bernie presidency; as William corrected me when I said that Bernie had conceded, “Our terminology was that he didn’t concede, he endorsed.” William was trying to get his head around why Bernie had endorsed Hillary at all — “He’s 74 years old, he shouldn’t care what anyone thinks.” He thought it had something to do with being “scared” about a Trump presidency, but the question of why left him flustered. Coming to the DNC to protest was part of what William described as a “12-step process to get over Bernie.”

I thought this description was interesting. I wondered whether these park gatherings filled with music, performance art, and bubbles were helping to provide some closure to the past months. I walked by three women sitting cross-legged under a tree, sitting next to a sign that read “Sanctuary,” moving their hands together in what I would call “spiritual movements.” A young man and woman, with their mouths and hands painted red and the words “Nice White Liberal” written on their T-shirts in black Sharpies stood together frozen with their arms up in protest. Was this closure or the beginning of a movement?

William, who plans to vote for Jill Stein in Indiana this fall, believes, in many ways, this is just the beginning. He sees a vote for Jill Stein as a vote to end the two-party system, and he is optimistic that will have “three or four parties” soon. Trump and Hillary are equally bad, in his mind, and Trump is possibly even a little better than she is. “Some of his positions are okay with me,” he explained. “He’s anti-war, he’s anti-NAFTA … The country can survive Hillary or Trump, but the election turned me green — Green like the party and green like you want to barf.” Trump is anti-war? I don’t have time to talk this out with William, because we had reached the rally and the man wearing the Anonymous mask was already a distance away, stepping over people lounging on the grass, holding his parasol high like an extra in Hello, Dolly!

Is joining the Green Party the next logical step for Bernie supporters? The hundreds of people sitting on the grass today seemed to think so — though William had spoken to me less about his new candidate, Jill Stein, and more about his desire to find ways to continue the Bernie movement, possibly with “a yearly festival.” Amie Myers, the treasurer of the Maryland Green Party who I found carrying a clipboard and calling out ‘Is anyone here from Virginia?’, admitted that the difficulty would be channeling these former Bernie supporters’ energies into real action for her party: Despite the momentum she felt the Green Party has right now, she had only collected 20 to 25 signatures of new Virginia voters. “Do you guys know the four pillars of the Green Party?” she asked some people who were making their way down the hill. They did not. They listened. They bought stickers. It wasn’t clear yet if the stickers would translate to votes for Jill Stein in November.

Ryan Kelly, a Philadelphia local, is going to vote a different way — for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Kelly was not decorated or in costume, like many of the Bernie/Jill Stein supporters on the hill, and he carried a small official Gary Johnson sign and somewhat halfheartedly asked people walking by if they were interested in talking to him about the Libertarian party. It had not been that successful of a day, and he had been heckled. He agreed with William Otis that a Trump presidency was more palatable than a Hillary presidency, because he agreed with more of Trump’s policies. His favorite TV show is Supernatural, and his favorite character is God — though as soon as I turned the recorder off, he admitted that his actual favorite character was Lucifer.

It had been cloudy all afternoon, and when Jill Stein took the stage, the thunder started. “They sabotaged a revolutionary campaign!,” she joked. Big applause. Her platform and Bernie’s platform were a “marriage made in heaven,” she continued, and "We are here —" The sound cut out. After a few seconds, it returned. “We are here together!” A chant of “Jill not Hill” erupted. Soon after, the sky opened up, and the rain came.

The Green Party rally broke up quickly as people ran from the pouring rain. A speaker had told the crowd earlier that “Mother Nature herself has an inherent and unalienable right to exist.” And this evening, Mother Nature herself was exercising that right. Some supporters took refuge under the trees — “This looks like a strong branch!” — while others made a run for the street. I ended up with a group of women who were still in a good mood, and one of them jumped and splashed in the puddles with her water sandals. “You’re drunk, Erica!” one of her friends exclaimed. A spontaneous chant of just the word “Rain! Rain! Rain!” started, and then a man’s voice yelled out: “Rain for everyone!”

The street out of the park led up to the Wells Fargo Arena, where the DNC was taking place, and only the most die-hard supporters joined the group of protesters chanting “We are the 99 percent” through the large black fence that separated the protesters from the large white buses transporting delegates. I joined two young, soaking-wet women wearing dresses; they were Congressional staffers and trying to figure out a way into the convention. We found an opening in the barrier, showed our credentials, and left behind two Jill Stein supporters who were arguing with the security and claiming to be guests of someone. One of the congressional staffers took off her shoes and started running barefoot, and as we crossed the street over to the arena, I realized that the protesters were now chanting at me. I had switched sides.

Inside the convention, I looked like Sissy Spacek in Carrie, if someone had filled the bucket with rainwater instead of pig’s blood. I was immediately struck by the differences from the RNC. The halls were crowded with people, and the people weren’t all white. I heard Spanish spoken, and I saw Muslim women in hijab and many people in wheelchairs. I realized that my entire time at the RNC, I had not seen one delegate in a wheelchair. I also saw actual congressmen and -women, with pins on their suits and entourages. There was an “All Gender Bathroom” and one of the restaurants declared itself as a “Gluten Free Zone.” I saw Jerry Springer talking to a Bernie supporter wearing a jacket with the words “Feel the Bern” written on the back in electric lights. “A vote for her is a vote for Trump,” Jerry Springer told the man. People were waiting 30 minutes for a hot dog, but they were talking to the people around them about Bernie and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the election. From what I saw, people at the RNC had not talked as much in the hallways about politics, but here, conversation was happening everywhere. Tote bags. Converse. Sandals. To many of the Republican delegates I had met last week, this place would be a nightmare.

The Bernie delegates, in general, were much more colorfully dressed, wearing Peter Pan hats, flower crowns, colorful necklaces, and birds on their heads. I spoke to a married couple, Alexandria and Alexander Davis (the name thing “causes a lot of problems”), who were both getting graduate degrees in physics at Ohio State University (she studies “dark-matter halos” and he studies “condensed matter”). They were avoiding the unhealthy convention food and subsisting on granola bars. When I asked them if they would be supporting Jill Stein in the fall, they got a little cagey. “Technically, we can’t answer because our credentials would get challenged.” Alexandria told me. “The rules are somewhat vague, but as far as we can tell, the safest thing to say is: We support Bernie Sanders.”

The sense of uneasiness continued inside the arena, where the speakers were sometimes drowned out by chanting Bernie supporters and the audience felt out where and how loud to clap. The only thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that Michelle Obama was wonderful.