Behind the Booing: A Sanders Delegate Reflects on the DNC Protests

Behind the Booing: A Sanders Delegate Reflects on the DNC Protests

By Lauren Steiner for Truthout

It all started three weeks before the Democratic National Convention (DNC), which I was attending as a Bernie Sanders delegate from California. I started Los Angeles for Bernie in June of 2015, so going to the convention was the culmination of my year-long journey for Bernie. Little did I know that Sanders’ actions would leave a vacuum for me and my fellow delegates to fill.

Like most supporters, I was disappointed to see Sanders endorse Hillary Clinton two weeks before the convention. When rumors started flying about this possibility, I lent my voice to try to stop it with an open letter to him. I knew it was in vain. It became clear that he had stopped fighting for the nomination after the primary in Washington, DC, when it was reported that he was not going to send a planned letter to the superdelegates, making the case that he was more likely to beat Donald Trump. Plus, when he decided to run as a Democrat, he had said he would support the eventual nominee. I just wasn’t expecting it to happen before the actual nomination. How many times had he said that it would be a contested convention?

I steeled myself for their joint appearance in New Hampshire, the state where he so soundly beat Clinton just four months earlier. I watched him give his usual stump speech. However, every point was prefaced with “Hillary believes” or “Hillary understands.” I became increasingly furious. “You know Hillary believes no such thing, Bernie!” I shouted to my TV. “How could you betray your supporters this way?”

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After I calmed down, I thought about it from Sanders’ point of view. I had seen himon C-SPAN saying he would like to go back to the Senate and chair the HELP Committee — Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. However, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) was in line to head that. I thought about how Sanders had been booed at that meeting of House Democrats. I figured he was being pressured with the carrot of getting that committee chair and the stick of potential ostracism once he returned to the Senate.

Then I saw an interview with Ralph Nader who said Sanders’ endorsement was brilliant. He had Clinton nodding throughout his speech like a bobblehead doll, essentially endorsing his every point. Nader exhorted Sanders and his supporters to make Clinton introduce legislation for all the planks Sanders got into the Democratic platform.

However, one of the planks Sanders was not able to get included was the Hightower Amendment, saying the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) must not be brought up for a vote in the lame duck session of Congress. Despite the fact that Clinton now says she is against the TPP, few really believe her. First, Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, said she was just opposing it to compete with Sanders.He had every expectation she would sign it if it had not been passed by the time she became president.

Second, her chief strategist Joel Benenson told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, that she would not drop it but renegotiate it. The whole purpose of negotiating it in secret for eight years was so that it could not be renegotiated. President Obama’s securing of fast-track authority last year ensured that there would be limited debate, no amendments and only an up or down vote. So I was excited for a floor fight on the TPP at the convention, since Sanders had gotten six “minority reports” (reports produced by at least 25 percent of the members of a committee who are in the minority and then presented to delegates at the DNC for their approval) signed.

However, I soon found out that the Sanders campaign had decided not to submit any of them. We were told Sanders did not think it could pass, and if there were to be a floor fight, he wanted to reserve it for his proposed rules to eliminate or reduce the role of superdelegates and open the primaries to independent voters.

I looked into whether we delegates could submit the TPP minority report from the floor. I asked Norman Solomon of the Bernie Delegates Network, a network of two-thirds of Sanders’ delegates, if we could poll the delegates to see who was interested in pursuing this course of action. I wrote a blog post for his website RootsAction.org, and we had a conference call the Thursday before the convention with 105 delegates.

We learned that to introduce something from the floor, we would need a rules change, which two-thirds of the delegates would have to agree on. Knowing that that would be impossible, we decided on a three-part plan:

(1) We would petition the head of the platform committee, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, to submit the minority report, as he could suspend the 48-hour rule for “good cause.” The good cause was that the platform committee members had expected Sanders to do it, and he didn’t. Delegates and platform committee members Russell Greene from California and Learner Limbach from Washington worked on that part.

(2) Susan George, a California delegate, drafted a Delegate Unity Statement Against the TPP that we would have both Clinton and Sanders delegates sign.

(3) We would try to find a sympathetic state chair that would give us the mic, so we could attempt to introduce it from the floor. And once they cut the mic, we would continue with an Occupy style mic check of all the Sanders delegates.

Meanwhile, John Laesch and Clem Balanof, Illinois delegates and Labor for Bernie members, had independently planned to bring 2,000 TPP signs to the convention. They folded them in quarters, so they could be hidden within our papers, as signs were forbidden.

At the Rules Committee meeting in Philadelphia two days before the convention, the Clinton and DNC appointees vetoed every Sanders amendment in lockstep. They didn’t even bother to read the amendments they were handed and responded with the stock answers they were given by the Clinton campaign: We didn’t have enough time to review these. This is not the right forum to make these changes.

Lauren Steiner attends the Democratic National Convention as a Sanders delegate from Los Angeles. "Sanders sent us a text Monday night asking us not to protest," she writes, "We ignored it." (Photo: Lauren Steiner)

Lauren Steiner attends the Democratic National Convention as a Sanders delegate from Los Angeles. “Sanders sent us a text Monday night asking us not to protest,” she writes, “We ignored it.” (Photo: Lauren Steiner)

Sanders’ campaign asked for a recess, came back after a while and gathered his committee members in a separate room. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver presented the Unity Reform Commission that the campaign had already agreed to. He framed it like it was a big win for Sanders, because the committee was required to make recommendations for reforms. However, the commission did not have to report until 2018. The Clinton and DNC appointees again outnumbered Sanders members and they could vote the recommendations down.

Weaver said people were free to vote against it, but it would pass anyway. He also said that they were free to submit a minority report, but it would not pass. They went back into the main committee room, and I watched in disgust as one Sanders committee member after another lauded this unity commission, essentially putting lipstick on a pig. The next day, I found out that while they originally had 57 signatures on the minority report to eliminate superdelegates, after the campaign’s sales job, 12 people took their names off, and they no longer had the 25 percent needed to submit it.

So here we were going into the convention with nothing to fight for. In fact, the campaign had done nothing to prepare us for any role at the convention at all. There was one staffer assigned to our delegation, and all he did was pester us to stay at the $700-a-night hotel, a severe hardship for Sanders delegates. We were told we had to stay there, so Sanders could confer with us each morning and each night. None of that happened. There was one conference call before the convention. However, it was more to explain Sanders’ endorsement and the future of the political revolution. And no one from the campaign met with us the first morning, either.

It didn’t help that the WikiLeaks emails were released that weekend, confirming what we all knew about the DNC sabotaging Sanders. The pent-up anger about that and the vacuum that was created by the fact that we were given absolutely no role except to sit and endure a staged coronation left us nothing else to do but boo and protest.

The night before the convention, Ann Mohr, a Sanders delegate, and Susan Graham, a Clinton delegate, organized a California unity cocktail party, and we presented our unity statement against the TPP. All of the Sanders and Clinton delegates who were there signed it. The statement said that if both candidates were against it, the Democratic Party should insist that it not come up for a vote during the lame duck session, and that we shouldn’t let Trump be the one taking the lead on this issue during the general election.

After that, we had a meeting of 25 state whips to plan the disruption the next day. Jeff Engels, a Washington delegate and an ILWU organizer, was going to lead off the mic check from the Washington delegation, since we were unable to find a sympathetic state chair to give us the actual mic. We decided we would do it when the first person that came to the podium to talk about the platform said the word “platform.” Then all the other state whips would join in.

It went off like clockwork. After the rules were adopted, Elijah Cummings, chair of the Platform Committee, started to speak. When he said “platform,” the mic check began, and the vast majority of Sanders delegates in that hall held up our signs andchanted “No TPP” for several minutes. We got coverage in many media outlets.

Emboldened by that action, the next day, California delegate Russell Greene printed signs that said “Ban Fracking” on one side and “100% Clean Energy” on the other. We held those up and chanted “Ban fracking now!” over the speeches of California Gov. Jerry Brown and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who both refuse to ban fracking.

During the Oregon breakfast the next morning, that delegation chanted over their Sen. Ron Wyden, a prominent TPP backer. Then we decided to silently hold the “No TPP” signs again during Tim Kaine’s and Obama’s speeches on Wednesday night. We had gotten a lot of heat from Clinton delegates, Secret Service agents and even some of our fellow Sanders delegates for all our booing and protesting on Monday night. Plus, as has been widely reported, Sanders sent us a text Monday night asking us not to protest out of courtesy to him.

We ignored it. However, on Wednesday, we decided to make our protest silent out of respect for the president. (Although when I was asked by a reporter whether I thought it was disrespectful to protest the president, I said, “I think it’s disrespectful for the president of the United States to be pushing with the Republican leadership — over the objections of the Democratic Party — this NAFTA on steroids, which, if passed, will represent a global corporate coup d’état.”) We got more press for that action.

Wednesday night, the Oregon and Washington delegations held up “No More War” signs, and we all chanted over former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s speech. When they turned off the lights on the delegation, we held up our cellphone lights. On Thursday night, California printed more “No More War” signs, and we chanted over Gen. John Allen’s speech as well.

Thursday night, rather than walk out on Clinton’s speech, most of the delegates decided they wanted to stay and chant. California created the chants and shared them via a text from the Bernie Delegates Network. Unfortunately, some mole leaked our chants to the Clinton people, and they prepared counterchants with the same number of syllables. So if you heard chants of “HIL-LAR-Y” and “U-S-A” at odd times in her speech, it was them chanting over us.

They decided to chant with us when we chanted “Black Lives Matter.” But for some reason, they found “No More War” to be offensive and shouted “USA” right after. At first, I was puzzled by the fact that they were shouting exactly what Trump supporters shout at his rallies. Then, after all the bellicose speeches and the fact that they had so many Republicans endorsing Clinton, it hit me that perhaps it was because they were courting Republicans now. They didn’t care about our support anymore.

In fact, throughout the convention, Clinton delegates, seat-fillers and other DNC volunteers intimidated us, took our seats and covered our signs with theirs. While I was able to have some pleasant conversations with a few Clinton delegates on the issues, about which they were woefully uninformed, many of my fellow delegates had negative experiences. They were pushed, shoved, mocked, insulted and generally disdained.

Was it all worth it? While the Clinton delegates were there to follow a script, hold up prescribed signs, attend parties and schmooze, we were there to do a job, albeit a job of our own devising. Although we were not able to get any of the minority reports into the platform or get the rules changed, at least we brought the TPP to the attention of the people through the 15,000 media from around the world. The Intercept reported that while the corporate media have been mostly silent on the TPP for the past two years, coverage increased dramatically during the month of July. And after our protests, many pundits were claiming that it might be dead.

However, a week later, like a zombie that refuses to die, it came up during Obama’s press conference with the prime minister of Singapore. The president said that the TPP is a great thing, and that he disagrees with Clinton. So Berners will be continuing the fight, organizing citizen-lobbying meetings with our legislators during the summer recess. We all know that the Sanders campaign was just the start of the political revolution.

As for Sanders himself, we understand that he had to capitulate to go back to the Senate. So we ignored his two texts on Monday and Thursday asking us not to protest. We decided to follow the example of the young Sanders who got arrested for protesting segregated housing. Besides, we know that Sanders has always said this campaign was not about him or any one person, but about millions of people rising up and saying “enough is enough.” This country belongs to all of us and not just a handful of billionaires. This campaign was always about the issues, not the candidate.

However, the question remains: Did Sanders really oppose what we did? I’ll let fellow California delegate Carole Levers tell it:

“The biggest highlight of the day for me and for Marleen (Gillespie) occurred when we held our ‘No TPP’ signs, turned toward our right and held the signs higher, so that Bernie could see them from his seat in the upper area of the section adjacent to ours. He saw us, stood, gave a big smile and mouthed ‘Thank you!’ Jane, who was sitting next to him, clapped, smiled and gave us the thumbs up!”