At Monday's Democracy Spring action, barrier-scaling was slow and methodical. / Emmett Rensin
Emmett Rensin,  July 26, 2016

Waiting in Line at the DNC Barricades

Outside the convention, Democracy Spring waits for its turn (and the collapse of the current world order)

At Monday's Democracy Spring action, barrier-scaling was slow and methodical. / Emmett Rensin
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Here is how the majority of marches taking place at the Democratic National Convention this week will go: Participants will mill around a predetermined meeting place while organizers figure out what they didn’t prepare for. They will practice some call-and-response. They will commiserate about the near-record heat in Philadelphia, and discuss, as I just heard discussed in a register that was not purely joking, the counter-revolutionary intentions of the sun.

Eventually, they will set out down a predetermined route, moving significantly more slowly than their timetable allows; reach a predetermined spot, where they might have a speech or two, or a last run through all their cheers; and then, having made their point, disperse. Democracy, for better or worse, in action.

This is not the plan of Democracy Spring, an election reform organization that is dedicated to a different school of American protest. They plan to practice their chants, do their march, and then escalate until they get arrested.

The organizers are explicit about this. It is part of their mission. The first major action the group put together, in April 2016, brought more than one thousand people to Washington, DC, for a multiday sit-in that led to nine hundred arrests. That action, they claim, was the “largest single act of civil disobedience of this century.”

On Monday, the first day of the Democratic National Convention, a group about a tenth that size is assembling in Marconi Plaza, just north of the Wells Fargo Center. Soon, they will march south and attempt to deliver their demands to the convention itself. Among these are: An immediate end to all voter suppression laws. An immediate end to SuperPACs. A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The end, generally speaking, of “big money in politics” and the institution of “free and fair elections.” They want the Democratic Party to commit to passing robust public financing of all elections within the first hundred days of a new administration.

It is worth noting that these are not the end goals of a left-wing movement. They are the preconditions to the viability of any such movement at all.

Democracy Spring is thorough in its preparation. As one organizer tells me, they have been conducting training sessions in nonviolent protest, and today they are allowing only those who have been through this training to participate in their ultimate attempt to infiltrate the convention grounds. They have a system of colored armbands to designate roles—from “marshals,” to potential arrestees, to those just along for the march. They have legal observers on hand, and have arranged for any legal fees incurred by their members to be covered in full.

“I think there are a lot of ways to express your voice,” says Henry Jacqz, one of the organizers of today’s action, when I ask whether or not he thinks protests that do not engage in civil disobedience are making enough of a point. “But we think our willingness to sacrifice helps inspire people to take action.” The “crisis of our democracy,” Jacqz says, “requires us to look at what works.” Surveying everything from the movement to end Jim Crow to the achievement of a forty-hour work week, he says that nonviolent civil disobedience that provokes a police response has been most effective at provoking political change. History suggests he is, more or less, correct.

Before they set off, the group is joined by two others: a contingent from National Nurses United (who have somehow managed to make a showing at every protest I have attended this week) and United We Dream, a migrant justice organization carrying signs demanding Hillary Clinton “end the criminalization of people of color.” (Another, smaller homemade sign reads “Hillary C NOT My Abuela.”) The overall composition of the crowd is not quite what you would expect when envisioning radicals on their way to break the law. There are quite a few parents with children, and middle-aged women, and even retirees, including Cathy, who told me that she had been arrested in Washington, DC, but was frustrated by the media blackout it received. The DNC, she hoped, would provide more visibility. I ask her how long she had been an activist. “Oh, just this last year,” she says. “My kids laugh at me, but somebody’s gotta come out here and do it.”

By 3:30 in the afternoon, there are roughly two hundred marchers ready to depart. They do practice some chants, but they leave right on time.

The march itself is brief, hardly a mile down Broad Street, and with a small crowd, it moves fast. For all the reports of a split on the left between class socialist and more “identity”-focused types, there is no evidence of it here (or anywhere, really, outside the petty internet squabbles of bored staff writers). The group shouts one issue after another—labor exploitation, racism, inadequate health care, homophobia, sexism, imperial war—and after each, “Unite, fight back!” Once they’ve got their election reform, it seems, they’ll be aiming for every kind of liberation.

When Democracy Spring reaches the northern end of the Wells Fargo Center perimeter, we can see a mass of a thousand or more people ahead, on Broad Street or in FDR Park beyond. These are the designated protest “zones,” set safely outside the fence around the tent village around the convention center itself. Nearly every protest of the day has ended up here, including the remnants of a march against the war on drugs, socialists carrying bright red flags, and even a small contingent of pro-life counter-demonstrators, debating in the corner. The majority, of course, are Bernie diehards, most in T-shirts and stickers, and more than one with giant a Bernie puppet, gathering alongside the long black fence that divides the perimeter and FDR park, chanting for their man.

But Democracy Spring does not proceed down to the park, nor stay in the street. When they reach the security checkpoint for the western entrance to Wells Fargo, they turn and block it off. A police barricade goes up. Two dozen cops form a line, and tell journalists and delegates who arrive to find another entrance.

The group keeps up chanting and singing for a while; they talk to the press and other protesters. After a few minutes, they announce that only those risking arrest should remain on the sidewalk in front of the police barricade—everyone else should move further down, or back to the street. Another fifteen or twenty minutes pass, loud but uneventful. Then, finally, a core group prepares to cross the police line.

It begins to rain, very slightly. Other protesters and journalists wander over, crowding in to take photos and to watch. To the side, a woman is laying on the ground; she has ice on her neck and is being fanned by those around her. She seems to have heat stroke, or severe dehydration, and is deciding whether or not she needs an ambulance. A reporter asks a cop if she’s OK. He shrugs and says “She’ll live.”

The protesters move closer, and the crowd behind them chants, “The whole world is watching,” although it isn’t, of course.

Slowly, the first protester lifts himself up onto a low barricade. It is a long and almost awkward process; they’re going one at a time and in slow, deliberate gestures. Police officers reach out and push the protesters back off, but eventually, one gets over. Another follows quickly, and then another. They put their hands up, or lay down, and wait for cops to cuff them with plastic ties and drag them back through the cluster of officers to be processed. The cheering gets louder, and the reporters standing around jockey for photographs. A police captain gets on his phone. We just arrested four of them, he says, and somebody needs to come pick them up. It just happened. He isn’t sure how many more. By the day’s end, fifty-one members of Democracy Spring will be arrested, and many of them are charged with disorderly conduct.

In Marconi Plaza, before the march began, one of the organizers gave an interview to a network cameraman, and near the end, the boom mic operator cut in with a question he had been sitting on all along: What, really, was the point of all of this? “Why the DNC? Aren’t the Republicans the bad guys? Aren’t these the good guys?”

The organizer told him that while the Democrats were more persuadable, there was another way to think of this: Establishment power, what he termed “neoliberalism,” is failing. The world is becoming less certain: the politics of the west, stable for decades, has been reduced to a sprint between crises and catastrophe. The present rulers of the world are headed for collapse and something will have to replace them. “What’s that going to be?” he said. “Because on the other hand, you have this right-wing populist thing happening.”

Whether or not the collapse of liberal internationalism is imminent, like any ruling order, it cannot endure forever. Some other politics will someday inherit the world. This instinct, sometimes explicit and sometimes merely sensed, runs through many of the protests in Philadelphia and through the American left in general, and it makes some sense of why so many engage in causes that to more immediate thinkers appear hopeless or counterproductive. The point is to change the world, of course, but the point is also to be ready when the world changes.

“Socialism or barbarism” is the old phrase. How are the contenders doing?

Last week in Cleveland, the most powerful figures in the conservative establishment were forced to throw a party for an ersatz authoritarian on national television, knowing full well that even if he is defeated in November, his politics, of nationalism and racism and imperial ambition, have asserted themselves into the mainstream: others will follow. This is Trump’s party.

This week in Philadelphia, the populist left is on the sidewalk, demanding free and fair elections. They are outside the convention of a party that—after a full night of paeans to unity and inclusion—insists it represents them. They are going slowly and in single file over a gate in the heat, so that the police may take them away.

Emmett Rensin is a writer based in Iowa City, as well as a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. @emmettrensin

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