That's a lot of speech-ifying
In Colorado the process to become a national convention delegate is straightforward but not necessarily easy. I campaigned to stand for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia at the precinct, county, and finally Congressional district levels. It was a long-odds shot at the brass ring and the opportunity to put years of campaign training into practice to win the experience of a lifetime. Spoiler alert: I made it.
Monday July 25th: Oh wait, what?
My first impression of being on the floor at the Democratic National Convention? Imagine equal parts Super Bowl and Comic Con swirled up together with the uber geeks of high school AP government class defining what passes for cool or smart. Mix in crippling anxiety over a Donald Trump Presidency actually materializing and a good dash of self-importance: voila.
I’d engaged with friends in plenty of speculative talk about how it might get rowdy, and I’d heard plenty of stories from party veterans of the ’68 all-out riots in Chicago. But after the relative calm of the RNC and Hillary Clinton’s clear win coming out of the primary I assumed the culture would be much more unified, much more similar to the last four or five conventions I’d seen on TV.
Assumptions. Ass. You, me, etc.
What was clear by the first gavel fall was that this was not going to be a kumbaya convening. Many of the Bernie Sanders supporters were far from done with their campaign. Fueling their passion was what some folks describe as the ‘conveniently timed’ release of 20,000 emails hacked from DNC servers, a handful of which painted a very bleak picture of Sanders’ treatment by a few DNC staffers. Subsequent to the email release came the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, just days before the convention: and the conviction of many Sanders’ supporters that they had been systematically and institutionally excluded from the chance to win. And their renewed passion coincided with the largest and best televised stage available for protest.
Coming out of Colorado, I had a front-row seat to the discontent. Our delegation consisted of 40 Sanders reps and 20 Hillary reps. Our group culture was one of the most fractured; rivaled in anti-Clinton activism only by California (seated to our far left in the arena) and Washington (seated just rows above us).
Before I had the chance to get myself right with the crew just row up from me holding “Liar” “DNC GFY” and “No Oligarchy” signs, the program was underway. Hillary and Sanders supporters had our first dust up moments later when the Sanders protesters began to boo as former Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) came to the podium.
Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, has been both a long-time champion of the LGBT community and a long-time Clinton supporter. The folks who loved him for the former and detested him for the latter were all mixed up together for the first time since the end of the primaries, each side at an emotional high-water mark. You can imagine that heated words ensued in the Colorado delegation and other delegations throughout the Wells Fargo arena. You can also imagine that the exchange became even more animated when Sanders supporters continued their protests by booing long-time Democratic civil rights champion, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), as he came on to the stage not an hour later.
I, and many other long-time party activists and Hillary supporters, were shocked and offended. These were, and still are, our heroes. Democrats who had paved the way for us; role models and trail blazers – but for Sanders supporters they were part of the establishment holding them back.
Now the Clinton supporters were angry. We’d made it. We’d won. Finally. This was our celebration, our moment in the sun. The realization of our deferred dream. It was our party more than two centuries in the making. And we had no intention of listening quietly to anyone telling us, “You cheated, you’re corrupt, and you don’t deserve this; more than that, it’s not over, and we’re here to actively harsh your mellow.”
Very quickly our anger peaked as we realized that this floor protest was not intended to be a passing fad; that anyone who didn’t actively back Sanders or was pro-Hillary or pro-DNC was going to be in for a bumpy ride when they hit the stage.
We also realized that Michelle Obama was the headlining speaker for the evening. Anxious exchanges began between the Sanders and Clinton whips (leaders) in the Colorado delegation. Clinton supporters sat stoney-faced as the Sanders’ delegation whip insisted that he “could only ask” his delegates to refrain from vocal protest, and could not assure us that disruption would not continue.
In a moment of serendipity, the kind that’s really what manages to keep the world spinning, that afternoon former Denver, CO mayor Wellington Webb was scheduled to speak. And he did so right as the tensions were at a breaking point for Colorado. Fueled by a much larger and very visible California-lead pro-Sanders protest, our gang of twenty vocal protesters was becoming bolder by the minute, and now inspiring another ten or so protesters from Washington, just behind us.
Webb served as our Clinton delegation chair; but he’s also a revered figure in Colorado. He’s a tall and extremely stately man with a steady presence. He’s well-known throughout the state for his decades of effective civil rights work and effective governance. He spoke at the DNC as a co-chair of the “Unity Reform Commission,” charged with brokering the deal between Clinton and Sanders’ demands for the official DNC platform and the pending revision of the nominating structure; including evaluating the call to do away with caucuses and Super Delegates.
Wellington Webb delivered the right speech in the right way at the right time; while the protests continued, he managed to diffuse the arena just enough with statements like, “As a party it is not required that we always agree, but it is vital that we always move forward together,” and “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are our champions. They both deserve our cheers,” He tied it all together with a fair dose of additional praise for Sanders activists. It might have also helped that he compared the presidential candidates to LeBron James and Steph Curry; but the cultural reference might also have been lost in translation.
In any case, it was the first point in the convention that all sides had something to cheer for; though as he concluded he was interrupted by chants of “Bernie.” But it still worked. In Colorado a détente was reached, and an agreement brokered that Michelle Obama’s speech would not be disrupted. My best guess is that similar negotiations were held in the other dissenting states; hers was one of the only protest-free moments that week.
As Monday night wore on the post-Michelle glow wore off, and well-known Bernie supporters took the stage to set up the Sanders speech, the vibe in the arena became increasingly hostile and divided. Keyed-up Sanders activists clashed with disheartened Clinton supporters, and the booing rolled on. TV viewers surely noticed the large number of placards being distributed to attendees; but as soon as they were handed out, sharpies appeared and “Stronger Together” became “Stop Her.” “Love Trumps Hate” became “Liars Trump Nothing,” and “Love Bernie or Trump Wins.”
Part way through the Sanders speech, and after listening to his supporters boo him when he called for unity and support of Hillary, I and many other Hillary delegates began to stream out of the arena; disillusioned, doubtful, and most of all depressed. Is this what our victory, our moment in history was going to look like, and feel like? Would our joy be completely overshadowed by anger? By protest and controversy?
Tuesday July 26th: This is what you came for.
Tuesday morning, following a brutal Colorado delegation breakfast, I found the Hillary safe space. I found my people at the DNC Women’s Caucus. The prime time show is the most visible part of the Convention, but the constituency caucuses and state breakfasts make up the critical remainder of the programming when it comes to empowering and energizing delegates.
The caucus opened causally as Madeleine Albright took the stage. There were perhaps 500 of us in the room and I had no idea what I was in for; the caucus lineups aren’t published. After Albright came Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU (Service Employees International Union). And then Donna Brazile stepped up to the mic. Nancy Pelosi and Eva Longoria came after her, and I’ll tell you right now that it’s a mistake to put anyone after Donna Brazile without a musical interlude.
A long-time Democratic activist, CNN political analyst, and former campaign manager for Al Gore, Donna had been named interim Chair of the DNC just days previous when Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down. I had the privilege of working for Donna for a year and a half while I was in DC in my early twenties, and I started cheering as soon as they told us the Louisiana native was on deck. I knew what was coming and I couldn’t wait to hear it.
Donna previewed the woman-centric cultural celebration of the Tuesday night program for us, and she had every single person in the room on her or his feet within moments of taking the stage. She’s a Catholic, but that morning Donna called on her inner Baptist to deliver a barn burner. I originally learned the term “red meat” (invoking highly partisan issues and language to fire up true believers) from Donna, and she fed us plenty. It’s her signature, feeding the base, and she knows how to do it as well as anyone (even Joe Biden). We came right out of our chairs and raised our voices and our hands as she told us about the history we were making and our incredible stamina in this fight. She called on us to shout out loud to our heroes, Susan B. Anthony to Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer to Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta to Carol Moseley Braun, and finally Hillary Clinton, and boy did we. Flailing my arms and lost in feminist ecstasy, I finally thought, “This is what I came for.”
I never had a chance to come down from my high that day, as Tuesday night at the DNC was everything I ever wanted and more as a feminist activist and a Democrat; capped off by a live-feed video appearance by Hillary herself, visibly awed by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake of love pouring out of us. Tuesday was chock-a-block full of the second-wave feminist nostalgia and celebration that so many of us had been waiting for; made richer for the lack of protest in the arena. Sanders supporters had staged a ‘walk out’ not long after the nomination was officially bestowed on Hillary Clinton after the roll call.
To my surprise, the state roll call delegate count and formal nomination might have been the most emotional moment for me and for many Hillary supporters that week; state after state calling a majority of votes for Clinton, her delegates growing ever more eager and finally exploding with joy as Convention Chair Marcia Fudge (D-OH) called from the stage for the motion to name Hillary Clinton the nominee of the Democratic party.
In contrast to Monday’s disgruntled chaos, this definitely felt like our time; you couldn’t help but get every single one of the feels. We all officially busted out our tears and our Hillary signs and our relief; we set aside the work of decades, centuries, just for a bit, and reveled in our glory. It’s hard not to cry just remembering it, standing in a rocking arena and shouting “aye” to pass the motion making Hillary Clinton the first female to ever top of a major party Presidential ticket in the United States.
Hugs were passed around freely and dancing to a cover of Pharrell’s “Happy” ensued with gusto. A live shot of Hillary’s oldest supporter, 102 years old and tearful, lingered on the jumbotrons. A woman born before she had the right to vote had traveled from Arizona to see her life’s work come to all this; she came to Philly to be present for a moment that meant more to all of us than many of us could ever put into words.
As of 5pm PST on Tuesday, July 26th 2016, every door ever knocked, every call ever made was worth it. Every car you didn’t key that had a bumper sticker featuring a picture of Hillary next to the text, “Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one,” was worth it. Every moment spent standing on hot asphalt canvassing for voter registration, or in the freezing cold or in the snow holding a “Keep Abortion Legal,” sign was worth it. Every mile in the car that didn’t have AC and every ugly moment bunked up with three other roommates in one motel room on GOTV junkets was worth it. Every argument you had on the playground about why girls couldn’t be the team captains; or keeping quiet every time someone told you how pretty you are when you smile was worth it. All the tears cried over the female candidates you’d backed with all your heart and who lost anyway; in that moment it was all worth it.
In that moment on that night, Hillary Clinton made it all worth it for me and for millions of other women.
Seating was open within the state delegations, and Tuesday afternoon I happened to be next to a quiet young man who supported Sanders and identified with the LGBT community. After all the celebrating for the nomination waned and we sat down, he turned to me and congratulated me. He took off his Bernie button and replaced it with a Hillary button he’d been carrying in his pocket, and said, “I’m with her. I’ve actually been ready to support her for about 6 weeks.” He looked over his shoulder, where a group of six Bernie activists were standing with tape over their mouths, holding “No oligarchy” signs. He turned back and continued. “I’ve been ready, but I didn’t want to say anything until it was final, because I’ve been afraid of what my friends would say to me.”
I shook his hand and I told him how glad we were to have his support, and that we’d try to do right by him. When anger, even when it’s justified, is a dominant tool of the opposition it’s surprising the amount of courage it takes to speak your truth; even when you’re in the majority.
Following the roll call the DNC showered us with lady love for the rest of the evening, including videos chronicling Hillary’s career; Senators Barbara Boxer and Amy Klobuchar; Bill Clinton’s love song to Hillary; Meryl Steep, and a video taking us through suffrage to the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s and into today. Meryl’s full intro is available on CSPAN, and it’s worth watching (of course), if for nothing other than THAT DRESS and her Howard Dean-scream style exclamation as she starts it off. But watch also for the substance, including the story of the first American woman to take a bullet for us, a woman who snuck into the Continental army and was so afraid to reveal her secret and her true identity that she dug a musket ball out of her own leg with her pocket knife. “What does it take to be the first woman anything? It takes grit, and it takes grace.”
I know she’s probably the greatest actress of our time, but I can’t help but feel that we got the real Meryl up there; because it’s pretty hard to pull-off the edgy, out-of-breath, self-affirming, “it’s about damn time,” tone she gave us, the very same tone that had been echoing through our own heads for months. It just felt so familiar. And as a fellow women’s college graduate, I think Meryl is #withus.
So after all that emotion, all that joy, and all that singing along with the “Fight Song” video, well, when Hillary broke through that CGI glass-ceiling and appeared on the live feed at the end of it all, we just collectively lost our damn minds and started crying all over again.
As we left that night to catch the buses back to the hotels, my roommate for the week and I compared notes. I’d had a somber conversation with her that morning, asking about the convention and expressing my surprise that it felt so hostile on Monday. A multiple DNC veteran, she replied that this was the first she’d ever been to that was like this. As we walked toward the buses, she said, “But tonight is what it’s supposed to feel like; this is what the other conventions have been like, this is what Obama in ’08 was like. I’m glad you were here for this.”
True confessions highlight: I've been madly in love with Jeanne Shaheen for like twenty years. No need to judge. Our differences make us stronger.
Wednesday: It’s healing time. It’s hope time. It’s Hillary time.
Jesse Jackson may not be delivering with much fire-brand force anymore, but his effective deployment of the rhetorical triple worked for me, and it was a message I was ready to hear, “It’s healing time. It’s hope time. It’s Hillary time.” While several speakers positioned Hillary as more than effective, and a substantial amount of time and energy was spent softening and humanizing her, this was the first time a speaker positioned her, to use the most relevant example, as the Michelle Obama style unifying mom figure. The leader who could not only inspire us, but soften us and make us more open to each other. And it was a pretty awesome experience to be in the audience doing call and response with the one and only Jesse Jackson.
On Wednesday the DNC deployed the heart of its lineup, the rhetorical heavy-hitters who know how to get a crowd on its feet and keep it there. From Jackson, to Kaine, Biden, and even Eleanor Holmes Norton, the DNC avoided the middle of the storyline slump by loading us up with passionate and powerful speakers. We got the fire from Uncle Joe Biden (yeah he walked on to the Rocky theme song. You got a better idea?), we got a fantastic comedic Trump impression from Tim Kaine; but we got the heartstrings too.
One of the most difficult, resilient experiences of the entire convention was the perpetual feeling of being on the emotional edge of my seat. At any moment, Monday – Thursday, I was on the precipice of totally dropping my basket and bawling. Wednesday was a roller coaster; the gun violence block was tough. We went from the mothers of the #blacklivesmatter movement to survivors of the AME shooting, to the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, to the mother who lost a son at the Pulse nightclub. As a Scripps graduate I was on my feet for Gabby Giffords, and I’ll never not cry when she tells us, “Speaking is difficult for me. But come January, I want to say these two words: Madame President.”
It was difficult to listen with an open heart to each of those families; even more difficult to listen when we as America have said to them, “I don’t know what we can do to stop your pain; we can’t possibly agree on a solution.”
Wednesday was also the beginning of the chant wars that carried into Thursday, most prominently starring former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Convention organizers were caught flat-footed when the “No more war” chants greeted Panetta early on, led by the California delegation. Luckily for organizers, the “USA” placards were in our waiting hands, and the response organic and self-apparent.
In the last decade my desire to chant “USA” has waned. In the last year I’ve completely lost interest in statements like, “America is the greatest country on Earth.” I can get behind a lot of pro-USA sentiments, and I believe we’re a global leader in so many areas. But the position of absolute dominance didn’t sit well with me. And it wasn’t with conviction that I joined the response in defense of Panetta.
But by this time I was so over anything and everything even remotely anti-Clinton, I couldn’t help myself. In the viewing audience on television you might have even taken away that the chants of “No more war” were with Panetta. But live, and to conflict weary Clinton delegates, it was simply another way people we respected were being actively disrespected.
I turned from a message that absolutely resonates with me, because I was tired of being shouted over; I was tired of anyone who stood at my side in support of Hillary being maligned. I shouted “USA” for Panetta, simply because I wanted him to know that I was with him; that I believed he offered a better vision, a more viable vision, than any other on hand.
And you could see him thanking us; during the speech he pauses; he points to the “Stronger Together” placards and says “Thank you.” If nothing else, the DNC reminded me that the more time you spend shouting at someone who’s mind you seek to change, the less you’ll accomplish.
Bonus highlight day three: I went ALL OUT ugly cry when Iowa Senator Tom Harkin taught us how to say "America" in ASL. Once again, no need to judge. We'll see how it goes when you watch the clip.
Thursday: Total and complete endorphin overload
Yes. The balloon drop was as Bacchanalian and amazing in person as it was on television; I’d guess even more so. It was the perfect visual representation of a week of absolute partisan indulgence; joyous, blinding, and overwhelming.
By Thursday I had almost nothing left. The DNC wasn’t done with me, but I was done with myself. I made a good-faith effort and attended the Women’s Caucus that morning; all I can remember is that Shonda Rhimes told us, “Hillary IS squad goals, people.” And by Thursday I was also better trained in call and response than I’ve ever been for anything in my life; so I'm pretty sure I clapped and hooted in response.
The clapping and cheering and chanting truly became a reflex. At this point in the week it wasn’t essential that I even listen closely to a speaker to understand when I was expected to stand and applaud. There were plenty of genuine moments that brought me to my feet; but plenty of vacant stares too, which were quickly covered up by ‘excited face’ whenever a camera was trained on Colorado.
We had great seats in the Colorado delegation, just up from the floor; meaning that we were only 5 or 6 rows up from the cameras folks constantly looking for B-roll shots. And Thursday was the big dance; all eyes were on the DNC, and organizers wanted us looking ready for prime time.
We had a TV visuals whip all week, responsible for making sure we had enough signs and trouble-shooting protests; but on Thursday he was full-time engaged. He stood on the floor at the foot of the seats and like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, conducted a full-scale visual symphony for the cameras. We had a couple dozen protesters in our section who had been holding “No Oligarchy, No TPP, Stop Her,” and various anti-Clinton signs all week. But for the closing night, the DNC wanted to do nothing but project the success of the unity campaign.
So we followed the instructions of the man in the yellow vest all night. As soon as the protest signs came up, we stood up and held support signs. He pointed to particular individuals to fill any pro-Clinton gaps. If you got the nod, you were expected to respond: with enthusiasm.
Rumors, mostly believable to us, abounded about Sanders’ protesters’ last ditch efforts to leverage the DNC coverage. A mini-wall was erected on Thursday blocking access to the stage from the floor, because one of the most widely believed rumors was that there was a plan for anti-Clinton protesters to stage a ‘citizens arrest’ when Hillary came on. We were barred from bringing food or drink into the venue an hour prior to her appearance. Apparently there were worries that food would be thrown at the stage.
We were also officially informed that “No More War” or “No TPP” chants were to be met with “USA” chants, and “Bernie” chants by “Hillary” chants. If at any point on Thursday it appeared to the viewers at home that Hillary’s speech was interrupted by mangled, mistimed, and confused support, that was the chant-off going full-stop.
Despite the complete endorphin fatigue and the orchestration, there were still moments of absolute sincerity, when the speakers managed to grab the last remaining bit of passion and bring us to our feet. Reverend William Barber and his moral defibrillator weren’t just figurative; he literally shot us full of hope and love and faith in Democracy. I’ve sat through plenty of Sunday sermons; I'm still a confirmed atheist and it’s not often I get a feeling that I ought to spend more time in church.
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez is worth the watch. I want more Lupe's as community leaders. You want more of her out there too. Everyone does. You can just trust me, or you can watch her speak and feel it in your soul.
I wasn't in resounding agreement with the "DRINK YOUR AMERICA KOOL-AID NOW" message, but if I'm ever up shit creek, I want General John Allen staging the rescue. If you weren't alive to hear Patton, he'll do.
Khizr Khan tapped a nerve, too. Even before any of the Trump coverage began, everyone in that audience was with him. The move with the pocket Constitution was stunning; but the volume from the crowd when he proclaimed, “Mr. Trump, you have sacrificed nothing,” was off the Richter scale; possibly the most impassioned response of the week.
In that moment Khan spoke to something that was universal in every single delegate in the audience. The understanding that each and every one of us had sacrificed in some way to be standing where we were. That whether we were new to the Democratic party and the DNC, or whether we were veterans, each of us in that building had sacrificed to build an America we believed in. There was no way to stand on that floor as a delegate without giving a piece of your heart and soul in exchange for the credential.
For all our disagreement, there was at least one thing that every delegate shared, and that was the sense that we had given all we could for our candidate; and that our candidate had given every piece of himself or herself back to us.
We were tired and we were ragged. But we all knew sacrifice when we saw it, and Khizr and Ghazala Khan had sacrificed for America, and for us, and the process we were all so whole-heartedly engaged in. In that moment, we saw him, and he saw us, and we were unified. It was a rare perfect moment of oratory; the message and the culture of the room aligned in a way that transformed the experience completely.
What’s left to say about the closing moments, and Hillary’s speech? It was an experience so individual and so universal it’s beyond my capacity to opine on the significance. For me, it was that quiet, still, centered feeling that comes when you’re simply at peace with what’s happening in the exact here and now. It’s hard to achieve zen-nirvana surrounded by 30,000 people, but there you have it. Zen. Followed by lots of cheering, clapping, and a metric ton of balloons and confetti.
There were hundreds of speakers at the DNC and over 30 hours of speech-ifying I sat (and stood) through that week. I’ve mentioned so many of the moments that resonated for me. But there was one particular speaker who said something that had been in my heart since the instant I got on board the Hillary train in 2000 when she ran for Senate. It was California’s own Representative Xavier Becerra quoting a traditional Spanish saying, “Tell me with whom you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
It’s not always easy to be a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton. But I’m never short on inspiration to stand up for her, because all I have to do is take a look around at who’s walking with me. From Khizr Khan to Dolores Huerta, Gabby Giffords to John Lewis, Lupe Valdez to Geneva Reed-Veal, to Michelle and Barack Obama to Donna Brazile and Cecile Richards and Gloria Steinem; and all the women over the age of 65 busting with pride all over that convention - I’m so incredibly proud of the people I’m walking with and proud of the company I’ve kept in walking with Hillary for the last 20 years.
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Amy lives in Denver with her wife Erin and dreams often of the PNW.