On the Streets of Philadelphia


I arrived in Philadelphia on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, as the roll call vote inside the convention center glowed on three large screens in front of hundreds of protestors, who sat watching in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park.

Senator Bernie Sanders, whose popularity especially among young progressives nearly earned him the party’s nomination, had made a speech the night before calling for his supporters to vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but there were murmurs in the park that a major surprise might occur during the roll call vote.

The crowds in FDR park cheered each time a delegate on the screens cast votes in Sanders’ favor and booed and jeered when delegates cast their votes for Clinton.

When Sanders himself stood in the convention center and motioned to suspend the convention rules and to quicken the process to Clinton being named the nominee, angst rippled through the crowd and dozens of people walked away from the screens. Then hundreds more followed and soon the field in front of the screen was nearly empty.

They were headed toward the barricaded entrance to the Wells Fargo arena.

“You can’t stop the revolution!” people sang out, along a fence guarded on the inside by police a thousand feet or more from the arena.

People held blue Bernie signs. One sign read, “Stop stealing our elections!”

A young woman slapped a large sign against the fence that read, “This is what democracy looks like!”

A young man in long-sleeve green camouflage and a green military-style helmet, charged along the crowd, shouting, “Revolution!”

“Tear down the wall!” one protestor shouted and another yelled, “You wanted war!”

Down the fence, closer to one of the entrances for delegates and press, hundreds more protestors held signs and chanted. A woman held up a large cutout of Bernie Sanders’ head.

In a chorus, people beat their fists against the fence and chanted, “Hell no, DNC—we won’t vote for Hillary!”

One man held a Bernie 2016 campaign sign that had the “2016” crossed out and replaced with “forever.” Another held an American flag with the stars replaced by an image of a bird, which became an image of the Bernie Sanders campaign. People used white circular Bernie stickers to tape up Bernie campaign signs to the fence.

A man shouted through a megaphone as he walked briskly. One person held a “Bernie or bust” sign while another nearby held a sign for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president.

Large pieces of cardboard leaned against a pole. On the cardboard, written in marker, was, “We’ve been warned,” and listed quotes from various former U.S. presidents and a Supreme Court justice on the dangers of letting banks and other large private institutions gain too much control over government.

“Hey-hey, ho-ho, election fraud has got to go,” the crowd began to chant in the area where a man held a sign that said, “Corrupt election, corrupt results.”

Echoes of, “Revolution! Revolution!” began as the man in the camouflage charged into this section of the crowd, his fist beating forward with each syllable of the word.

A newsman held a microphone toward the smiling mouth of a man in a button-down shirt.

The crowds bustled and moved and people waved flags and a woman shook a spray-painted sign that said, “This is not democracy—Jill Stein 2016.”

A man in his sixties, protesting along the barricades, turned back to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Would you mind helping me over the fence?—I want to get arrested.”

I smiled and told him I wouldn’t let him fall backward.

He pushed with his wrists atop the chest-high fence and slowly got one leg over. And then the other and he was on the other side where the credentialed entered and where the uniformed stood. Two officers approached the man and the man said some words to them and he looked disappointed when the officers told him to simply climb back over the fence.

“They’re too nice,” he said. “They wouldn’t arrest me.”

A woman around that time also jumped the fence, carrying a Jill Stein sign and plopped onto the ground when officers tried to guide her back. The officers eventually either detained or arrested her.

The protests ebbed and flowed that night. Organizers carried around a mock-coffin with an upside-down donkey—a symbol for the democratic party—and chanted, “Dump the elephant, dump the ass, build the party of the working-class!” 

A few people carried a large mock marijuana cigarette, inflated by a gas-powered leaf-blower, and called for the government to deschedule marijuana.

Most of the people eventually went back to FDR park, where organizers showed a documentary on election fraud rather than carry Bill Clinton’s speech from inside the convention center.

More and more protesters assembled tents in the park and soon there were large clusters of temporary dwellings and hammocks—more than a hundred in all. People set up two stations where they offered free food, water, coffee and tea.

Unlike outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland the week prior, there was one group of protesters in Philadelphia that far and away outnumbered the rest. It was a clear incarnate of the Occupy movement, which began in the fall of 2011 in lower Manhattan. Many of the signature chants were there, especially, “We are the ninety-nine percent.” The main focus of these protestors, as with Occupy, was to call for corrections to income inequality and big money in politics. They also used what’s called the peoples’ microphone, a way of communicating in large groups where there’s no amplifying system, by which one person speaks and the dozens of people in close range repeat each few words loudly so people farther away can hear, a tactic popularized by the Occupy movement. 

As the days of the convention went on, FDR park became more and more reminiscent of Zucotti Park in 2011.

And like in Zucotti Park, there were times when the organizers were uber-democratic to a point where they let nearly anyone who wanted to be heard speak, sometimes taking the focus far away to all sorts of other issues, diluting the overall message heavily at times.

But the passion of the movement and the assertive voices of the millions of Americans who showed support for Bernie Sanders in 2016, including very high percentages of young people, suggest that those espousing of the ideals put forth by Occupy will continue to hammer an outsize influence on American policy.

Just before 8 a.m. on the day of Hillary Clinton’s speech, some of the protestors were milling and others were waking up to a humid morning. One pair started to pack up their camping gear. A man slept in the open air and another slept with his arm over his face beneath a tarp tied from the ground to the fence of a baseball field. Two young men with mitts lobbed a baseball back and forth and talked. 

Later that morning, walking up Broad Street, a Philadelphian walking his dog complained to another resident about the protestors and then said that they’re free to do and say what they want. “You want to walk around with a fifty-foot joint, go ahead—that’s their right,” he said. 

Farther up Broad Street, the machinations of the city seemed to go on as usual. A man running a newsstand left his post to put a small bag of garbage into a municipal bin and used the ground end of his cane to repeatedly beat the bag through the small opening.

Four miles from the park, tourists filtered through the building that holds the Liberty Bell. The crack in the bell faced forward and the crack is what most people asked the young park worker about.

Near the Liberty Bell, MSNBC had an outdoor set-up and an anchor interviewed Congressman John Lewis. 

During a commercial break, protestors chanted, “Election fraud!” and one woman shouted about MSNBC’s seemingly cozy relationship with the Democratic National Committee during primary season, revealed days earlier by the Wikileaks emails that led to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation as DNC chair just prior to the convention.

“Are you guys going to lecture John Lewis about election fraud? Seriously?” One man in the crowd said.

Others chanted, “Down with oligarchy!”

Others chanted back, “I’m with her!”

“He got less votes than she did—just admit it!” One woman said.

“She stole them!” Another woman said back.

Multiple people in the crowd, following Lewis’ interview, debated each other, pointing fingers in each others’ faces.

“You guys did your job; look at the platform,” a man said. “Your war is over—you want to push your agenda, push your agenda, but—”

“The war,” a woman said back, “is just starting.”

Later that day in the park, it rained on and off, and a new group of a dozen or so people appeared, calling for a true government overthrow. The communist group chanted about systemic oppression and quickly burned an American flag and marched on, and had the attention of dozens of members of the press who didn’t seem as intrigued with the less provocative protesters.

A half-mile away, two young women walking toward the protests asked two young men walking the other way how it was going. “The communist revolutionaries have taken over,” one of the men said. 

“All right,” one of the women said, laughing. 

The rain drizzled down and more and more people approached the barricades as it got dark that night.

In the minutes before Hillary Clinton took the stage to accept her party’s nomination, people chanted, “Let us in!” to the police. They yelled, “Hell no, DNC, this is not democracy,” and“We are the people’s delegation.”

The smell of burning sage came and went and some people held umbrellas to block the rain. Helicopters circled the convention center and made frequent checks on the protesting crowds. An organizer employed the peoples’ microphone to plead with everyone to remain peaceful no matter what.

The crowd grew larger than during the roll call vote two days earlier.

As Hillary Clinton made her speech, the crowds continued chanting and various leaders made speeches through megaphones. More and more police lined up inside and outside the barricades, standing ready.

Three rows of officers on bicycles guarded the fence.

“Police, let’s ride, the enemy’s inside,” a group chanted.

As Clinton wrapped up her speech, a few protesters held a quick mock-trial over megaphone in preparation of their planned attempt to storm the barricades and conduct a citizens’ arrest of Hillary Clinton.

“What’s the verdict?” a man yelled.

“Guilty!” the crowd yelled back.

Three white school busses carried police in riot gear very close to the dense group of protesters and about three dozen officers with helmets, large clear shields and long black sticks streamed single-file into the group, stopped for a few seconds, turned around and filed right back into the busses—a show of force that got the hearts of many of the protesters racing.

Minutes later, after a few more megaphone speeches, three leaders of the citizens’-arrest group approached the front line of officers on bicycles. They knew their attempt would be ill-fated, but after asking to be let in, they moved into the outer line of police.

There was a long struggle, with the police using their bicycles to push back. A crowd rushed in and a half-circle of media cameras separated three protesters from the larger crowd. One of the men hit the ground and the crowd undulated back and forth and the media cameras clashed with protesters, each other, and police. A cadence formed in the back and forth struggle and people from farther away rushed near. I stood about twenty feet away leaning against a metal pole that held two street lights that continued to blink green, yellow and red during the struggle. 

One of the helicopters lowered and shined a moving spotlight on the tussle.

A man with a camera near me leaned in toward the police line, filming. 

A young officer pushed him away.

The man, agitated at the push, leaned back in toward the officer and said something and the officer shoved him in the chest. 

Soon, the situation calmed and the three strugglers sat on the ground breathing heavily, their backs against the police bicycles.

One of the men wore a black “Occupy the DNC” shirt and the mask, switched to the back of his head, from the movie V for Vendetta, which has also become known as a trademark for the group Anonymous. A young woman sat and spoke passionately to members of the press as they wrote onto notepads.

For a long while, they sat there, until the crowd thinned and started various chants elsewhere.

Some sang out, “We are in this together,” while other protesters sat on the curb. Others marched to the park, where Jill Stein was rumored to have been. 

Around a corner of the barricades, near the park and away from most of the protesters, an officer clenched his fingers into the fence, rested the top of his hat against the fence and attempted to shake the soreness from his legs. 

In the park there was talk of anarchists planning to set things on fire.

People mingled and talked of unrelated things in front of one of the open tents that said, “Free food, tea, coffee.”

Clothes draped over a clothesline and people rested in camping chairs.

Outside the Wells Fargo Arena, police cars flashed red, yellow and blue.

Black SUVs pulled out the back exit and sped through closed streets. 

Banners left by the protesters hung on the fence. 

“Sanders beats Trump.”

“DNC committed fraud.”

Dozens of Bernie Sanders 2016 lawn signs, stakes interlaced with the fence.

“Only Bernie beats Trump.”

“Jill not Hill.”


“If you can’t win it, rig it.”

“Democracy for sale.”

As I walked back out of the park, police were arresting one of the men who had tried to break through.

They led him through the crowds toward a distant waiting police van and dozens of police and dozens of protesters followed and I wandered twice accidentally into the current before seeing the van the police were escorting the man to.

He was the third of the three and the vans pulled away, guided by two police on foot, shouting to the crowds, “make a hole!”

Police scattered into different clusters and protesters began to chant again. And the sound of megaphones and voices and helicopters and police radios went long into the night.