(Scenes From The Protests At The DNC)
The protest starts at home. Quickly gaining momentum on the streets in front of our houses. Gathering community as the sun beats down heavy from above.
Someone writes “the reason we stop traffic is to share the collective experience that every person of color faces in this country. A roadblock at every turn peaking the drivers’ anxiety. Lack of control. Lack of mobility.”
Another spray paints a wall, “These are the fears we must set free.”
Soon the police mobilize and provide a backdrop to what is basically a neighborhood gathering in the streets. The protest has all of the elements of a block party. Music. Festivity. Speakers stand on the back of pickup trucks delivering words of engagement. Piecing together separate experiences into a unified narrative.
As the march begins to move, the surrounding neighborhoods add into the flow. The numbers continue to grow. Diverse faces dominate the scene. Each with their own unique identity. Voices carry the waves of celebration. This is what democracy looks like.
At another intersection, the ranks come to a halt. Helicopters circle above. No news station. Only surveillance. We hold space for the over 600 murders by police that have been committed this year. 600 seconds for each and every human life that was lost. Chants echo up the walls of city projects and university housing. Passionate speeches rise above the general celebration.
Protesters sweat tears in the hot sun. Everyone is anxious to keep moving.
Three brothers walk among the lines and take quick snapshots of people’s faces. College students, community members, peaceful folk come together to promote a better life. Something the government doesn’t want to allow to walk free. One wears a hat from a local precinct and is constantly on his cell phone reporting back to HQ, taking orders. They all wear earpieces.
A large group carries the coffin of the DNC. Painted red, white, and blue it signifies an end to ignorance. The scene reminds one of photos from the funerals happening daily in the middle east. Huge processions in towns across Syria, marching with their dead. Out in the open. Risking attack by suicide bombers or drones controlled by pilots in Washington.
A sister holds a microphone and delivers a vindictive speech to the police. She calls for reorganization and people led watch groups. She calls for justice. She calls for increased accountability.
A brother selling water senses urgency from the growing traffic jam. So far everyone has been patient letting people have their peace. He helps guide these trapped cars down another direction. The order of anarchy taking over the streets.
Further South, another protest is going on. Twenty hate-filled bible thumpers are outside a trans health clinic holding signs that say “God hates fags”. Surrounding them are a group of fifty angels spreading their wings to block their message. Around them are another four hundred protesters shouting and singing and dancing, carrying flags full of sarcasm and parody. Full of jubilance and love. The initial ugliness of the spectacle has been transformed into something of peace and wonder.
Again up north, the march begins to move. A poet is overwhelmed with men with livestreams wanting an interview. What is he protesting? What is his message? He tells them there are better people here for them to question. This is a protest for the welfare of black lives, so perhaps their focus should be giving black voices a right to speak. To be represented. He thinks to himself, people who look like him have already spoken enough throughout history. It’s time new voices get to be heard. It’s time to start listening.
He directs the interviewers to the brothers and sisters carrying the coffin. He directs them to the sister carrying a cardboard sign with the fist of activism. He points them to the older woman walking behind the group talking to a police sergeant, asking him civil questions directed by the larger community. The poet steps aside and watches them interview an older brother who says he was out here on these same streets as a young man in the 1960s. He says he doesn’t understand why he still has to be out here fighting for the same thing.
The signs read “Black Lives Matter”. “Jail Killer Cops”. “Stop Racism”. They read “End the Prison/Military Industrial Complex”. There’s a sign with the frowning face of Hillary Clinton that reads “White Lies Matter”. There are the faces of Malcolm X and MLK. There’s the faces of Maya Angelou and Muhammed Ali. There’s the words of Claudine Rankine and Michelle Alexander and James Baldwin and Nelson Mandela. The signs read “Free Mumia”. “Free the Move 5”. “Free Hugs”. “Free Water”.
A medic bikes through the lines handing out water bottles. Another bikes through with homemade sandwiches and bags of trail mix. A third bikes through with a trash bag, collecting people’s bottles and other throwaways. A medic treats a protester with a skinned knee. Another makes sure no one is feeling light headed or other symptoms of heat stroke.
A sister who is legally blind is marching with us. She’s got a beautiful smile and she says she doesn’t need her eyes to see through the bullshit. Blind since her youth, her family is still here with her now supporting her through her fifties. She says her family is everyone in this parade, giving her a helping hand, and fighting for salvation.
Things reach a peak around route 76. Hundreds of police in riot gear hidden a block or two over in each direction, just in case the protesters try to take their march onto a highway. On Broad Street there suddenly forms lines of uniformed police to provide force without too much of the militarized image of fear present a few blocks away. Or maybe Philly just ran out of money to buy more riot suits.
Some of them read back out loud the signs in front of them. “Justice for Sandra Bland”. “Stop killing us”. “Poets for Peace”.
The line swells around the convention center where delegates and public officials meet to decide future policy that will affect all the folks out on the streets. They’re so afraid of the people they represent they have to hire hundreds of armed guards to form a barrier around them. Faces in the windows stare down in momentary silence.
A brother drags the American flag behind him. It is withered and burned. Defaced by years of oppression. The toll of oppressing those that everyone who is not white, straight, male, or rich. New flags are being carried to replace it.
The march hits City Hall and combines with other parades. There are Bernie or Busters and folks with huge green flags fighting to save the environment. There are rainbow flags and signs supporting equal rights to everyone. The backdrop of the city echoes with the growing group’s chants. All of these issues coming together under one unified voice.
Words of peace and community are delivered from the pick up trucks. Words of anger and disgust. They come from sisters who have lost brothers and fathers. Gunned down in the streets for merely walking.
A twelve year old brother climbs a street light and waves his banner. “Resistance is Justified”. A photo of Trayvon Martin. A photo of a young man not much older than himself. This is his first protest. It won’t be his last.
Brothers and sisters towards the back take a break from the sun. They sit in circles discussing their futures, shaded by skyscrapers. They hold space for all of the unnecessary life that has been lost around the world in the name of the country they call their home.
Above a sun dog appears in the clouds. The sun is reaching its westerly horizon. Rainbows in the clouds. It seems to be heaven’s blessing for the peace that is being reached by all the colors of the rainbow represented in the faces below.
The march has already walked five miles over four hours. The march continues the next five walking towards the DNC where decisions are being made without the ratification of the people who actually live out here in the real world.
A son gets a text from his mother, “Give them hell! Keep them honest!”
A daughter gets a text that says, “Stay true to your heart. Love is all around!”
A sister with crystals boldly talks to the various bike officers patrolling and barricading the march onto the street. She reminds them to keep things peaceful as the crowd chants behind her, “Fuck the Police!”
They don’t need reminding. They’re greatly outnumbered and perhaps somewhat intentionally. They’re sweating and have no foreseeable relief coming their way. Their only choice is to not antagonize the crowd. To de-escalate by not being. Perhaps returning to an ideal form of policing called peacekeeping.
Some members from the march ask them questions. “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” Some ask them questions that can actually be answered. There is the beginning of what seems like a communal dialogue amidst all of this tension. Police recognizing the folks they are supposed to protect. Recognizing the family out here today in solidarity. Brothers and sisters addressing them and trying to get them to evolve.
One officer says to the brother behind him, “I just like talking to people”. His calm smile has been attracting all sorts of conversations. Community policing as opposed to militarized riot patrol.
The sun begins to dip. Pink skies take over. Everyone is battered and tired. Fire hydrants have been set off by the city to keep folks cool as the heat starts to get to them. Jazz bands play in parking lots and other outdoor spaces with tents and amplification providing cultural ambiance to the situation.
A brother that looks like Allen Ginsberg carries a huge bag of anti-war pins. A sister asks if he needs help carrying it. No, he’s too set on making it all the way to the end, but they strike up a conversation about an end to war. A call for world peace.
Several clowns, faces painted with smiles join the parade. They march on stilts ten or twelve feet tall. Their signs elevated above everything else, so even the helicopters can see what this is all about.
Behind him Vermin Supreme carries a boot on his head and says absolute absurdities over his handheld loudspeaker. Brothers and sisters laugh and take photos with him. He’s a little national icon of how we can choose to rise above some of the very real injustices our country serves us. He inspires so many smiles with simple gestures. A break from the heartbreak.
Almost there, the parade collides with another marching north. There are ten thousand people on the streets. The sound of it is empowering. People holding hands. People shouting cheers of self awareness. Power is in the hands of the people. Someone says, “it only takes seventeen people to flip a barricade”. Someone else lights an American flag on fire. Several other bonfires begin. Large groups forming prayer circles around all of this havoc. Songs of a return to humanity.
The burning flags wave above it, casting away a system that does not work for anyone, but the rich and privileged. The people finding each other now in the dark. Together they give birth to a new, truer democracy.
The march nears another highway. Here there are garbage trucks blocking the on-ramps. Enough disruption so again the parade can’t shut down anything but what’s intended. The highway is shut down anyway by the police.
Underneath the overpass the march reaches new volumes. Everyone looks around realizing how many are out on the streets with them. Their own voices echoing back to them. A choir of animal sounds, bird calls, hoots and hollers. “These are the voices of the disenfranchised”, they say. It sounds like people finding their woods and celebrating their humanity. “We ain’t taking anymore of this bullshit. People are dying and time is running out.”
Provocateurs run rampant. Red-black flags carried by faces hidden behind bandanas and Guy Fawkes masks. The march starts to break up into smaller factions, each holding round circles around fires and chants for peace.
Awaiting the march are several buses full of riot police, almost inconspicuous in the shadows, except this same tactic has been seen at other large gatherings. The initial gang of bike police that have marched all this way are relieved and form a barricade that flanks the parade. Legal observers, in yellow shirts, line the sidewalk, chattering anxiously, waiting for all hell to break lose. It seems like this is the end of the line. The police are preparing to cage the protestors in and beat the shit out of them.
But somehow everyone remains civil on both sides. The fifteen foot tall fences around the Wells Fargo center are rattled by masked protesters jeering at the the riot cops that stand in full kevlar behind them. But behind those provocateurs are circles of hippies humming, playing guitar and holding hands chanting magic just like what’s been seen during the day.
A new offshoot mobilizes and marches through Roosevelt park to rally all the people camping in their tents and sharing Food Not Bombs. A kind of symbolic sentiment, with this Obamaville growing revelrous in a park commemorating the father of the New Deal policies that over the last 70 years have rapidly been stripped away piece by piece, leaving the poor poorer than they’ve ever been.
That same group fighting for Bernie Sanders, a candidate who promised to do nothing more than reinstate and expand those policies that were so normal over, half a century ago. And seemingly with no repeat of internment camps for refugees or other forms of racist othering like what was found during FDR’s presidency.
The People shout, “This is what Democracy looks like!” They shout, “Another world is possible!”
Things begin to subside. Both police and protesters begin to go home. News spreads that the roll call has been called. Hillary reeps victory. Bernie symbolically bows out, right before the final delegates place their votes. There’s rumors that the roll call was staged for TV, as it probably always is. Delegates already cast their votes in the morning at breakfast. Twice. Enough time to bully people around. Enough time to guilt trip them into changing their votes.
At the convention, hundreds of Bernie delegates walk out as a form of protest. Some of them join us waiting outside. The TV fails to show any of this, except for later they show the empty seats. The commentators talk of the Bernie or Bust folks, as childish. They expect everyone to bow down and accept this corporate bought reality. They call for unity.
They forget that not too long ago in this country’s history, conventions were a scene of strong-armed brawls between the separate opposing factions within the larger two political parties. They forget this country began with revolution.
Outside the people haven’t forgotten. But they all question why there aren’t more of them. They each expected the millions that voted for Bernie to be out here with them fighting for the right to exist. They forget that the system we all participate in has been working to weigh down all of our lives over the centuries. People stuck at jobs. Struggling to raise their families. Fighting every single day in their normal lives. Stuck in the machinery. No time or energy left to fight back at the end of the day.
At the end of the day there are all kinds of protest and this is only one form of it. Walking from one end of a city to another is no different from raising garden beds on abandoned lots or becoming a teacher in the inner city. It’s no different from making time in the day to celebrate living or organizing alternative communities. At the end of the day, a whole generation is emerging that opposes the last one, and the dregs left over from the one before it.
With the momentum of the front lines. With people engaging in their civil liberties. With folks from similar and separate backgrounds finding common stories in the streets. The momentum continues forward.
(photos are of artworks and installations at the Truth To Power exhibition on display in Philadelphia, as well as scenes from the protests against the Democratic National Committee.)