Inside the DNC Walkouts
Originally published at CounterPunch.org
The 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was the most contentious since 1968. Characterized by bold protests both inside and outside the convention, the U.S. and world watched a powerful challenge to the Democratic establishment take place over the course of the week. The events helped fuel an already rapid growth in support for Green Party Candidate Jill Stein, which is developing into the most significant left independent presidential run since Ralph Nader’s historic campaign in 2000.
The political high point of the convention resistance was the Tuesday mass walkout of delegates. While exact numbers are unknown, the clearest evidence (including video and photography of vacated delegation seats) points towards a walkout of likely more than 700 Sanders delegates after the abbreviated conclusion of the roll call vote. The large and well organized Sanders delegations from California and Washington led supermajorities of their delegates outside, leaving a visible void of more than 200 seats between those two states alone.
Sanders delegates arrived in Philadelphia already outraged at the DNC and Hillary Clinton. There was generalized anger fueled by the whole experience of the rigged Democratic Primary, at the party establishment’s insistence on a continuation of neoliberal politics, against the transparent bias of the corporate media, and the contempt which Sanders delegates felt coming down from the party leadership.
But specific events in the days leading up to the convention brought this already seething anger to a boil with the exposure by Wikileaks of the DNC’s accessory role as effectively an arm of the Clinton campaign against Sanders.
Adding to this was the choice of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate just days before the convention. By choosing Kaine, her neoliberal political twin, in the single most important political decision of her campaign, Hillary and the Democratic establishment signaled clearly they had no genuine interest in substantially taking on board the political demands of Sanders supporters. Only days before the announcement, perhaps as a public message to Corporate America, Kaine had reaffirmed his full support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and further bank deregulation.
While the horror show of the Republican National Convention the prior week could have set a different mood going into the DNC, these developments instead fueled the fires of protest.
Monday itself was highly polarizing. Delegates carried out a well organized protest action against TPP only to face a backlash at all levels, from the top party leadership, to local Democratic leaders, to the Sanders campaign itself demanding Berners be more “respectful.” Meanwhile Sanders delegates had a shared experience of being disrespected, silenced and shut out, including the strongest Sanders delegations being forced to sit in the back of the arena, largely out of view of media cameras. Sanders delegates were told by Bernie on Monday afternoon that they should vote for Hillary, which further frustrated delegates who did not agree with his decision to endorse Clinton, and some of them booed or walked out on Bernie’s speech.
By Tuesday, political conditions were ripe for a rebellion, with delegates looking to take their protests against the DNC to another level.
As it so happened, the infrastructure to support a mass walkout was largely already in place.
Organizing the Walkout
Much of the media coverage of the July 26 walkout described it as an organic event. There are certainly elements of truth in this. Dozens of delegates did fly into action on Tuesday afternoon to spread the idea and build support for the walkout with no prior planning on their part.
But this assessment of spontaneity misses the mark. In fact, there were hundreds of hours of planning, organizing and persuasion to prepare a DNC walkout in the weeks and months before the Tuesday action, by delegates from a number of states.
It is worth looking more closely into the preparations and triggering of the walkout not only because it was in important event, but also because there are lessons to be learned, some of which we will attempt to draw out here.
Delegation organizing efforts were overlapping, with most delegations and interstate efforts focused on preparing various forms of protest, with a walkout being one among many potential protest actions.
There were also focused efforts on developing lines of communications and structures between state delegations that proved crucial on Tuesday, again with multiple overlapping efforts. The largest and most cohesive work on interstate communication appear to have come out of North Dakota and Washington, though there were also important efforts by Iowa, California and Hawaii. Organizers bumped into each other as they did their own outreach across states and territories.
In terms of cohesive organizing specifically for a mass walkout action, Washington State took the lead. The Washington-led effort began immediately after the Washington State Convention in mid-June, with a plan to identify 1-2 politically solid organizers in each state who would lead up organizing efforts in their delegations. The delegate who was to became the official lead “whip” (team leader) of the Washington Sanders delegation, Pam Keeley, helped lead up the walkout organizing, aided by other Washington delegates.
Pam Keeley was also the lead DNC delegate organizer for Socialist Alternative. Socialist Alternative does not support the Democratic Party and does not have membership in it. We see the party as thoroughly corporate-controlled and do not believe it can be reformed into a force representing working people. Socialist Alternative’s efforts toward the DNC had a clear political goal: to use a walkout and other DNC protests to help develop a rupture in the Democratic Party with as many Sandernistas as possible breaking with the neoliberal DNC and Clinton. In other words, we wanted to promote the development of what became called a #DemExit, with delegates and activists rejecting this party of Wall Street and moving toward supporting Jill Stein’s campaign as a step toward building a new mass party of the 99%.
Keeley had been a longtime Democratic activist with prior national convention experience and roots in Seattle’s 37th Legislative District. She had already made her own personal #DemExit at the end of the prior year and joined Socialist Alternative, after seeing how fiercely and undemocratically the leadership of the Seattle Democrats fought against Kshama Sawant’s re-election campaign and also against the campaigns of left wing Democrats. Keeley drew the conclusion that the party is fundamentally rotten and controlled by the corporate establishment, but with the emergence of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign she stayed formally active in the Democratic Party, specifically with an eye to organizing at the DNC for a walkout and other strong protest actions. Pam worked closely with Socialist Alternative to develop strategy and tactics in preparation for the DNC.
Our organizing efforts prior to the convention were manifold. What was key was to help the Washington delegation become a cohesive group that in turn could galvanize support for a walkout and would stand up against demands by the Democratic establishment for “party unity.”
There was also the aforementioned outreach to other states to identify delegation leaders, build a network, and add likely supporters of the walkout to a text loop with hundreds of members.
In addition to Pam’s leading of the delegate effort, Socialist Alternative helped build a public campaign to support a delegate walkout, working with Occupy Wall Street, Movement4Bernie and later with Bernie or Bust. This involved social media, a Q&A, an article in Counterpunch, and production of a flyer for use in Philadelphia. The public campaign was careful not to give away details or delegate names, but to help build buzz and support for a walkout while leaving the final call and trigger in the hands of the delegates themselves.
The culmination of our walkout preparation before the DNC came with two meetings on the Sunday before the first day of the DNC, both called jointly by Pam Keeley with lead delegates from other states.
The first Sunday meeting was the smaller of the two and focused on organizing the walkout. About 1,500 flyers were distributed to the attendees of the meeting, who left on the same page about the walkout action and distributed flyers to other delegates at that afternoon’s DNC climate rally, and elsewhere prior to the Tuesday walkout.
The second Sunday meeting’s purpose was to organize the TPP action which took place on Monday evening. It was called jointly by several delegates, including Pam, a second leading Washington delegate (who chaired the meeting), and a leading delegate from California. While not explicitly stated at the meeting, Pam’s goal was to use the TPP action and its infrastructure of delegation leaders (from about 25 states) both for the strongest possible protest action against the TPP, but also to later reuse it for a walkout action.
Also that Sunday, Seattle City Councilwoman and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant spoke at two events in Philadelphia, one march and one mass meeting, where she advocated for a DNC walkout, with delegates coming to speak to her afterwards to find out more and how they could help organize.
The broadest outreach effort of all, though not initially focused on a walkout or other specific protest action, came out of North Dakota in early July. Calling itself the “Coalition of 57” for the total combined number of U.S. states and territories represented, the grouping had 1-2 lead organizers in each delegation, and had the stated purpose of building communication links between Sanders delegations. Sometimes the organizers of the Coalition of 57 happened to be the same people as those identified by the Washington-led effort, in other cases they differed.
The Coalition of 57, which had impressive outreach, also had a different political character than Washington’s. The 57 leadership had launched their group with the idea that delegates should follow Bernie’s lead at the convention. In the end, this was not entirely followed but it nonetheless set up a contradiction between strong protest actions and Sanders’s leadership. Before and during the DNC, Sanders and his campaign made open and repeated appeals to delegates to be “respectful” and not walk out out or boldly protest.
Nonetheless, the Coalition of 57 played a central role on Tuesday itself. They were very likely the first to trigger the Tuesday walkout, they defined the key elements of the action, and they got the word out more rapidly and widely than the Washington leadership or other groups.
State delegation organizing was also critical to the success of the walkout, even in cases where there was no significant outreach to other states.
Here the California delegation’s efforts in particular stood out. In addition to being the largest Sanders delegation by far, the California delegation also demonstrated a high level of political confidence in fighting against the DNC and an openness to breaking with the Democratic leadership and the party itself. For these and other reasons, many state delegations looked to California for leadership.
California had discussed a walkout openly since June, unlike most delegations (with the notable exception of Washington) which had either been dismissive of the idea or had discussed it only under wraps – indirectly or in one-on-one discussions. By the time of the convention there was a strong sentiment in favor of a walkout in California.
The indirect and cautious nature of the organizing protest actions in most delegations was not entirely by choice.
Party leaders in state after state had made it crystal clear to delegates that they could lose their delegate status (be “de-credentialed”) if they were found to be organizing a walkout or certain other protest actions. What the threats did was push the organizing for the walkout and other strong protest actions largely underground. It meant walkout organizing was often limited to one-on-one discussions or proceeded indirectly, with leading questions and implication. It also had a splintering effect, with less cohesion and more independent discussions and initiatives in different delegations.
But it was also a mistake that most delegations made in accepting too much of an underground approach to organizing protest actions. It was not an easy matter politically for the party leadership to de-credential delegates, much less large numbers of them. Sometimes in underground organizing work, those involved derive satisfaction from and come to see secrecy as a virtue. Yet generally speaking, the more open and public an organizing effort can be the better. California, and to a lesser degree Washington, were correct to not limit themselves to clandestine efforts and to more openly discuss a potential walkout action.
The walkout only came fully above ground on Tuesday in Philadelphia because of the hostile environment and secretive approach in which delegate organizing developed under the campaign of fear launched by the Democratic Party leadership. But there was a final, and central factor limiting the walkout – the politics of the delegates themselves. Delegates’ views about whether the party can be reformed played a role in how willing they were to walk out, and particularly on Thursday when this became the key limiting factor.
On July 26, walkout rumors began circulating early. Ohio delegates discussed a walkout during breakfast at their hotel, with a specific rumor of an action planned for that night. The word was going around that California delegates were planning a walkout after the roll call. The source (or accuracy) of that particular rumor is still unclear, but varying rumors of a walkout were spreading in other delegations as well.
The rumors found a ready audience. General discussion of a walkout had been widespread and these newest rumors gave it immediacy. Undoubtedly concrete organizing efforts, including the circulating flyer, also sparked and reinforced the rumors.
It’s unclear at what time the Coalition of 57 decided in favor of a walkout to the media tent, but things were set in motion well before the time the gavel hit the podium at Wells Fargo.
The Washington-led effort had never fixed a firm date for the walkout, and had decided instead that flexibility would be necessary – the best moment would be the one where the mood to revolt was reaching its height. After hearing about the roll call walkout from multiple sources, Pam and Calvin conferred. Recognizing the growing momentum, the political mood coming out of Monday, and the clear advantages of the roll call as a target, they quickly decided to fully throw in the Washington-led apparatus behind the action.
Text messages, Facebook messages, discussions on GroupMe and text loops flew from delegate to delegate, and from delegation to delegation, in an attempt to rapidly get as many on board as possible. The Coalition of 57 engaged their whips, including face-to-face discussions to win buy in.
Pam Keeley sent out runners from Washington and other delegations, both to get the word out and to persuade those with doubts. Those runners then recruited others to go to nearby delegations. One of the runners, Alex from Ohio was caught in the act and shut out of the main arena, and not allowed back in.
California came on board, and a delegation leader went up and down the aisles, spreading the word and finding overwhelming support.
In state after state, delegates came on board for the action, with varying numbers in each state who were aware of and supporting the walkout.
Undoubtedly, in the end, many were not directly reached, did not hear arguments for or against, and made the decision spontaneously to join in as others walked out around them.
The idea to go the media tent came independently from both the Coalition of 57 and the California delegation leadership, with Washington immediately supporting the plan.
The idea for a silent protest came the Coalition of 57, and in the heat of the action and with no broader coordination in place, it was accepted rather than debated. Certainly there was a real weakness in the plan, because it made the protest action potentially invisible to those not already in the know and not located in or near a delegation with a mass of delegates supporting the action. This part of the plan was a byproduct of the Coalition of 57 leaders’ politics – they saw their silence instead of chanting as “respectful”, an idea in alignment with the appeals coming down from the Sanders campaign and the Democratic establishment to not be loud or disruptive. Perhaps not unrelated was the 57 leadership’s idea of wearing tape on delegate’s mouths at the media tent as a symbolic act representing the silencing of Sanders delegates by the DNC. The downside was less media coverage than if delegates had instead immediately begun to give interviews. Fortunately the media tent action went on for over an hour and many delegates did give interviews, and in the end the media exposure for the walkout was tremendous in spite of the initial silence.
A group of approximately 80-100 made it inside the media tent before it was secured inside and out by police. Another 200 or so were outside nearby, with the remaining hundreds who walked out ending up elsewhere, some initially obstructed from immediate exit by police, some 50,000 of which had been assembled in Philadelphia for the convention.
Some delegates ultimately made it outside the fence around Wells Fargo Center to join the protesters who gathered there together each day. Others went back into the convention led by the Coalition of 57 who had always conceived of the action as a specific media tent protest, not as a full walkout and rejection of the DNC.
Many delegates were not allowed to leave, and were instead forced by police onto subway trains. They were kept on the trains for four full stops, and were not permitted to turn around on the subway to go back. The motivation seems clear enough – the establishment did not want delegates and protesters joining together en masse, they didn’t want larger joint protests, and they didn’t want any such empowering images to appear on TV.
In spite of this intervention by the forces of the state, the Tuesday walkout nonetheless had a tremendous and empowering impact on the remainder of the DNC.
A discussion was immediately underway to walk out again on Thursday during Clinton’s acceptance speech, as some in the California delegation had discussed even before the Tuesday walkout.
Great pressures were brought to bear on the delegates to not walk out again.
These pressures came from many sources. Bernie Sanders himself made clear his position on showing respect for Clinton during her speech, and delegates not walking out or protesting. From the other direction party leaders ramped up the fear campaign, placing large numbers of security officers on the floor with guns visible in many cases under their shirts. Intimidation was stepped up in general. Signs were confiscated. Chants were drowned out with counter-chants – such as “no more war” being shouted down by “USA, USA”. Delegates reported that white noise devices were installed around the arena in preparation for Clinton’s acceptance speech.
“Seat fillers” had been brought in all week, paid “actors” hired by the DNC to take seats meant for Sanders delegates and guests. They were given Hillary signs and told to cheer for her and her surrogates. Aisles and stairwells quickly filled with Clinton supporters as well, making any exit slow and difficult.
Security officials were assigned to stand near and intimidate particular Sanders delegates. A lockdown was announced saying no one would be allowed to leave from 9pm until after the event was over, signaling that the walkout wouldn’t even be allowed to leave the building.
Pam Keeley was herself targeted. At one point seven armed Secret Service and other law enforcement agents were stationed around her so that she couldn’t move without being under surveillance. In fact, one plainclothes Secret Service officer, with ear bud and upside down Clinton sign, unwittingly followed her into the ladies restroom.
But in the end, the single most important factor limiting the walkout was whether the political outlook of a delegate was toward #DemExit or toward attempting to reform the party, such as with Sanders’s new initiative called Our Revolution. This meant the leaders of the Coalition of 57 themselves did not support the Thursday walkout action and encouraged their cohorts to do the same.
Many of those who were still oriented toward “change from within” could not bring themselves to walk out on the Democratic nominee. But those who had already made the decision to support Jill Stein were much more prepared to walk out, and even came prepared with Stein signs or campaign t-shirts.
In the end the Thursday walkout was much smaller, in the range of 100-200 delegates, but it was an important success, and its message was even more politically clear than Tuesday’s. Many had decided not to walk out because they had been told “no one would notice.” This proved to be wrong. The next morning, interviews of delegates who had walked out during Clinton’s speech were run on Democracy Now.
Both walkouts had a powerful reinforcing effect on the protests outside Wells Fargo, focused in particular around AT&T Station, where thousands of people gathered in increasing numbers. It also contributed to the growing mood of protesters and delegates toward the idea of #DemExit, of breaking with the Democratic Party altogether, which grew stronger by the day.
Jill Stein had a powerful presence throughout the week. She spoke at multiple rallies, at the Socialist Convergence event, and she made it inside Wells Fargo on Tuesday night and then joined in with the walkout.
Stein’s involvement over the course of the week added to a growing realization that she was a genuine candidate of the grassroots movement, and that her campaign was the clear continuation of the political revolution in the presidential election.
But the growing discussion about #DemExit and Jill Stein will have to contend with increasing lesser-evil pressures to support Clinton in order to stop Trump.
There can be no doubt about the danger represented by Trump’s right wing populism.
But we will never decisively defeat right populism by supporting corrupt, corporate candidates like Clinton or the neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party. It is precisely these policies, championed by both Democrats and Republicans, that have created the basis, in a distorted way, for Donald Trump.
To stop the right and end the continued corporatizing of U.S. politics over the past decades, we need to build the strength of the organized left. We need to organize powerful mass movements, and begin laying the foundations for a new party of the 99%. Concretely, right now, continuing our political revolution means supporting Jill Stein.
There are no shortcuts. If the left does not build then the right will. We saw this just a few years ago with the rise of the Tea Party, which was fueled in large part by the genuine fury at the bailouts of Wall Street in 2009, while the left was busy making excuses for Obama.
Make no mistake, we do need to defeat the right. But we will need a serious strategy to do so, not continued capitulation to the lesser evil Democratic Party politics of neoliberalism.
We need a real #DemExit, a real walkout on corporate politics, and a new mass party of the 99%.
The formation of a new political party was a key step on the road to ending institutionalized slavery in the US. In other countries it took new parties of the working class to win socialized medicine, paid parental leave, and free college education.
It will take a new mass party of working people in the United States to bring a real challenge to corporate politics and the failed system of capitalism.
It’s in our hands.