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My three days with the Bernie Sanders rebellion

Understanding others

A Monitor reporter spent three days amid the pro-Bernie Sanders protests outside the Democratic National Convention. It wasn't very Democratic, but it was very democratic.

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    Bernie Sanders supporters march down Broad St. in Philadelphia Monday.
    Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
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With her tongue ring flashing in between vowels, Jocelyn McGerty, a nurse from New York, talks about her future plans to run for Congress.  

“I might. I don’t know yet. I mean, at least it’s a shot in the right direction. I might, I don’t know. It’s an idea,” Ms. McGerty trails off. 

“But it’s something to do, to get involved,” she says while sitting alone in the back of a Bernie or Bust rally in Philadelphia’s Thomas Paine Plaza Wednesday. “And that’s what we need, we need to overturn the system.” 

The end of the Democratic National Convention should bring handshakes, camaraderie, and focus. Hillary Clinton has gone some ways toward unifying the Democratic Party. 

But not all the way. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) himself has tried. He offered unabashed support Monday, saying the former secretary of State “must become the next president of the United States.” But amid the protesters on the plazas of Philadelphia, a different spirit held sway, even to the end. 

It has been a picture of what Bernie has wrought – a movement that no longer has any clear political leader or purpose, but simply doesn’t feel finished for many of those who joined it. 

In the months and years to come, it could coalesce around a new figure – Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, perhaps. Or maybe Senator Sanders himself has a third act ahead. 

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But looking beyond this movement’s role in the Democratic cause gives a glimpse of their contribution to the democratic idea. They caused trouble for the Democratic establishment as the spontaneous burst of something real, passionate, and determined – of the desire to raise a voice and have it heard, often by people who had never felt that way before. 

They were Pamela Orrego, a young mother from New Jersey, who drove alone to Philadelphia Monday because it was the only day she could borrow the car she shares with her boyfriend. 

They were Douglas Stoll and Anthony Joyce who drove eight hours to Philadelphia because they “had to be here, for moral reasons.” 

And they were 20-something Caleb Shake-Garfield, who took a week off work to rally at the convention, driving 20 hours from Oklahoma.

The two major parties have just elected the two most unpopular presidential candidates since Gallup started polling on the subject a quarter century ago. But in the Sanders rebellion was a genuine affection for a politician who seemed to be something completely out-of-the-ordinary.

As Norman Solomon, leader of the Bernie Delegates Network, said at a press conference Monday: “Sanders's brilliance includes the fact that he’s not running the show.” 

Monday

At a Sanders rally in Marconi Park, audience members take turns with the microphone, offering testimonies of what Sanders has meant to them in their life.  

It’s not a done deal yet, say the speakers: Maybe Sanders will denounce Mrs. Clinton in his speech today. Maybe superdelegates woke up today and changed their minds. Maybe. Not.

Avery Brauer, a 20-something who drove to Philadelphia from Wisconsin, says his ideal outcome of the week-long convention would be more awareness about the county’s two-party system. But when pushed a little further, he confesses his real ideal outcome.

“Well, the ideal scenario, of course, is that we get a complete flip and they just walk up on the DNC stage and they’re like, ‘We pick Bernie!’ and everybody goes wild. I mean that’s like my ideal, ideal scenario. I guess what I’ll dream about tonight.”

His friend, Paul, says he won’t let himself have those dreams.

Others are simply soaking in the moment.

“This is pretty amazing. This many people who have followed him, who are energetic and – you know – I’ve waited my whole life to vote for someone like this,” says Jennifer Richmond while listening to the latest speaker in Marconi.  

When explaining why she flew from Washington State for Bernie rallies in Philadelphia this week, Ms. Richmond simply explains: “What better place to be?”

Richmond is interrupted by chants of “This is what democracy looks like,” gradually getting closer and closer. Rally attendees join the marchers, and everyone begins heading down Broad street to the Wells Fargo Center, where the convention is being held. There is hugging and smiling. Two strangers wearing the same shirt with Bernie’s face high-five one another.  

“This is the first time I’ve ever done this,” says Leeanna Player, motioning to the march happening around her, “and it’s all because of Bernie.”

Ms. Player drove 14 hours overnight to Philadelphia from Nashville, Tenn. 

“I just happened to come across him on a YouTube video. He was in Congress, and he was giving somebody hell and I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy is great,’ and it just went on from there. I started telling people, ‘Have you heard ofBernie Sanders? Here, watch this video.’ ”

But Sanders has already endorsed the former secretary of State. Surely the hearts of those ‘Feeling the Bern’ have hardened a little.  

“I just can’t be mad at the man. I love him so much,” shrugs Jessica Griffith, a Sanders delegate from Las Vegas. “I understand [his endorsement]. He’s in Washington.... He is going to do what he thinks is best for the country.”

Mr. Brauer agrees. “He’s sacrificing all the joy of being that charismatic figure to do what kinda has to be done to defeat Trump.”

Tuesday

Sanders has made his speech, and the effect of his full-throated support for Clinton is noticeable. There are fewer ‘Feel the Bern’ shirts in the streets. Sanderites mention their disgust with Clinton and the convention first, then their love for Bernie second. 

“Thank you sir, but this was not an election, sir,” says one speaker at a Bernie rally around City Hall. “Hillary Clinton cheated from Iowa to Idaho, she cheated her way across this map. And Hillary Clinton is being installed tomorrow – installed.” 

Putting aside the fact that the party followed its nominating rules, it is easy to understand the frustration. For months, this movement has been something – a flame of hope for some, a family for others. To all, it offered a deep sense of meaning. 

Now, it feels like the high school state champions are preaching sportsmanship to the runner-ups. Yes, sportsmanship – or party unity in this case – is a necessary lesson, but the presentation comes across as a little tone-deaf. 

“I’m here because we are a family, and I love you all,” said one speaker at Thomas Paine Plaza. 

“We are a family, we are here, we are together, we are united,” said another.

Tammy Vigil, an assistant professor at Boston University and expert on political campaign rhetoric, said Sanders’ campaign was so successful because of his emphasis on “together.” 

“ ‘Together’ is a good word for making people move… that was the secret to success Bernie Sanders had in getting people to show up,” she says. “Even when it looks negative, there has to be the possibility for change for people to act. They have to see the potential. The middle class is disappearing, there is so much student debt – but we can do something about it. That’s why he calls it a ‘revolution’ or a ‘movement.’ ”

“ ‘If we unite our efforts we can actually make a difference’ – that’s the thing that really motivates people.”

Wednesday

It’s official: Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. 

Still, at a Bernie or Bust rally on Thomas Paine Plaza, the speakers chanted a bit louder and flags waved a bit faster. 

There is still a bust of Sanders at the front of the stage, but other groups have begun to infiltrate the rally. A radical Christian group stands on crates with graphic antiabortion photos, another group yells into a megaphone about police brutality, and some Sanders supporters are now holding posters for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in their free hand. 

One speaker on the stage even maligns Bernie Sanders, to a scatter of applause.  

The number of law enforcement officers has tripled – if not quadrupled – from the days before. 

“See this is what you don’t want,” chuckles a tall, gray-haired man. “But this comes with democracy.”

His name is Rick Stevens, and he drove to Philadelphia from Los Angeles over the weekend. Mr. Stevens says he has never really been involved in politics before, but he carpooled to Philadelphia with a group of strangers.  

“I wanted to make sure I had my own little piece of this movement. He is a once in a lifetime – not even once in a generation – once in a lifetime person,” says Stevens as he begins to cry. “This country is at a moment where this is what the people need to understand: It’s up to us. Just like Bernie says, it’s up to us. We have to participate in the process.”

“We can’t give up the struggle,” adds Stevens. “We have to continue.”

Occupy DNC Facebook groups suggest potential (verging on desperate) moves for going forward: Maybe Sanders will still run as an independent. Maybe Sanders will run with Ms. Stein on the Green Party ticket. Maybe Sanders will win in a landslide in 2020. Maybe they can register 20 million voters before October and write Sanders in. 

“We CAN do this if we rally together to pull it off!” writes the group’s organizer, Laurie Cestnick, on Facebook.

Judging by the comments under the post, there doesn’t seem to be a clear winner. But one thing is clear. There is still that passion. And perhaps, for now, that is enough. 

“People are getting woken up,” says McGerty, without taking her eyes off the stage. “And that’s what we need. Everybody went to sleep. We need to get woken up and it’s great that we’re doing that now.”

[Editor's Note: The spelling of Norman Solomon's name has been corrected.]

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