Graphic by Joaquin Kunkel

Dissent and Discontent: What History Will We Make in 2016?

The United States likes to mythologize its history as one of pillorying leaders who would rule from distant seats of power.

Oct 30, 2016

It was 11 p.m. in West Philadelphia and the narrow Pakistani restaurant was, as always, full. At that moment, protesters in the city’s southern quarter mounted the portable chain-link fences surrounding the Wells Fargo Center, the multi-million dollar arena where the Democratic National Convention’s evening festivities had just come to a close. Peering down the restaurant’s single row of brown pleather booths, one could make out Bill Clinton’s face still beaming on 60 inches of flat screen.
The protesters had beat an eight-hour sun-and-asphalt walk from the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood of North Philadelphia to the Wells Fargo Center in the south. I knew this, because I had walked with them. I had come to Philadelphia to staff at a bookstore collective, in the process catching wind among the activist community of the mass protests expected to converge on the DNC. When they hit, they would reveal as much about the state of U.S. America’s presidential race as they would about what drives those dissenting from it.

Keen stage-managing had been in order for the Democratic Party and the Philadelphia city government alike in the weeks before the DNC. In early June, Hillary Clinton secured her role as the Democratic Party’s champion with a workable, if not stilted, endorsement from Senator Bernie Sanders. The internet relished and criticized her digital walk among the people with “7 Ways Hillary Clinton is just like your Abuela” and other Twitter campaigns. Even the FBI investigation into her private server use left Clinton’s play for the presidency uncompromised.
That June, the Philadelphia city government also began tidying up and clearing out. To its unwritten ban on protests during rush hour, it added a policy of issuing citations instead of arresting protesters. The change resulted in few arrests during the four days of protest at the convention — police officially arrested only those who scaled the fences. Those who were issued citations did not necessarily avoid jail, however. On the evening of July 6, I waited outside Philadelphia’s ninth district police station with dozens of others as 11 jailed protesters were held for several hours before being released with their citations. In response to an ACLU lawsuit filed on June 23 on behalf of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, an anti-poverty organization planning to protest at the DNC, the city revoked its de facto ban on demonstrations during rush hour. Yet permit issuance remained restrictive. On June 28, headed by the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic and Legal Justice — a group of black-led anti-police-violence activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter — organizations that were denied permits held a press conference announcing they would protest with or without permission.
I had first heard of the coalition from a friend who witnessed their attempt to disrupt a lecture by CIA director John Brennan on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The attempt had ended theatrically, with Secret Service agents physically removing the coalition’s protesters while the crowd chanted, “U.S.A”.
The galleried auditorium where Philly Coalition met weekly was reminiscent of an old Protestant church. Once a Quaker meetinghouse, it had housed the activities of reformers and revolutionaries for decades, from those of Lucretia Mott to demonstrators seeking safety during protests against the Republican National Convention that nominated George W. Bush in 2000. This evening, around 20 coalition members had split up to prep the Black Resistance March they would lead to the DNC on July 24. I was seated in the meetinghouse’s left-hand pews with march logistics.
“I don’t see how the whole thing is going to be structured,” said a young white man in the first pew. He did a quarter-twist to address the group. “What should we do?”
“Donate stuff.” A leader leaned back in a pew in the very back. “Water. Food. We’ll put them in trucks — which you should lend to us, if you have them.”
As a newcomer to protests, I had not realized the sheer volume of provisions needed to sustain a crowd of hundreds for hours in the streets. And as a newcomer, my mind was on what would happen should the crowd clash with the police.
“We’ll need protest marshals,” another leader spoke up. “With clear markers. Not too clear, though, or the cops’ll pick them off. Armbands or something.”
“What do marshals do?” I asked.
“Interact with the cops,” the young man said.
“It is not their job to talk nice with the police. They channel things. De-escalate if a cop gets into it with someone. We ought to tell the group that,” he said.
“I can take a bike group a half mile, mile ahead to get a read on what the cops are doing out front of us,” the young man in front offered.
“Good.” The second leader looked around at the group. “What else?”
“I want to do a performance piece.” Again, from the leader in the back pew. “I need volunteers. Black folks only. We’re going to march out front, in chains. Remind people what this country was built on.”

“Protesting isn’t effective.” Andrew, staffing with me this evening at the collective, furrowed his brow as he pinched tobacco from its packet.
I leaned on the counter, crusted with pins, concert ads, posters, jacket-patches and condoms. Few potential customers were out on a June weeknight.
“Now, black bloc tactics...” Andrew continued, rolling the cigarette, “those might change something.”
A black bloc is when protesters don black clothing and masks to maintain anonymity and make it difficult for police to pinpoint specific protesters for arrest. In the past, famous black blocs have involved sabotage.
Andrew strode out for his smoke, and I ripped open a box of new books to check in, shifting an old wooden pole and several feet of black and red fabric cuts from a stool to make room for the stack.
“For the DNC,” Andrew said as he rounded the counter several minutes later. The materials were for an improvised black-and-red banner. “I’ve been preparing. Gonna take whole the week off.”
“It should be big.”

“We’ll see.”

Like a giant stopper had been pulled, hundreds of protesters rushed to a point in the middle of the four-lane street. From behind a sea of shoulders, I made out a figure, black-and-red flag erect, leaning in with a hoodie-clad arm toward the flag with a lighter. The stripes were already burning. One flick, two, three, and the flame sprouted and caught the now-stinking polyester. A gas mask with two round respirators, like great nostrils, obscured the burner’s face, likening him to a great defiant wasp.
“There were probably eight different groups protesting that day,” Michelle Manos, a Los Angeles-based activist, Sanders supporter and coordinator for a protest caravan driving cross-country to the DNC, told me about a week after the protests. “We were trying to distance ourselves from the flag-burners, to say, That’s not our message. But if someone is an anarchist, it’s not even up to me to say if their point is valid.”
Jeremy White — another activist, Sanders supporter and Manos’s partner — was also present at the protest.
“Jeremy and others with megaphones were instrumental in moving people away from the flag burners and led singing and chanting,” away from the burning, Manos recalled.
Within days, a major media outlet had published a video shot of White chanting the slogan, This is what democracy looks like, alongside a separate shot of the burning U.S. American and Israeli flags.
It was clear that mainstream media coverage had completely ignored the real divisions among the protesters. Commentators could just as easily have made the Palestinian or Puerto Rican liberation groups marching that night the face of the flag-burning incident and smeared the rest of the protest along with them in a portrait of all present, about as accurate as splatter paint. Their portraits missed or willfully ignored what the protests are for the protester: not a rowdy and thoughtless parade but a riot of voices demanding a hearing and an assembly of ears just beginning to listen. The diversity of voices — but more importantly, of ears — defines them.
Some 20 minutes before the burning, in a street under a low iron underpass choked with rows of police cars and yelling protesters, a woman stood just below the curb with her back to the turmoil, staring flatly into the eyes of a group of white protesters standing on the sidewalk holding signs. A police car and several cops stood barely three feet behind her. “We’re telling you what we want, and you guys are doing what you want just like white people always do!” she yelled. “We’re telling you we’re not down with … giving cops leeway, and y’all keep doing what ... you wanna do.”
“We’re with you,” one protester shouted back.
“Excellent,” she glared. “So follow our leadership.”
Those protesters whom the police cars and flag-burning had not dispersed and those who had not stormed the fences eventually slowed to a stop outside the gates of the Wells Fargo Center. In front, one of the Black Resistance March leaders riding in the crowded bed of a white pickup truck got on the megaphone. It was the voice of a leader who had joined midday — someone outside of Philly Coalition. “I want to thank you all for coming. This is what solidarity looks like,” he began.
The next beat of evening silence was met not with cheers, but with a muffled whine from the microphone and a louder, stronger voice.
“This is not enough.” Silence.
The crowd shifted its feet, trying to divide the ache of the eight long miles that weighed on them.
“This is not enough.” He peered down at us from the truck. “Solidarity means giving black people space to speak. It means listening. It means hundreds of years of struggle.” The speaker, in a white T-shirt, bellowed each word, fraying the mic sound into a weak grey static. He swung down from the bed of the pickup truck and paced briskly before the crowd. I recognized him as one of the original flag-burners — I had glimpsed him scramble onto the center island, slip the flags out of his backpack and mist them with a spray-can of butane before letting them burn. “It means I want to be able to walk into a room” — he shouted directly into the speaker, shaking our eardrums — “and use my inside fucking voice.”
We silently knew there had been no hundreds of years of solidarity.
“We shouldn’t have to be here.” His voice cracked painfully, but he shouted louder. “We shouldn’t have to be in the street in the middle of south fucking Philly at 11 o’clock at night to be heard.”
The megaphone dropped with a muffle. I realized that those eight miles could never be enough.

Like that public-schooled friend from the suburbs with dime-a-dozen stories of lockdowns and schoolyard fights, U.S. American politicians barely stop for breath when telling us of the hardships they have faced. This is evident in the ubiquity of the humble beginning story. In her DNC speech, Clinton painted a picture of a modest background, beginning with her grandfather’s work in a lace mill in Scranton, Pennsylvania and ending with her mother’s work as a maid and struggle to find food. A short biography released on YouTube in June 2015 shows Ted Cruz’s father and aunt recount their flight from the Castro regime in Cuba. Mitt Romney’s parents, we are told in his 2012 nomination acceptance speech, received government food aid when they fled Mexico as refugees. His father didn’t finish college, and apprenticed as a lath and a plaster carpenter.
Stories of hardship accurately characterize some politicians’ experiences — sexism without doubt dogged Clinton’s ascent and Cruz could well have been poor. But these tales, often mistaken as bids to identify with ordinary U.S. Americans’ mundane sufferings, are bids for power. Sociologist William Domhoff puts it well: Our founding principle is that in the United States, the common people rule, and to legitimize one’s power over people, one has to make oneself their peer.
This is clear in the more overwrought salt-of-the-earth political hagiographies. George Romney may once have possessed refugee status and typical working-class markers, but he went on to become chairman of the American Motors Corporation and the governor of Michigan. Stories of President Obama’s separated parents and Chicago origins often obscure those — which Domhoff recounts — of his attendance at a top-ten Hawaii prep school and socialization by his white, Republican business-owning grandparents. Even Donald Trump understands the necessity of the humble beginning: as Rolling Stone reported, in October 2016 he laughably recounted to a New Hampshire town hall how he “started off in Brooklyn” with but a “small loan of a million dollars” from his father.
Political candidates would have us believe that they have walked their whole lives in the shoes of ordinary U.S. Americans. But walking — that eight, 10, 20 miles that can never quite suffice — is the work that defines protesters, not politicians, and that July, outside the DNC, Philadelphia knew by the blisters on their feet that the politicians had not.
That evening we dispersed in silence. We limped down the block, past the portable fencing buckling under the weight of those determined to scale it and the officers attempting to haul them off and past the heavy-gunned Secret Servicemen standing resolute before the political festivities proceeding merrily behind them.
Realizing how different we as ordinary U.S. Americans are from our leaders is the small victory of the 2016 campaign season. That knowledge implicitly fueled Senator Bernie Sanders’ support and continues to underpin Trump’s. The DNC protesters and others protesting this election have taken this realization even further to ask: In our political leaders’ moral and, some protesters hope, one day literal absence, how will we as ordinary U.S. Americans be accountable to each other?
If a chance remains to make something out of the sidelining of the Republican party and the moral exposure of the Democrats, it will depend on how long U.S. Americans can maintain this newfound skepticism without abandoning it cheaply — in the case of Trump supporters, in exchange for the basic credential of being “not a politician”, or, in the case of leftists, for the new Democratic narratives seeking to reestablish the party as the voice of non-white and working-class U.S. Americans that are sure to come. The United States likes to mythologize its history as one of pillorying leaders who would rule from distant seats of power. Whether or not that was ever true, this election has put that ethos on trial.
Emma Leathley is a contributing writer. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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