How the Berners’ Final Protest Went Bust

Besieged by Clintonites and monitored by the DNC, Bernie’s renegade delegates tried and failed to make one last stand.

Bernie Sanders supporters hold up signs at the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA—You could not speak long with a Bernie Sanders delegate from California before hearing about the latest seating drama.

“It seems like [the Clinton delegates] are getting more and more frustrated,” said Jose Caballero, a young, suited Sanders delegate from San Diego. We were sitting in the second-to-last row of the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday afternoon. Sanders supporters had taped the last two rows off for themselves, in solidarity, after a series of perceived slights from the Clinton delegates up in front.

Caballero pointed to a Clinton delegate wearing pink sitting near the front. “She literally picked up our stuff and sat in our seat, and took our seat,” he said. “And we’re like, ‘Hey, we’re sitting there, that person will be right back,’ and she’s like, ‘Nope, I’m taking this seat.’ ” It was an intentional effort, he said, to take up what seats they could by the front, thus keeping Sanders supporters out of the limelight. Stories abounded Wednesday night of Clinton fillers streaming into their Sanders seats whenever they got up and refusing to leave. For Thursday night, Northern California whip Robert Shearer said, the Sanders folks would have their section “shut down,” with people monitoring who came in and out.

How you feel about the Clinton delegates here will depend in large part on whether the Sanders delegates and their stunts have exhausted your store of patience.

A band of hardcore Sanders delegates, primarily from activist-rich states such as California, Washington, Oregon, or Colorado, have interrupted the speeches of everyone from Rep. Elijah Cummings to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. They staged a walkout Tuesday afternoon and held a sit-in by the media tents to grab attention for themselves, just as Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to received a major party presidential nomination. Comedian Sarah Silverman spoke for millions and millions of Americans on Monday night when she told the “Bernie or Bust people” that “you’re being ridiculous.” This was the psychic distance many Democrats had traveled over the course of the convention, as regards the Bernie dead-enders: from “You’re being ridiculous” to, what the hell, let’s just steal their seats.

It would be too simple to explain the Bernie diehards’ protests as a never-ending sour-grapes snit about how their man lost. No, they’re not happy about that, and many of them can quote leaked Democratic National Committee emails by heart to explain how the nomination was “rigged.” But their protests haven’t really been about Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. They haven’t been about refusing to vote for Clinton, either. They’re split on that. These are people of all ages, though trending much younger than the Clinton delegates, who are typically new to the Democratic Party. Very few of them have been delegates before. They’ve never been this close to the spotlight or a television audience of 25 million. They made a pledge to the Sanders supporters they represent back home and to the “political revolution” they feel is only just beginning, not just to be spectators at the convention but active participants, whether the DNC or the Clinton campaign—or Bernie Sanders himself—want them to be or not.

“The people who elected us elected us for a reason,” Caballero said. “And that’s not just to support Bernie, but to support the issues that he cares about.” They have their own political pressures, and they’ve been acting on it.

For example: It’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which Sanders delegates hate Trans-Pacific Partnership and want to make their hatred of TPP known at all times. It’s become vague shorthand for all that is wrong with heaven and Earth, right up there with “neoliberal.” When protesting delegates decided, after the criticism following their Monday disruptions, to move toward more “visual” protests, the signs they chose to hold up during the speeches of Sen. Tim Kaine or President Obama were the ones protesting TPP.

Caballero, who serves as the Sanders California delegates’ ambassador to their Clinton counterparts, said that prior to Wednesday’s session, he got a call from the “Clinton people” asking them to back off of another visual protest they had in mind. “We had inflatable ‘O’s, that were Barack Obama ‘O’s, but people were Sharpie-ing ‘NO TPP’ on them.” The “Clinton people” told him that they could not inflate them because it was a “security risk,” and that the Secret Service might pull their credentials if they inflated them. He called them back and asked if it would be OK to display them if they weren’t inflated. “They said, ‘Yes, that’s OK. Don’t throw them.’ And we were like, we’re not going to throw them.”

What were Sanders supports facing heading into the convention’s final night? “There’s psychological pressure, there’s political pressure, there’s media pressure, there’s physical pressure sometimes, like not allowing people to take their seats,” said Norman Solomon, coordinator of the Bernie Delegates Network. “I would say that in general there’s enormous pressure to be placid. And I think it was von Clausewitz who said, ‘Every conqueror is a lover of peace.’ And let’s face it, Hillary Clinton is a conqueror.” Sanders himself might be “in a box” of political pressure, Solomon said, and now so were his delegates—especially as the campaign headed into the final night.

“But we have a bigger box,” he added, “with more elbow room.”

How much room, though? The “Hillary people” were watching them, a half dozen or so Sanders delegates told me, which was why they didn’t want to advertise their plans for visual protests, chants, walk-outs, or anything else they had in mind for the evening.

The Hillary people were watching, too. They distributed instructions to their delegates on how to counter-chant the protesters. Among the recommendations: “U-S-A!” to drown out chants of “NO MORE WAR!” Several waves of this chant/counter-chant routine cycled through during Gen. John Allen’s aggressive speech—which had the ironic effect, at least for the viewers back home, of making it sound as if the Democratic delegation had been overcome with uncontrollable waves of ecstatic patriotism. “Chants,” Caballero had told me earlier in the day, “don’t really work anymore.”

As Clinton’s speech approached, it wasn’t just her campaign and the DNC trying to sniff out disruptions to the historic moment, either.

“On Monday when Bernie gave his speech to the Democratic Convention, Secretary Clinton’s campaign asked her supporters to be respectful and they were,” a text message from the Sanders campaign went out to his delegates. “As a courtesy to Bernie, our campaign would greatly appreciate it if you would extend the same respect during Secretary Clinton’s speech.”

“Word on the street is Hillary may apologize to us for three minutes before her speech,” a California delegate texted me before just before the speech. It wasn’t three minutes, and it wasn’t an apology for whatever offenses she’d committed. But Clinton did throw them a bone near the beginning of the speech.

“I’ve heard you,” Clinton said. “Our country needs your ideas energy and passion. That is the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America. We wrote it together. Now let’s go out and make it happen together.”

That gesture didn’t get them all to shut up. But it certainly worked on some—or at least it gave them the excuse they were looking for to stand down.

If the hardcore Sanders delegates had one unequivocal success during the night, it was in making themselves visible. About 100 or 200 of them wore neon-green T-shirts that made them hard to miss throughout the night’s proceedings.

Pockets of them protested during Clinton’s speech. A few Hawaii delegates held up signs for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, while the Washington and California protesters held signs about WikiLeaks and TPP. Pretty consistently throughout the night, a shout would erupt from one section of the floor, and five times as many voices would instantly start chanting in response, “HILL-AR-Y, HILL-AR-Y.” It was a whack-a-mole effort, but it prevented any disruptive effort from sustaining.

As Clinton’s speech neared its end, a California delegate texted me that there would be a walkout “seconds after the speech.” I made my way down and saw about 10 or 12 California delegates hovering outside their section, talking among themselves, sort of agitated and definitely not moving toward the exit.

“Some people [in the delegation] definitely think other ways are the ways forward,” Robert Shearer, the Northern California whip, said to me with clear disappointment. “I felt we shouldn’t have even let her speak.”

Other delegates just wanted to watch the celebration, as balloons fell to the convention floor. Out of respect.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.