On a rainy day in early October 2016, I pulled into a gravel parking lot full of cars with Bernie bumper stickers. A group of about twenty friends and supporters had come together at Manzanita News & Espresso to support our friend, Annie Naranjo-Rivera, in her run for Manzanita City Council. It was a reunion of sorts. We all ran up to each other, hugged, donned Annie's pins, and filmed her speech, which included a glowing introduction by the chair of the Tillamook County Democrats.
Annie's campaign kickoff was just one event that we, strangers a few months before, had converged around through the fall. Whether launching a mayoral campaign in The Dalles, initiating a grassroots coalition of progressives in Salem, protesting in Portland, or having a potluck in Lebanon, we were now more than politically aligned, more than allies—we were family.
Eighteen months earlier, I couldn't have imagined that this would be my reality. I've been a Democrat for more than twenty years but before last year I'd only phonebanked and canvassed for presidential campaigns. I hadn't really been involved in anything with the local party, besides donating money to help elect Democrats. That all changed in 2016, when I found myself at the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Bernie Sanders.
I first learned about Sanders when he filibustered against extending the Bush-era tax cuts in December 2010. A white-haired, older gentleman railing against more tax breaks for the rich earned him hero status with me. He was talking about things that nobody else was talking about.
When Sanders announced his White House run in 2015, I agreed with him on nearly every issue and was drawn to his no-nonsense approach, his authenticity, his consistency, and his substance. I felt for the first time in my life that I could get behind a truly honest politician who was in it for all the right reasons. For me, Bernie was a damn unicorn.
Throughout 2015 I ramped up my involvement. I donated, I campaigned for him on social media, I attended house parties, and I worked to reinvigorate the Oregon Democrats' dormant veteran caucus. I hosted a debate watch party and created Bernie videos on YouTube. I attended rallies and served as one of two key organizers for Vets 4 Bernie in Oregon. Later, at the behest of Sandy, a new political friend, I signed up to run as a precinct committee person on the May primary ballot, my first formal position in the party. And then I was urged to run to be a Sanders delegate. This was all new to me, but experienced folks showed me the ropes. I campaigned, I worked, and I won. I was even elected as the male whip of our delegation. Soon enough, thirty-nine of us were elected by our fellow “Berners” and, in July 2016, we headed for the convention in Philadelphia.
We had come ready for a fight. Many of us viewed ourselves as the last chance for a just and honest democracy to prevail in the United States. It was the longest of long shots for us to pull off some kind of upset. We needed to flip about six hundred Clinton delegates in order to be victorious, but we honestly thought there was a chance we could do it.
On the first day of the convention we made a big splash, our voices cracked and hoarse from hours of marathon cheering for Bernie and his surrogates. But on Tuesday, Sanders conceded the race from his seat in the Vermont delegation.
“Madame Chair, I move that the convention suspend the procedural rules. I move that all votes, all votes cast by delegates be reflected in the official record. And I move that Hillary Clinton be selected as the nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States,” he said.
I could see him from afar, his frizzy white hair visible in the stands. The crowd erupted in cheers at his words. I looked up at the jumbotron over the convention stage as Bernie put the microphone back in its cradle and exited the arena with his wife, Jane.
My phone buzzed. “Occupy the media tent” flashed across my phone, a text from one of the members of the Coalition of 57, a group of national Bernie delegates formed to facilitate deft maneuvering at the convention. I stood up in the stands, made a circling motion with my hand in the air, the military signal to rally, and called out, “Let's go!”
I headed out, stepping over seats and making my way past the Oregon Clinton delegates. Oregon, as a state Sanders had won, was up in the cheap seats, not down on the floor with the states Clinton had won. The majority of my fellow Oregon Sanders delegates filed out both sides of our delegation seating area in the 100 level and through the exits to the outer concourse of the arena. Our destination: the media tents adjacent to the Wells Fargo Center.
The mass walkout and occupation of the media tents had been planned earlier that day by the Coalition of 57 on a rooftop in downtown Philadelphia. It was intended as a protest against being silenced by the Democratic National Committee, against the lack of coverage of Sanders by the mainstream media, and against the way the Democratic primary had been executed.
Somewhere between two hundred and five hundred Sanders delegates from all over America joined in the walkout—people of all ages, ethnicities, identities, and classes. The Oregon delegates were seated right across from the media tent, and we were among the first ones out, leading the way, holding blue banners as we marched forward.
Signs and banners were prohibited at the convention, along with a laundry list of other items, but weeks earlier a subversive sewing circle of sorts from the Oregon City area had gathered to create “protest skirts”—skirts that could be worn, undetected by security, and unfurled once inside. The first day of the convention, a bunch of us had gathered in our hotel rooms with four or five ironing boards, applying bright yellow iron-on letters to the skirts: “Enough Is Enough”; “We Are the 99%”; “Stop the TPP”; “#BernieOrBust”; “#StillSanders”; “No Justice No Peace.”
To add to the effect of the mass walkout, many of the Oregon delegates also donned black gags across their mouths to signify that grassroots Democrats had effectively been silenced.
The media in the tent went nuts. Inside, I was surrounded by hundreds of Bernie delegates. State police blocked the doors. We were effectively locked in the media tent. Gagged delegates sat on the floor while others sang peacefully. The media kept looking for the leader of the movement and were befuddled when Jeffrey Eide of North Dakota, a bicycle mechanic, political revolutionary, and the closest thing we had to a leader of the Coalition of 57, informed them that we were a leaderless movement. We were the antithesis of the Establishment.
I called my wife, who was back at the hotel with our daughter. “Do you see us? Do you see that we're occupying the media tent at the DNC?”
“No, hold on!” she said. I waited while she flipped through the various news channels. “I don't see anything. They're just playing regular coverage of the convention.”
I was shocked, and I wasn't. Here we were, in the heart of the DNC, occupying the media tent, and the mainstream media was ignoring it. Silenced again.
I went over to one of the monitors broadcasting the convention. When the cameras showed the entire hall, all the seats in the stands were full. I figured the DNC had given our seats away to seat fillers, something that had been promised and done on the first day. But after our protest disbanded, we made our way back inside to support the Mothers of the Movement, mothers of young African American men killed by police. Our seats were still very much empty and available: the DNC had streamed out footage from the day before in order to create the illusion of a full house.
In the six weeks leading up to the election, the Oregon Sanders delegates worked around the clock to prepare for the convention. We campaigned to get elected as national delegates by our fellow Berners, often campaigning on how hard-core of a Berner we were and on our ability to potentially persuade others. The thinking was that if we sent an army of committed, articulate, persuasive Bernie delegates to the convention, not only would those delegates refuse to flip (hence the slogan “Bernie or Bust”), but they would also be able to convince the superdelegates and Clinton delegates to vote for Sanders.
We might have been a little delusional, but we honestly believed that the Democratic primary was not really over until the convention had played out. We referred back to conventions of yesteryear as evidence that we could pull off a miracle. “Did you see the Facebook post about the 1932 convention?! FDR won it by building coalitions and flipping votes on the floor in the middle of the night!”
We planned for a heated convention, imagining delegates arguing on the convention floor, as has happened in 1968. We envisioned a social mediafueled revolution in Philadelphia, livestreamed via Facebook to the folks back home who had sent us there to win.
We spent countless hours meeting, emailing, texting, and calling each other in preparation and spent thousands of dollars to travel to Philadelphia to fight for what we believed in and to represent the votes of our fellow Oregonians back home. Instead we found ourselves at what many quickly came to call “the coronation.”
From the time we arrived in Philadelphia, there was Clinton propaganda everywhere, but nothing about Sanders. It was like Sanders and his delegates didn't exist. We felt out of place, unwelcomed by the establishment and the Clinton delegates. Decked out in our Bernie shirts and buttons, the reception we got from the establishment Dems was one of scorn and condescension. Our delegates were kicked, pushed, and jabbed. We caught one man using a zoom lens to spy on one of our delegate's phones, leaning in a few seats above her for an over-the-shoulder shot. We constantly fought to keep our seats. An officer tried to take the credentials away from one of us. Delegates in wheelchairs struggled to protect one another from being crushed. Once I saw a young twenty-something walking around the Wells Fargo arena with a “Stop the TPP” sign, only to have a Clinton delegate, decked out in Hillary apparel, lean in to his face and sneer, “Have you convinced anybody? Have you even convinced one person?”
The way I saw it, the Democratic National Convention was orchestrated entirely by the corporate Democrats who rule the party. The DNC, the Clinton campaign, and the media were doing their best to shut us down.
On the night of the next-to-last day of the convention when President Obama would be addressing the delegates, I sat up in the nosebleed seats with my wife and daughter after giving my floor credentials to our Platforms Committee member, Jane, who was excited to sit with the Oregon delegates. From my vantage point in the upper deck, I could keep an eye on my fellow delegates. I could see who was coming and going and distinguish the Sanders delegates from the Clinton delegates by virtue of the forest-green Revolution shirts we were wearing that night.
With one eye on the goings-on down below, I monitored the GroupMe app that the Coalition of 57 was using to communicate. Then I heard former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta start beating the war drums—talking about terrorism, Syria, ISIS, the need for a strong presence in the Middle East. His rhetoric made me sick. I served eight years in the army with a short hitch in Afghanistan at the start of the war there. I work with veterans and veterans groups, and every day I see the damage war inflicts on service members. I sent a message to the Coalition of 57: “We should chant No More War.”
Nobody responded at first. Then someone argued that it would sound like the Clinton delegates and establishment Dems were chanting “Four More Years.” I didn't see what the big deal was. There wasn't any risk. But the Coalition of 57 texts stopped, so I sent a text directly to the Oregon delegates group I had created for pushing out real-time communiqués.
“Chant No More War!” I texted. “War hawk bullshit.”
At first nothing happened. I turned back to watching Panetta and the message thread. Then I heard it. Slowly, quietly, amid the sea of noise at first, I heard it: “No more war! No more war! No more war!” coming from the Oregon delegation. I could see my fellow delegates, in their green t-shirts standing up in the stands, pumping their fists. “No more war!”
“What is the chant?” someone asked on the Coalition of 57 app.
“No More War!” I replied. “Everyone join in!”
Before I knew it, the chant welled up around the stadium. My wife and I looked at each other and then down at what was happening. For the first time at the convention, it felt like we were being seen and heard. The chant welled up and overtook Panetta and the rest of the crowd. Panetta stopped and started, interrupted by the loud chanting and unable to go on. He laughed nervously and waited it out.
Then the rest of the crowd started to chant, “USA! USA! USA!” over the “No More War!” chant. It seemed crazy to me that the other attendees were trying to drown out our call for peace, and that the apparent antonym to a call for peace was “USA.” The “USA!” chants died down but the “No More War” chant continued.
And that's when the DNC turned off the lights over the Oregon delegates. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The Oregon delegates were down there, standing up for peace, and the DNC literally cast them into shadow to ensure that they could not be seen. Eventually, one by one, little lights appeared in the dark. The delegates were activating the lights on their smartphones and holding them up in defiance.
It was a victory. We were outnumbered, but not defeated.
I wasn't myself for a full two weeks after the convention. I returned to work disillusioned. Everything seemed small and insignificant compared to what I had just experienced. The convention even invaded my dreams.
Many of those who worked on the Sanders campaign came home with what one Baltimore pastor at the convention had dubbed “Post-Traumatic Activist Syndrome.” Some folks opted to leave the party, registering as Working Families Party members or switching their allegiance to the Greens. But I wasn't ready to give up on the party I once believed in.
I feel caught between the Establishment and the movement. The Establishment doesn't trust Berners because they think we're here to destroy the party. Yet the grassroots movement is wary of anyone who chooses to stay in the party or work with those in the current local power structure.
Whether or not we stayed in the party, my fellow delegates and I are all staying active: working to get candidates elected and to pass progressive ballot measures. Many of us are working together to form our own transpartisan grassroots organization that seeks to elect folks without the influence of money.
And that is how, on that rainy October weekend, we found ourselves at a coffee shop in Manzanita, having traveled long distances to kick off Annie's campaign. Afterward, we went back to a rented beach house. Gathering around a large kitchen island, uncorking wine bottles while vegetables sizzled on the stove, several delegates worked side by side to prepare a delicious meal. We talked excitedly about local races, the general election, our county parties, and the future. Annie ended up losing by a heartbreaking six votes, but a movement is a marathon, not a sprint. And 2016 was not the finish line: it was just the beginning.
7 comments have been posted.
That's how I remember it. Lol, been to two worlds fairs, a hanging, & a donkey show, but never, never had I seen or experienced such insane misbehavior and conduct
Robert satiacum | December 2016 | Washington
Your story moved me to tears...it shines a light on how rigged the DNC and the primary process is. People need to know this. I did see convention coverage from TYT network which reported the media tent protest and documented the experience of the Sanders' delegates as well as exposed some of the intimidation tactics used by the police/DNC to silence their voices at the convention. Thank you for your hard work and service but most of all your hopeful and inspiring message to all of us to continue the fight.
Mary Withers | December 2016 | Orinda CA
Back in the Spring/early Summer of 2016, I remember when I first laid eyes on this handsome, but serious looking young man at a crowded Multnomah County Democrats meeting. I took note of him because he was the only one wearing a tie and in Oregon people are pretty casually attired. I knew he was a fellow Berner and someone who was also recently elected to be a National Delegate at the 2016 DNC just like myself. However, I refrained from introducing myself for a good while so I could suss out his demeanor and his interactions with other fellow Democrats since we all knew we had been immersed in a shockingly hostile environment. Since then, I have found Valdez to be an attentive observer like myself. He takes in and absorbs before he acts and reacts. I respect that. Yet, he also methodically takes a lead when needed. The more I've gotten to know him over these past few months, the more I've become impressed. I am now proud to consider him a brother and reliable comrade in arms. The guy in the tie could not be more funny and personable and within lies a heart of gold and a competent mind that truly cares about the people and the world around him. Thanks for documenting "our" story my friend. As always, well done.
Abigail Collins | December 2016 | Portland, Oregon
You nailed it, Valdez! I went to Philly to see for myself what the Dems were going to do after so many of us had supported Bernie & progressives locally. I found the real energy and true commitment of folks like you not just in Oregon, but nationally. It's a needed rebirth of a people, a movement, and our communities coming together. Thank you and others! We won't give up! Keep hope alive! Our communities & the planet need us more than ever!
Paco Maribona | December 2016 | Lincoln City, OR
Beautifully told. I remember how my heart filled with pride for Oregon when the "No more war!" chant began. So happy to be in this marathon alongside you.
Lisa Morrison | December 2016 | Portland OR
Thank you, first for capturing our experience, but mostly thank you for being a positive, shining energy in our ongoing efforts. It is better to show up than to give up.
Carolanne Fry | December 2016 |
Valdez, Thank you for expressing our shared experience so eloquently. There are many many stories which will come of this event. The story from July is different from the story in May or the story in September, let alone the story from November 9th, 2016. Thank you, my friend! Bern on! Lisa
Lisa Ortiz | December 2016 |