I travelled to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week, spending the day soaking up the highs and lows of a healthy democracy: smoking weed with Bernie Sanders supporters, walking in a Black Lives Matter march and pissing off a Fox News reporter. But I was left wondering if I’d been a rubbish citizen in my own nation – New Zealand. This story originally appeared on The Spinoff.
1.08 PM – Wells Fargo Convention Centre, Philadelphia
“Hey, do you wanna kiss in front of them?”, the tall blonde girl asked me, earnestly.
I’d just made it to the beating heart of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, after travelling three-hours from New York on trains packed with Baby Boomers wearing Bernie badges and frantic reporters wearing grubby sneakers and side-satchels.
Stepping out of the station at the Convention Centre was an assault to the senses.
“Bernie or Bust” protestors – those who didn’t want to accept Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominee – mobbed the entrance with pickets and anti-Hillary slogans. “Free the Weed” activists stood alongside those in black t-shirts petitioning for the communist revolution, who in turn had scheduled marches around the Black Lives Matter movement.
Democracy in action, all right.
That night, Hillary Clinton would became the first woman to be nominated for the US presidency by a major political party, bringing the States up to speed with – Stephen Colbert joked – 1960s Sri Lanka.
But right now, an old hippie was dragging around a giant bust of the Dalai Lama, while an Amish man pulled along an actual llama, and a rock band tried to drown out an evangelical Christian preacher.
As I stepped through the melee I was confronted with another sign: “Hellfire awaits! Hellfire awaits!”
It was the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, I was told, famous for protesting at funerals.
They were projecting via a loudspeaker something vile about masturbators burning in hell. Their sign read: “Homo sex is sin”. They were broadcasting why they thought a young woman in the crowd was a slut.
This was really freedom of expression, pushed to its limits, I thought. These people were positively bursting the seams of their democratic right to protest. I’d never seen anything like it in New Zealand, even though our Bill of Rights protects freedom of expression.
There are the slightly tragic old-timers who hold anti-abortion signs outside parliament, but this was something different.
These were truly nasty, ugly, discriminatory ideas being spouted.
The “slut” was defending herself, accusing the church of hate speech.
But there was “no hate speech; just free speech”, the loudspeaker guy retorted.
And that’s when the tall blonde popped up out of nowhere, serious and sincere, with her proposition.
I have a boyfriend, and I’d just eaten a salmon everything bagel with red onion and capers (more her problem than mine), but I felt this small counter-protest was important.
“Ok,” I said. “What kind of kiss?”
And so we pashed in front of the Westboro Baptist Church members while they yelled at us, and then we stopped, and the girl looked at her watch, said “Shit, I’m working the convention, I’ve got to get back, see ya!”, and skipped off into the distance.
2.36PM – Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park
I messaged my boyfriend re: pash, who replied “good on you”, and then made my way down to the park where the Bernie or Bust protesters had planted themselves for the three-day convention.
They were well stocked, with a village-worth of tents nestled under the shade of the elms, food trucks, a stage, more Port-a-loos than a music festival, and several first aid tents.
I couldn’t help lingering like a creep near the first aid tent where the volunteer medics had a small crisis on their hands: litres and litres of chocolate milk.
“There is no way we are handing this out, no way! It’s almost 100 today [38 degrees celcius] and we do not want people drinking warm milk at a campsite. Get rid of it.”
“Where did it all come from?”
“The city gave it to us.”
“Man, typical, of course they did.”
Noticing the eavesdropper, Costas, 26, a first generation American, veteran and Bernie or Buster, invited me over, and his friend handed me a weed pipe.
I don’t really smoke weed. But I also don’t really kiss random girls.
Costas was from North Carolina, a veteran, and said there were a lot of personnel in the military who were Bernie supporters, disillusioned with fighting wars that didn’t help Americans, and didn’t help the nations they were fighting in.
Costas had been treating a lot of blisters, people coming back from long marches through the city, and heat-related stuff: it was 36 degrees yesterday. He didn’t want a chocolate milk disaster on his hands.
Speaking of marches, I had to dash – it was almost time for the Black Lives Matter protest.
5.11PM – Broad St, central Philadelphia
In downtown Philly, the thousands-strong march was slowly advancing towards City Hall, and the police presence had grown to line Broad St.
The cops stood well back from the road, behind fences, some shifting nervously in their boots as the echo of the chants got louder.
I don’t blame them for being nervous – eight police officers have been killed in the United States in the last three weeks. Five of them were picked off by a gunman around the end of a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas.
“You can take a photo of us, it’s legal you know,” an officer called out me, noticing the not-so-subtle angle of my iPhone. “We’re in a public place.”
I took it as an invite to chat. Once they found out I was from New Zealand, they were curious.
“Do you have issues between police and civilians in New Zealand?” one asked. I thought of the 2007 Urewera police raids. The smattering of people who – being armed or having been believed to be armed – were indeed shot dead by police in the last year.
The way I see it, having a gun seems to be an invitation for people to shoot you.
So I don’t really understand why my Uber driver, who had a passion for growing mangoes, had seven guns. Or why my other Uber driver, who was pining for racial equality, had chosen a machine gun as his weapon of choice. I know it is a ‘constitutional right’ here, but I can’t imagine a situation where this man would ever need to fire 300 rounds per minute, or one where seven guns would be more useful than just one or two.
“Most of the time our police aren’t armed,” I replied. “We don’t really have guns like you do, we’re very lucky.”
“Oh yeah, so do your police get in trouble for throwing gumboots at criminals?” one chuckled.
4.45PM – Philadelphia City Hall
As I got caught up in the march, the police stood well back, apart from the cops-on-bikes who wear shorts and look hilarious and zoom around checking everything is in order for the oncoming procession.
Even when reporter Geraldo Rivera from Fox News was spotted and mobbed, police were nowhere to be seen.
Rivera famously went on air in 2012 and said Trayvon Martin – an unarmed black teenager killed by a white community watch member while walking home from the store – wouldn’t have been shot if he hadn’t been wearing a hoodie.
Understandably the Black Lives Matter protest found his presence unsavoury.
I was right there as angry protestors circled him, questioned him, yelled in his face. Asked him whether it was Martin’s hoodie or his skin colour that got him killed.
One dude simple yelled “Fuck Fox News” over and over, in his face. Geraldo tried to put up a verbal fight, but was quickly whisked away by his security.
Afterwards I chased him down the street and asked him why he had come to the march.
He’s a reporter – fine – but it seemed like a provocative thing to send him, specifically.
He snapped at me. “Why did I come? Why did you come?! That’s a stupid question! I’m not talking to you any more!” and stormed off.
Perhaps it is a stupid question. On the one hand, yes, reporters should be able to cover any public event without feeling threatened. If I covered a pro-gun rally, I wouldn’t want to be mobbed for my anti-constitutional personal views.
But on the other hand, was he there as a reporter, in good faith – or as a bully?
6.50PM – Amtrak train, northbound to New York
When I boarded the train home on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, with three hours to think, I challenged myself: have I been fully partaking in democracy in New Zealand?
The next day the current president Barack Obama would challenge the Democratic delegates, and the American public, with the same sentiment: “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.”
Sure, as a journalist I’ve been part of the free press, one of the pillars of democracy. I’ve contributed to freedom of information. I’ve walked in a few protests. I was in a youth advisory group to the government, a long time ago.
But have I really pushed the limits for anything I believe in, the way I saw it here today?
Have I ever made a public stand against those bullies who stand at parliament’s gates, and at Wellington Hospital, with signs advocating taking away women’s reproductive rights? Have I ever walked in a hikoi protesting the treatment of Māori in our country? Have I ever sat down with a political movement, to really get to know them? Have I challenged New Zealand’s racist, sexist, broadcasters?
If I take anything home from today, it’s that there’s much, much more I can do to participate in New Zealand’s democracy.
Freedom of expression in America may play out in equal parts good, bad and ugly, but if talking things over is sign of a healthy democracy, the United States is in pretty good shape.