NEAR CANNON BALL, STANDING ROCK SIOUX NATION – Thousands of Native American people and their allies have gathered in the hills 40 minutes south of Bismark to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Many have flown in, but just as many have been driving for days to reach this place. It takes two days to drive here from Denver, most of it via county roads without cell phone service.
Coming from the south towards Cannon Ball, signs protesting the pipeline begin to show themselves as soon as one enters the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull, the great Lakota leader and freedom fighter who resisted the United States for decades, was murdered nearby and once interred here. Like Nat Turner, Sitting Bull was moved by a vision to take up arms against his oppressor.
But there are no weapons allowed here at Red Warrior Camp. Security at the entrance to the camp from ND-1806 says weapons, along with drugs and alcohol, are prohibited. People here are gathering to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline with just their bodies – by chaining themselves to machines or simply standing in front of them. They are here to demand sovereignty over their water, and are attacked by dogs, mace and mass arrest in reply.
The weather is warm and the wind dry up on the only hill that gets cell phone service in the camp. People ride horses bareback and drum and sing long into the night. Hot food is prepared and served by the Standing Rock Sioux, and the donation tents are busy sorting cold-weather clothes for the months ahead. There are no plans to leave any time soon. People are winterizing their tents and tipis and chopping wood for fires.
166 flags stand at the entrance to the camp, representing the 166 Native American Tribes and Organizations present, as well as other flags from solidarity activists from Palestine, Russia, Laos, Brazil, Honduras and elsewhere. There are First Nations people from British Columbia, Quechua people from Peru, Native Americans who drove from North Carolina or New York or San Diego.
Thousands of people are present at Standing Rock, united around the idea of national sovereignty and the desire to save the earth from what activists here call The Black Snake.
Near Red Warrior Camp, performers rap over a PA system about Standing Rock, Sitting Bull, the Black Hills and growing up on reservations. They rap about jail, the US government and opiate addiction. People wear t-shirts that have BLACK SNAKE KILLA emblazoned in spray paint.
LAS VEGAS – Despite the makeover that came with the new millennium, the Las Vegas Strip is still what it’s always been – a seedy place to spend a weekend and blow a lot of money. You can still smoke inside the casinos, but the drinks on the Strip are now meted out to you via the loyalty card you must insert into every machine, so that the computers whirring elsewhere unseen can calculate based on your wins and losses when’s the best time to comp you a drink.
Though offering shows, theme parks, and attractions geared towards youth, 65% of Las Vegas tourists are older than 40, and the average age is 48. Only 8% of visitors are under the age of 21. 16% of tourists are from abroad, but from what I saw, this consisted of mainly young British men out for a good time, fresh off a cheap Thomas Cook flight. They complain about the heat. They are stuck in a dream world of expectations. Elsewhere, later, drunks stumble down the streets at night and chain smokers huddle at blackjack tables until the early morning hours. You can lose the shirt off your back 24-hours a day.
The loud and flashing gambling floors in Las Vegas have been minor obsessions of Americana for many decades. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Casino, Leaving Las Vegas, and a number of other films are considered US cultural classics. There’s something about the sheer hucksterism, the futility of one’s visit, that continues to fascinate. But you know what you’re in for before you sit down at a table. You come here to get worked. No one said you would win here – read the fine print.
Labor is honest here. They are smiling and trying to make sure you have a good time. But this is a settlement in the middle of the desert. We’ve got the whole strip, one bartender tells me. If we walk, this entire city shuts down.
In a right-to-work state, the Strip enjoys almost total union density – 95%, according to Ken Liu of UNITE HERE Local 223. Downtown, the number drops to 76%. Outside of these two areas, the density drops to 2%.
Union leaders, organizers, researchers and rank and file gather on one hot Las Vegas night to celebrate the outcome of a secret ballot election at nearby Boulder Station Hotel and Casino. More than 570 employees will now be added to UNITE HERE Local 223 and 163’s membership rosters.
Vernisha Ward came from Los Angeles originally. She is a rank-and-file organizer, and works as a line cook at the airport, which is also unionized. When she transferred from LAX to McCarran airport in 2002, she saw her wages increase by $3 an hour and started receiving free health insurance. “I thought I seriously had some type of top-secret thing going on. I literally thought my pay rate was wrong.”
What makes Las Vegas so different from Los Angeles, or any other part of the country where people have lower wages?
“I think it’s the industry,” Vernisha says. “Basically, we’re needed. Pretty much. We make this city happen.”
She is correct. Forty-one million tourists visit Las Vegas every year. Casinos inside the Strip brought in $6.3 billion in 2015.
Vernisha and many of her colleagues, while catering to the needs of tourists, are afflicted by conditions such as arthritis, back and knee pain. She has conditions that require medical care because of her job as a cook. She shows me the scars and callouses on her hands. She is 37 years old, and feeding people has been her job for decades.
“It’s war. Because of this, I feel like I should deserve to be able to eat. I’m not asking to take over the world. I just wanna be able to provide.”
Vernisha says she believes the reason why union density has dropped in the US is because of companies going overseas. “The average businessman does not think of paying a high rate of pay, plus some insurance, plus a pension. They don’t think like that. So where you have states that have laws that help corporations to move and et cetera, that’s what breaks it down.”
What does she think of people who say they choose not to vote because they don’t believe that anyone represents them?
“I strongly believe that when an abundance of human beings get together, incredible things happen. We can move mountains, if we just get together. Those that feel that it’s a broken system, that they don’t want to be involved, I tell them that’s exactly what they want you to think. They don’t want you to use your power.”
She insists that people should keep casting their vote, even if they don’t feel like it’s getting them anywhere.
Looking out at the celebration, it’s easy to see how voting has won something in Las Vegas, for at least 570 workers at Boulder Station. This NLRB election has added to the 57,000 workers that UNITE HERE represents in Nevada. The members I speak with say that the reason why they have a strong union in a right to work state is because of strong organization and militancy, and that unions in other states can often lack these essential elements.
Yet, many union workers across the country are not allowed to strike because of “national security”. In a right to work state, unions are hamstrung as they are expected to represent workers who do not pay dues. In Las Vegas, you wouldn’t know it was a right to work state, as workers are proud of their leverage to shut down the Strip and cut into the $6.3 billion gamblers lose every year. Locals publish the names of “scabs” — members who refuse to pay dues but enjoy the benefits of a union job. There are geographical considerations. But rank and file organizers will be on point in the union hall. They are proud of their accomplishments. Their hard work has helped 570 people in the Las Vegas area gain union representation, and they will eventually receive free health insurance, a pension and a living wage.
At four in the morning, the bartender downtown – who makes an average of $21 an hour – is less optimistic. He doesn’t think it’s so simple. Maybe it’s the hour or the stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air. He has worked as a bartender for a long time. Originally from Pittsburgh, he moved out here to make better money after the mines closed.
“Steve Wynn owns this town. He’s trying to aim for a younger crowd, but they won’t even give you free coffee anymore.”
He speaks about the housing market, how it crashed here. Despite the 13,000 empty houses, there are at least 10,000 people without housing, leading to news stories worrying about squatters. Homeless people crowd the downtown area, asking passerby for food and money. Dozens dig through alley dumpsters on a Friday night.
“This country — this city was built on misery in a lot of ways. I’ve seen people pack up everything and have to just leave. We’re slaves. They do what they want with us.”
He slowly wipes down the bar. A coworker offers to take the rest of his shift so he can go home early. He’s been here for more than 20 years.
In both Philadelphia and Cleveland, despite the heat and exhaustion of long marches and sore feet, protesters lost their voices screaming out the same message: No good cops in a racist system!
There were other things in common between the two conventions besides the ubiquitous eight-foot metal perimeter fencing that separated protesters from the delegates and media. Surveillance, or the constant feeling of being under surveillance, was commonplace. Activists insisted on communicating via Signal, an encrypted messaging app promotedbefore the conventions and largely funded by the State Department, but police thwarted direct actions anyway. Local organizers received visits from the FBI in advance. I witnessed political organizers tailed by police outside of protest areas in Philadelphia. Cops saw both conventions as opportunities to reaffirm their solidarity to “Blue Lives Matter”.
Both cities that hosted the conventions suffer high rates of poverty. In Cleveland, 48% of households live on less than $25,000 per year. In Philadelphia, that figure is 36%. Both received $50 million from the federal government to scale up for police. And scale up they did.
The city of Cleveland boasted 5,500 police for the RNC. Though the Cleveland Police Department has refused to confirm or deny what states sent police, 22 states were identified. There were police officers on horseback in cowboy hats, police in full riot gear, police in sleek bike pants, police in helicopters, police in camouflage, undercover police infiltrators dressed as activists – a very diverse crowd. This doesn’t include police from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Secret Service and other agencies. Yet, for the money spent on security for the RNC, for all these cops running around, there seemed to be very little need for it. Only 23 arrests were made, most of them from Joey Johnson’s attempt to burn an American flag. Johnson burned his first in 1984 at the RNC and the resulting case law made flag burning protected speech in the United States. In 2016, he was arrested again for doing the same thing.
This pointless over-policing seemed bizarre at the time. After all, by the second day of the RNC, there were probably less than 350 people actively protesting the convention. It was striking to see twenty members of Johnson’s Revolutionary Communist Party hold a jail support rally on the steps of Cleveland lockup while surrounded by hundreds of cops on bike, foot, horse and car — plus a firetruck and a police helicopter overhead.
On the second day of the RNC convention, a group of a few dozen antifascist activists decided to “take the pigs for a walk”. They walked in circles in intersections and disappeared into parking garages, with the police dutifully following them the entire way. Legal observers and medics were conspicuously followed by cops like some cheesy scene out of a spy movie. Activists had their belongings dumped on the ground and their bags seized because of some vague restriction on backpacks.
It was clearly old-fashioned bullying. Here were a few handfuls of loosely organized activists being pushed around by police for seemingly no reason. It was a show of force. Police from Kentucky told me that while 22 states were represented, some states (such as Montana) sent only a handful of cops just to “be represented”. Be represented — at what, exactly? This was starting to seem like some sort of “Blue Lives Matter Woodstock”.
Antifascists (activists who generally challenge Nazis and the Klan) didn’t seem to have all that much to do, either. The people they came to protest were mostly wearing suits and taking their seats inside the convention. They watched Laura Ingraham throw what seemed to be a Nazi salute, listened Joe Arpaio speak about “terrorists coming in over our border” and “infiltrating our communities”, and nodded along with David Clarke, the black sheriff from Milwaukee who spoke on the danger of Black Lives Matter. Donald Trump did his thing too, which is generally to rally the millions of Americans who cling to what makes them feel good about themselves: racism and capitalism. He bullies. There doesn’t seem to be any need to bully people who end up in anonymous mass graves in Texas or disproportionately gunned down by police, but he does it anyway. Some people love it.
Donald Trump, Holiday Cheer Ambassador
At the DNC in Philadelphia, the police presence put on a different face. Police still had their bikes, horses and helicopters, but they were mainly local. They showed their support for “Blue Lives Matter” by flying identical black and white American flags with one of the stripes colored blue from their bicycles. While the police in Cleveland for the RNC were there to allegedly protect from terrorism, police in Philadelphia were there to allegedly protect protesters. After being slammed by the ACLU for their plans to crack down on protests, they changed their approach into something that was more media-savvy. Instead of mass arrests, they would throw protesters in plastic zip-tie cuffs, detain them briefly, and then issue a citation. They handed out 103.
A relevant example of the police tactics at the DNC was when an impromptu sit-in during a large march down Broad Street towards the convention. Someone spotted the Mississippi state flag, which contains the Confederate “stars and bars”. “Take it down!” they chanted. What started as a handful of protesters blossomed into hundreds as the afternoon wore on. The police did not make any arrests, but threatened to do so if anyone tried to take the flag down themselves. They even shooed away a good samaritan who brought a ladder. It wasn’t until authorities from the city showed up with a cherry picker that the flag came down almost three hours later Philadelphia was going to be the one to seize the media spotlight and come away looking like patient, sensitive heroes — though they put the flag up in the first place. Protesters were welcome to sit in, but they were not welcome to take matters into their own hands.
Hillary Clinton once called young black men “super predators” and helped her husband push through laws that resulted in mass incarceration and impoverishment for vulnerable communities, particularly those of color. She was just as bloodstained a Secretary of State as Madeline Albright or Donald Rumsfeld — if not more so. On her watch, there was a right-wing junta in Honduras, the foreign-financed and fought “Civil War” in Syria, and the utter decimation of Libya, which previously had the highest Human Development Index rating in Africa. Clinton even oversaw the State Department’s battle to slash Haiti’s $.62 per hour minimum wage in half.
And yet, here she was, standing on stage, smiling and calling for peace, unity and racial and economic justice. The cops outside reflected this pivot – from brutal mass arrests to smiling and supportive as they followed you to your car. Sanders supporters could not believe their eyes and ears, and up until Sanders’s concession speech on Monday night, many of those I spoke with honestly thought some miracle would occur and he would stand for election come November. Instead, Sanders stood sweating at the podium and called for party unity and votes for Hillary Clinton, having to hold up his hand for silence when his supporters booed.
But this was no ’68. Some of his delegates got up and walked out, people heckled the speakers on stage, but there was no tear gas in the streets. Sanders’s most ardent supporters were all neatly confined nearly a mile away behind eight-foot tall metal fences in FDR Park. Eleven people scaled the fences, and nobody threw anything at motorcades. As the roads and highways next to the convention were staffed by checkpoints, closures and heavy police presence, there was very little opportunity for this sort of thing anyway. After marching in 95-degree heat for a three and a half miles from City Hall, most protesters were simply too exhausted to scale fences. Not that many of them would be inspired to anyway. The majority of protesters in Philadelphia were, after all, Bernie Sanders supporters. What the Sanders campaign really aimed for was a seat at the table, not to flip it over.
The most militant march was the March for Black Resistance, called by the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice. They joined up with socialists, communists, anarchists, and even a few very angry Sanders supporters, chanting: “Don’t vote for Hillary! She’s killing black people!” and “From Palestine to Mexico, these racist borders got to go!”, as well as “Eat the rich!” People burned American and Israeli flags. Again, no arrests were made.
I interviewed Rasheed and Sagal, two young people from Philadelphia who were part of the march. Between Trump and Clinton, “it’s like we’re expected to choose between overt racism and systemic racism,” Sagal said.
After the march, Rasheed stood at the perimeter fence, his eyes wide at the scale of the police mobilization surrounding the convention. “This is so hopeless,” he said. Indeed.
The lack of fireworks, the distance between protesters and the convention, the heat of the long marches, the inevitability of surveillance — all seemed intended to exhaust and demoralize. Resistance is futile, the people in power seemed to say. Burn a flag, we don’t care. Nobody cares, and you can’t make us. Take your citation and go home. Much like the Clinton campaign itself.
I wondered how two sides of the same coin – bullying and velvet-glove tactics, might play out in different locations as the summer goes on. Does it matter which tactics will win? They both seemed to be working towards the same end, to extinguish dissent and spread hopelessness that anything can be done about who’s running for President in November.
PHILADELPHIA – A march three city blocks in length is headed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt park in South Philadelphia, where the city has allowed protesters to gather. People in the crowd are angry, but not all on the same page. There are those wearing Bernie Sanders shirts and those waving red flags. Sometimes people do both. Some say they are angry, some say they feel betrayed. Others express hope. They say they understand that Bernie has to do what he has to do to stay inside the system.
An organizer skirts the perimeter of the march, leading chants of “Bernie or Bust” — what does he mean, exactly?
“I’m a grassroots organizer for Bernie, for the last year out of Denver, Colorado, and I think especially after last week’s endorsement of his rival, Bernie Sanders really needs to know that the people of this country support his quote-unquote political revolution, and they are a lot more serious about it than he actually is. So we’re here to remind Bernie that this past year wasn’t a joke for us. That our kids actually need a future to believe in. And that means acting now, not waiting four or eight years for the party to hopefully reform itself.”
Suddenly, we are cut off. Between Passyunk and Mifflin streets, someone in the crowd spots a confederate flag. It’s part of the Mississippi state flag. An immediate chant goes up: “Take it down! Take it down!”
Two young black women sit down in front of the streetlamp where the City of Brotherly Love has hung a Mississippi state flag. A handful of others sit down with the two women. The impromptu contingent decides they will sit until the flag comes down.
“Join us! Join us!”
There is confusion.
Organizers of the march shout, “Go to the DNC!”
The sitting people shout back, “Black Lives Matter!”
The organizers try and start a chant: “We’ll be back!”– but it doesn’t catch on. After a momentary pause, the rest of the march, including the man I was speaking with, moves on.
“This isn’t Brotherly Love!” someone cries.
“Whoever’s OK with that flag clearly has something to compensate for!”
But the march leaves, onwards towards the convention site, where they will attempt to petition their grievances to a government that has put them behind a perimeter fence.
The cops with their flags follow the march down the road away from the people who refuse to move until the flag comes down. Others take their place – in cars, in busses, in vans and in helicopters. The street becomes quiet. People take up chants among themselves: “Black lives matter!” and “Bring a ladder!”
A guitarist stays, strumming and singing to keep morale up. His voice never gives out. “All we are saying, is take down that flag!”
There is a protest permit system in place. If someone wants to join the scheduled marches, they have to make their way through the hellish snarl of downtown traffic or find parking elsewhere and then commute via public transportation. The city expects more than 50,000 protesters during each day of the DNC, and most of the marches originate an hour’s walk away from the convention, at City Hall. The weather is hot, in the 90’s. The sun is strong. Volunteers pass out water, but by the time the marches reach FDR park people sprawl on the uncomfortable crab grass in the shade. People are dehydrated and exhausted.
So the police have closed off the streets around this impromptu sit-in, but they are not quick to arrest anyone. There is a stand-off. Activists sit cross-legged on the ground, blocking the road but hardly causing any more trouble than shouting.
How does one of the young women who started the action feel about how everyone else marched off?
“I don’t feel no type of way. They on a mission, too. This just puts certain type of people, who feel a certain way about this flag, and that means a lot to me. Because they don’t got the same color skin as me but they care about others.”
She lives in this area, and says she didn’t even realize the flag was up. “But this is a very prejudiced part of Philadelphia. Very prejudiced part of Philadelphia. But Frank Rizzo made that happen.”
Does she think it’s the same struggle, what they’re marching for and taking the confederate flag down?
“Yeah. It is the same struggle. Maybe they just didn’t want to sit. I don’t know. I can’t feel. I can’t worry about them. I worry about me, and I’m a-sit here. They care about me, that’s why they still here.” She gestures down the street where the other marchers went. “I can’t talk about them. They care, but they probably just trying to get to the DNC to get their parts out. But I ain’t mad at them at all. We all doing the same thing. They walking for peace, we sitting here. So it’s like they didn’t really leave us.” She pauses. “They left us here to make something happen about these flags. And we know they’re on a mission to do what we asked them to do. So we still working together, we’re one, we’re here for this and they there for that. And we’re all going to link back up again, believe it. So I’m not mad at all. I’m not mad.”
Does she have anything to say about the flag?
“I want it the fuck down.” she laughs. “I want them to take it down, but I don’t want nobody to get locked up, because that can happen. And I don’t want to see that. But… I can’t climb that pole!”
The owner of the flower business nearby is angry. He walks through his store. “Mary!” he says. “I need that computer to write a letter to the mayor.”
He sits writes a letter demanding the city and parks service remove the flag in front of his business. He says it’s causing him a whole lot of trouble, and, besides, he doesn’t endorse the flag. “The letter’s going to be copied to the Parks Commission, that’s who put that up, and Street Commission.We’re going to ask them to please take it down since that is disruptive to us, we don’t endorse it, we pay our taxes, we shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced because of that flag.“
Who paid for the flag?
“The DNC. It hadn’t been up for a couple of years, but the DNC gave the city money. There’s flags all the way up Broad Street.”
“We’re going to hand deliver it to the Mayor’s office tomorrow. We’re not going to wait for the mail.”
Outside, the other young woman who started the action is speaking with a group of citizen journalists.
“It’s a racist flag from a racist state.” she says. “There’s more than one fight going on here.”
Does she think the fight from the march and the fight to take down the confederate flag are one in the same?
“Well, sort of. But I think we have to attack it from different angles.”
“Yeah,” says a white man standing next to her.
“And this is my angle for now, their angle is getting to the park. We all believe the same thing, that’s clear.”
“Brilliant,” says the man.
The dozen or so people out front sit and speak with each other. Sometimes, they argue. It’s a diverse crew. There are people there who are anarchists, Jill Stein supporters, socialists, communists and Bernie Sanders supporters as well.
It seems to be a power play, a game of chicken with the police. The police don’t want to arrest anyone for demanding the confederate flag be taken down. Though the media is not present, word would get out somehow. It would look bad for a state that offered up more than 360,000 soldiers to fight the confederacy during the Civil War.
But the activists aren’t going anywhere. A few people try and argue they should leave, that this is pointless, that the police have promised them someone is coming to take down the flag. But the group tells them to go ahead, they can leave, but they’re going to stay there until the flag comes down. People gather shoelaces, computer cables, something to make a lasso and try to bring it down themselves, but it’s too high up and there’s nothing to stand on. The police shoo away a man who arrives with a ladder.
Another march arrives. The police stand with bikes to block off the sit-in from the other march.The group stands up, thrilled, shouting “Join us! Take it down!” pointing at the flag. A young blonde woman in a Bernie t-shirt pushes herself between the police bicycles to make space for people to come through if they want. Dr. Cornell West, honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, is there near the front. He smiles at the sit-in, but keeps moving. While some people break off and sit down, the group overall keeps walking. It’s okay, the people tell each other. Another march is coming.
By now, the sit-in has grown enough to spread itself out to block the road. It’s more difficult to walk around. When the greens arrive, the group does not seem so desperate. There are more people shouting slogans and telling the march to join them. The police say they’re going to send someone out to take down the flag. They’ve been saying the same thing since the first people sat down — this is why some people wanted to leave. But the answer is the same as before, a new chant: “I’ll believe it when I see it!”
There are now hundreds of people in front of the confederate flag on Broad Street, blocking the way for other marchers, finally creating that critical mass. Mothers with their children are sitting in now. The city brings in a man in a cherry picker. A giant cheer goes up.
This week, there are tens of thousands of people in Philadelphia protesting something that they are unable to change. People walk around speaking of a greater plan, of a last minute win for Sanders, of voting for Jill Stein and helping her get 5% of the popular vote. But here, at Passyunk and Broad, is a real victory. The flag comes down. What was at first just a dozen people has swelled into a city block’s worth, and the flag comes down.
It becomes clear as the march moves onward down Broad Street that there were some in the crowd who consider themselves wronged by the sit-in. A couple of men crack jokes. Some people can’t see the point in so much trouble for just a confederate flag. “That’s not why we’re here,” a pro-Bernie Sanders protester says hours afterwards. He was one of the ones who saw the sit-in, but kept walking. “Of course everyone has a problem with the confederate flag. But that’s not why we’re here.”
One of the issues that followed the Sanders campaign was the Black Lives Matter movement. He called reparations “divisive“. Now, he attempts to build “unity” on the floor of the convention by endorsing the very person his supporters are on the street protesting against.
It is no secret that Hillary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues. That’s what this campaign has been about. That’s what democracy is about. But I am happy to tell you that at the Democratic Platform Committee there was a significant coming together between the two campaigns and we produced, by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. […]
Our job now is to see that platform implemented by a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House and a Hillary Clinton presidency – and I am going to do everything I can to make that happen.
I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I remember her as a great first lady who broke precedent in terms of the role that a first lady was supposed to play as she helped lead the fight for universal health care. I served with her in the United States Senate and know her as a fierce advocate for the rights of children.
Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here tonight.
It remains to be seen how things will develop in Philadelphia today after Sanders’s speech last night. Who will be unified, who will converge, and who will be out sitting on the hot Philadelphia pavement?