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When Eden McFadden got to her seat at the Wells Fargo Convention Center in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon, she discovered someone was already sitting there. Technically, a sign on the seat said it was reserved and, technically, it wasn’t actually her seat.
Instead, as a pro-Bernie Sanders member of California’s delegation to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the blocked-off set of seats in the area where McFadden and her #NeverHillary compatriots had been sitting for the past few days represented just another incident in a series of indignities she argues is part of an intentional effort by DNC officials to prevent anything from cracking the public facade of a party unified to elect Hillary Clinton and defeat Donald Trump.
Watching the proceedings from the the outside, the first night of the DNC seemed like chaos. A searchable database of emails stolen from the DNC’s servers and posted online in a searchable database by Wikileaks late last week revealed efforts by DNC officials to bolster the Clinton campaign at the expense of Sanders—who had never, in his three decade career in office, run as a Democrat prior to last year. For Sanders supporters who had long suspected a bias toward Clinton among the party’s formal infrastructure, the emails turned a long-simmering fire into an near-apocalyptic conflagration.
From the very first moments of the convention, a constant din of piercing jeers from Sanders supporters served as a reminder of how much work the party needed to do to heal its primary-induced fracture.
Much of that visible chaos subsided over the course of the week, following the resignation of controversial DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Sanders’s full-throated endorsement on Monday night. In a mass text message sent out on Thursday, Sanders urged his supporters not to interrupt Clinton’s speech.
However, concerns that their voices were silenced during the primary has led to fears that party officials were doing something similar at the convention itself—especially among Sanders’s California contingent, which has been the loudest in its opposition to Clinton and many of the policies with which she has been associated, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
For McFadden and other California delegates, the fight for the future of America was encapsulated by those roped-off seats.
For the majority of people on the floor of the DNC, there are no assigned seats. Delegates are supposed to sit in a specific area with other people from their state; but, within that area, it’s basically a free-for-all.
Katrina Bergstrom, a lawyer and Sanders delegate representing the state’s 28th District in the northern Los Angeles suburbs, explained that, in the very front of the section, there’s a reserved area for VIPs and other party officials. Right behind them sat a group of Clinton supporters who seemed to always get there early and then lay down purses, signs, and other items to claim their spots. The result was, Clinton supporters in the front and Sanders supporters in the back.
Bergstrom argues that she’s witnessed a “passive favoritism” from the ushers, who she claims allowed Clinton supporters to save seats, while Sanders supporters were not afforded similar support when they tried to do the same.
While that separation may seem minor, to Sanders supporters in the California delegation looking to use the national stage of the convention to register their disapproval of how the party selected its nominee, placement mattered.
Multiple Sanders delegates from the California contingent confirmed that whenever members of their group held up signs showing their opposition to the TPP—a trade deal that Clinton initially supported but now opposes, while recent comments by longtime Clinton confidant Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe suggested it would be tweaked and pushed for approval if Clinton becomes president—party officials would direct the Clinton supporters in front of them to stand up and hold up their own banners obscuring the protesters from view. The optics, in other words, were in Clinton’s favor.
DNC officials did not respond to a request for comment.
When the California delegation came into the hall on Thursday, they found something new—the reserved signs. As it happened, most of the reserved seats were located toward the rear of the delegation’s area, where Sanders supporters clustered throughout the week. “Some of our delegates are seatless right now,” Bergstrom told the Daily Dot on Thursday evening. “They are standing in halls and waiting for people to leave.”
Despite the signs, McFadden said that she and others in her group ripped them down, sat in those seats anyway, and didn’t receive any flack from party officials for doing so. Still, said Bergstrom, the damage was done.
“[The California delegation] has a nice bar lounge area. We are supposed to be able to enjoy ourselves … and talk with our [California] people, but we can’t enjoy and actually use the opportunity to ‘have important conversations’ to unify us as they want us to,” Bergstrom said. “Many of us are willing to try and find commons ground, but as we are being forced to constantly defend things like seats, [it] is incredibly hard to do.”
For Bergstrom and McFadden, the implication here is that the reserved seats were a move by the DNC. It feeds into a conspiracy theory that party officials posted on Craigslist looking for seat fillers to create the appearance of party unity.
Among the Sanders faithful, that sentiment had led to other suspicions. Another theory is that a series of square white boxes mounted to the walls around the convention hall were white noise machines designed to drown out the potential boos that could arise from the audience during Clinton’s speech. In fact, they appear to be industrial-grade Wi-Fi boosters.
Bergstrom insisted that, while the comparatively raucous California delegation had turned the most heads, Sanders delegates from a bevy of states relayed similar stories. “Other delegations have reached out to us and said that we inspire them, because we are the biggest and get the most attention. Other states, like … [New York] are on the floor and came to us in tears telling us they are very aggressive with signs and have had them ripped from them.”
Whether these events are deliberate attempts to hide any glimpse of party disunity from the millions of Americans watching at home or a simple misunderstanding between a beleaguered party infrastructure and delegates with an axe to grind probably depends on whom one plans to vote for on Election Day.
However, even if reality hews closer to deliberate obstruction of Sanders supporters, such a course of action is understandable. If the party presents a divided face to the American public, it could lead many of the 43 percent of Democratic primary voters who cast ballots for Sanders to vote for a third-party candidate or simply stay home in November.
Safe for a handful of loud chants, there were no major interruptions during Clinton’s speech, and plans by a group called the DNC Action Committee to perform a citizen’s arrest on Clinton during her oration never happened. Nevertheless, the anger felt by these Sanders delegates about something as simple as seating shows that, among some of the most passionate members of the “Feel the Bern” crowd, the party still has considerable work to do to regain their trust.
Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.