Bernie-backing activists to 'crash' Democratic convention

Capitol Hill protesters stage sit-in
Capitol Hill protesters stage sit-in

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Story highlights

  • Protestors are training ahead of the Democratic National Convention
  • They plan to be in the streets in Philadelphia next month

(CNN)The progressive political movement emboldened by Bernie Sanders' insurgent campaign is preparing to "crash" next month's Democratic National Convention, demanding the party establishment take steps to reject corporate influence and reform its nominating process.

"If the Democratic Party wants to put on a $50 million infomercial saying, 'Hey vote for us,' without committing to make this the last corrupt, billionaire-nominated voter suppression-marred election, then we're going to crash the party," said Kai Newkirk, director of Democracy Spring, a nonpartisan activist coalition dedicated to "mass nonviolent action" against big money in politics.
    The mostly independent organizers behind Sanders' "political revolution" emerged from the "People's Summit" in Chicago this weekend primed to launch a new wave of pressure on the party elite. Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a top surrogate for the Vermont senator's campaign, gave a stem-winding call to action after telling reporters she expected "hundreds of thousands of people out there" in Philadelphia at the convention.
    "That's America -- we are about the protest," she said. "We are about having a righteous indignation. We can no longer stand by and have business as usual."
    In April, Democracy Spring and its allies launched an eight-day "direct action" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. More than 1,400 people were arrested, but not before nearly 100 members of Congress called for hearings on the campaign finance reform and voting rights measures lobbied for by protesters.
    The group, one of dozens currently planning demonstrations, is hoping to replicate and amplify its Washington, D.C., efforts with plans to disrupt the Democrats' quadrennial confab. The Republican convention in Cleveland is also on the docket, but the focus for now remains primarily on Philadelphia.
    This weekend, Newkirk, who describes Democracy Spring as being "hardcore committed to non-violent discipline," helped lead a protestor training session at the Chicago summit.
    Young "Berniecrats" filled a basement room and hallway for "Direct Action 101," a series of lectures and exercises, including mock arrests and a run through a "police gauntlet" meant to prepare them for potential confrontations with law enforcement. Newkirk said that while Democracy Spring will "generally try to communicate with law enforcement and to respond if they reach out, we don't generally negotiate" the particulars of planned protests.
    Kim Huynh, who helped lead the workshop, told CNN she views the convention as "the next step" in the Sanders movement, a means for harnessing and "pushing forward all of this energy around the Bernie campaign."
    The Houston-based organizer, who joined Democracy Spring earlier this year, spoke about the theory of "nonviolent direct action" with a post-graduate fluency, explaining that the protests are "fundamentally about tension and conflict," and "creating the clearest picture, so that our action tells the story itself."
    At the breakout session, she said, "We talked about de-escalation and what happens for people in that moment when you're facing down a line of riot cops and feel yourself getting scared or anxious. How do you support someone else who is feeling like that?
    "And then we did a role play."
    Both Newkirk and Huynh are acutely aware that mass demonstrations, especially the kind that inevitably pit civilian protesters against the police, can quickly descend into a counterproductive chaos.
    The movement's success, they said, will be measured by not only by its ability to disrupt and extract concessions from elected officials, but to engage new allies -- including Clinton supporters, backers of the Green Party's Dr. Jill Stein, and like-minded conservatives.
    "A big question around this," she said, "is, 'How does a grandmother sitting in Iowa, looking at a story being told about Democracy Spring, how is she then activated to join the cause or see herself and her values in our action and group of people?'"
    Victory with that cohort, she said, would represent a significant step in accruing the leverage to pressure presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton into rooting out corporate influence inside the party.
    Despite the deep distrust of Clinton within most progressive circles, especially those focused on money in politics, Democracy Spring, perhaps buoyed by their success in April, is holding out hope for a "Nixon to China" moment.
    "If Hillary said, 'No one knows this corrupt system better than me, it's a top priority and I'm committed to changing it in my first 100 days,' then that would be incredible for this country," Newkirk said.