Democrats came to Charlotte for the DNC with about a trillionth of the excitement they had for Denver in 2008. Back then, a national cult had enveloped Barack Obama. Instead of a messiah, President Obama has proven to be a very effective commander in chief, but one who couldn't succeed on the most pressing issue for Americans: jobs. Not forcing a jobs program into existence—despite his going to town on Congress exactly a year ago—will probably be looked at as his biggest first-term failure. It would be what costs him the election, should such a thing happen.
But I really came to Charlotte to seek out what was left of the left. On Tuesday, a coalition of leftists held Progressive Central, an alternative convention at church ten miles from downtown Charlotte. Sponsors included The Nation and Code Pink. Usually these lefty events bore the hell out of me. Jesse Jackson kicked the event off at 9:30 a.m. with a sermon-y speech about, um, something. Seven old ladies and a dozen old men were in attendance. Outside, two young women had built a fake drone and assembled it in front of the church. They refused an offer of $2500 for the sculpture, which I intended to display next to my Damien Hirst $750 spot skateboard and Shepard Fairey "HOPE" print.
Boredom was setting in when I met Monique. She was in her late 20s and was a volunteer at the church. She took me down the street to meet Ricky and Roach Hoober, who had the coolest front yard in the world, complete with a turtle aquarium, weight bench, tiled floor and pot plants growing in pots that were basically on the sidewalk.
"Cops never ask about this?" I asked.
"Cops don't come around here unless there's a crime."
Ricky, Roach and Monique all supported Obama, despite the fact that none of them had jobs.
Over the course of the day, Progressive Central filled in, with maybe 100 people sitting in purple chairs. MSNBC's guest commie John Nichols was moderating a panel with Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) and former Florida Congressman Alan Grayson. Grayson is the man who exposed the Fed's trillion-dollar credit line to big banks. Thinking this would be the same old boring "drones suck" baloney, I sat in the way back. But Grayson and McGovern proved to be eloquent and brilliant. "We need Tea Party style organization as progressives," Grayson said. "We need to expose things about corporate money buying Congressional seats."
"When Congress is at its best, it can do great things," McGovern said. But, he noted, for the first time in memory there were people who hated Congress in Congress. "These are people who don't believe in the public sector. They don't believe in government. The only thing the federal government has to do is defense spending." Why anyone would want to work for a governing body they hated remains an open question.
Later, I spoke to McGovern under a hot Carolina sun about why he was there. "I'd rather be in a sweaty gymnasium than drinking cocktails at the Ritz Carlton. This is why I'm a liberal. That's why I'm a politician."
The Ritz Carlton? Great idea! At the Ritz's ballroom after Michelle Obama's speech, a lobbying firm threw a party for the Black Caucus. About 500 people drank and danced and ate free food in an opulent-as-fuck room. Back in 2008, black people were a part of the Democratic Party, sure, but at the 2012 DNC they make up a much more visible, larger chunk of the crowd. No one really talks about this, because Americans are racists who hate black people. But if Obama's legacy as being the first black president includes bringing more blacks into mainstream American politics, that's a fine achievement that shouldn't be overlooked.
Down the block, the nerds from BuzzFeed held a party at a children's museum. This was possibly the most boring party in history, though one memorable moment came when a museum worker placed a small turtle on the floor to pace around. The turtle's languor defined the journalists all around. Journalists in general, it was obvious at these conventions, suck at partying these days: they're a bunch of careerist geeks who write the same exact Twitter-friendly stories as all their friends.
The next day I visited the 500-bed Men's Shelter of Charlotte on the city's skid row, North Tryon Street. This is the same street on which dozens of Convention parties take place all night and day, but just a few miles away. Within eyesight of the Bank of America HQ, a fellow named Daniel Johnson told me he hadn't had a job in seven years. Johnson, 40, said his crack possession felony held him back. "We're stuck," he said. No one from the DNC or members of the scores of charities and other governmental agencies in town this week had come for a visit, people said. Still, the mostly black men who stayed at the shelter—at least the ones I talked to—didn't blame Obama.
That night Bill Clinton made the case for Obama's second term, reminding Americans that it was the Republicans who got us here in the first place. When Obama popped out onstage at the close of Clinton's speech, the crowd roared—very 2008. "Maybe in the next two months the country will remember how bad Bush was," photographer Evan Mann said.
There were scores of parties Wednesday night too. A veteran's group called Got Your 6—actually, they describe themselves as "A campaign led by the entertainment industry to create a new conversation in America where vets & military families are perceived as leaders & civic assets," which is pretty wild— shelled out what was likely at least a couple hundred thousand for Flo Rida, who is, if you don't know, a not-un-Drake-like rapper-singer. When he came onstage the crowd was tepid. But, damn, the man has hits, and hits, and hits. "How the fuck did I not know who this guy was but know every one of his songs?" asked a due near me. By the time Flo did "Whistle," the crowd was so amped he had to play it twice.
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Obama Day was all fucked up by 2 p.m., when everyone realized they'd given out too many credentials because the coronation was supposed to take place in a stadium but had been moved to the smaller arena for fear of rain. Many local people didn't even know it had been moved and the streets were steadily mobbing as speech time approached. Hawkers peddled ugly shirts and buttons, the most popular being a RUN DNC shirt. By 6 p.m. the arena was locked down by the fire marshal, stranding thousands of credentialed media and Dems.
Luckily the folks at a small cable network called CNN have entered the hospitality game and they opened a casual dining pop-up chain in the mold of Chili's called CNN Grill. This was the most written-about thing at either convention. This is mainly because it catered to media and media came there and thus media was created there, much like the cab driver is always the quoted man in a "foreign" story. The CNN Grill is the lazy man's lobster of a story and there really was no story there. Or lobster. They just gave us a lot drinks and bad chain food.
Joe Biden's fine introduction for Obama choked me up a bit. I love Biden. Obama came out and did what he always does: spoke really well. People at the CNN Grill are reporters and politicos and are way too jaded, "unbiased" and uncool to possibly react to our president and the room stayed silent. On the streets post-speech, a fiesta broke out. A brass band jammed on the corner on Tryon and Trade Streets. There I met a group of young black men, art school students, who'd come to just "check out Obama and the scene." They were all designers, graphic or clothing, and a few of them rapped and did beats.
Downtown being crowded with Obama tourists, many of them black, forced an amazing overreaction by the cops. They were marching in double file all around Uptown, grunting and heaving ho. The same bike squads first seen at the Tampa RNC were back in effect. Of course this was all for naught. No one was being naughty, except the mean cops.
The kids and I all hated the cops. So we decided to all go back to their school. In a large, unnervingly neat shared dorm apartment, we watched CNN. In the political convention tradition we smoked about 35 hand-rolled cigars, but these cigars you could actually inhale. The boys spoke of men's fashion changing and how it's cool to look good now, cool to not just wear sports gear and jeans. We switched from CNN to MTV, whose annual Video Music Awards were ending. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne were performing on what looked like a Convention stage in the year 2028. It was decided after a spirited debate—these were 18-year-olds—that the DNC's closing did in fact trump the VMAs: "Weezy crushed his verse but he's not as good with words as Obama."
When it was posited that Obama had made black men change their style a bit, one of the kids said, "Obama did more than make black people want to wear cool clothes and nice suits. He made kids like us go to college for what want. We wanna be artists." Their fathers' generation went to trade schools or no school at all, they said. The room was so smoky that when a roommate came home, he started coughing and shouted, "Damn you all did Obama big! Now get the fuck out!" It was 3 a.m.
Previously: The Republican National Convention
Ray LeMoine lives in Darien, Southampton and Palm Beach. Photos of Clinton, Flo Rida and police and crowd downtown by photographer Evan Mann.