Kicking Off the DNC: Notes, Photos, and Dissents from Charlotte

The Democrats say they're throwing the most open and accessible convention in history. A critical report from the scene.

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When did the Democratic National Convention begin?

I'd have sworn it started Saturday, when I attended an official "media party" open to credentialed members of the press and Democratic Party insiders. 4 hours of free food, drinks, and music were provided for perhaps thousands of invited guests, and although I only made it for the last hour, I managed to hear three bands on as many stages, drink several small cups of Fat Tire beer, and eat Carolina crab cakes, brisket tacos, and heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with artisinal sea salt.

Democrats know how to cater a party.

But wandering around Carolinafest, a Monday street fair in Uptown Charlotte, I kept being told that it marked the beginning of the DNC -- that kicking off the convention with a public event symbolized the party's commitment to throwing "the most open and accessible convention in history," as a DNC official put it. I guess it's the most open and accessible in the way the Obama Administration is history's most transparent: aspirationally, selectively, and ultimately much less than was advertised.

Carolinafest was much more open than anything held at the RNC in Tampa, where the uncredentialed public was never permitted inside the security perimeter, never mind in the convention hall.

Matt Welch describes it well:

Thousands thronged in the sweltering heat to listen to bands, eat delicious North Carolina BBQ, and engage in goofy civic projects like seeing how big Abraham Lincoln's shoes were (pretty big!). But by far the most crowded area was the double-sided row selling Barack Obama-themed political swag, from "Run DNC" shirts to somber presidential portraits to items available at

Vendors who didn't shell out the tent-money were also doing a brisk business in Obama pins, bizarro-world calendars, and photographs next to a sort of Obama-Buddha made of sand. Even inside the perimeter, the official gift stores have been shoulder-to-shoulder with T-shirt buyers. By any comparison, the market for Democratic-ticket swag outpaces that of Republicans by a factor of several.

I wandered around for several hours observing, taking pictures, and talking to attendees. Perhaps things will change tomorrow when the "speeches by important people" begin. But today, I was glad to see that, while there were a lot of police, none were dressed in military fatigues, or carrying assault weapons, or driving armored vehicles. They were just municipal police.

Uptown Charlotte didn't feel like an Orwellian cityscape (though I did see one helicopter hovering overhead).

Once again, the number of police that surrounded protesters made me uneasy. I've yet to see Occupy protesters here, despite being on the lookout. I thought I was about to find them when, while walking away from Carolinafest, I suddenly saw a mass of police officers on bicycles riding up the street and another mass coming from a side street. They were clearly organizing themselves to round the corner just in front of me, so I followed, and saw the tail end of a protest. I ran half a block to catch up, expecting to find scores of Occupy folks marching single file down the sidewalk. But it turned out to be about 15 to 20 citizens of Charlotte marching against a state law that banned gay marriage. They were incredibly mellow and being followed by police on bikes who easily outnumbered them, with perhaps 1.5 police officers for every protester.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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