A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to volunteer at the DNC in Charlotte, NC. It was a great experience. Since so many people have asked me about it, here is my take.
Since returning from my volunteer week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte a couple weeks ago, I’ve had several people ask me which famous people I saw and if I got to attend President Obama’s acceptance speech that Thursday night. The shifts I worked were doing very basic things. Instead of seeing inside the stadiums and buildings where the speeches, parties and other Convention activities happened, I answered questions and welcomed people to the DNC. Though not very glamorous, I liked the experience I had quite a lot.
On my first shift I answered phones with about 10 others at the DNC hotline about parking downtown, bus schedule changes, street closings and the lineup of Monday night’s outdoor concert to kick off the convention. We were a business owner, a Vietnam Veteran, an assistant principal, a waitress and a few retirees and me. When the phone wasn’t ringing we had a spirited discussion about religion, John Edwards and North Carolina politics, our families at home, our hometowns and trips we’ve taken or would like to take.
Tuesday and Wednesday mornings I was in the same place: the Dunhill Hotel, a beautiful, old hotel in downtown Charlotte on Tryon Street, one of downtown’s busiest thoroughfares. At 7 a.m. when I was walking from the light rail station to the Dunhill things were pretty quiet. I’d see police officers and security guards at their posts, a few employees of some of the downtown businesses that were still running who were headed into work, and a few Convention-goers who were venturing out of their hotels to find breakfast and coffee. Things didn’t liven up until mid-morning.
The Dunhill was an overflow hotel for delegates from Colorado and Louisiana, and home for the week for musicians playing at some of the delegate parties, media and a few celebrities and Convention notables (I understand Jessica Alba was staying there, and I spoke briefly with Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards). I met NC Senator Kay Hagan and helped NC Representative Brad Miller think about where he could get another pair of dress shoes (he’d only brought one pair and hadn’t counted on doing quite so much walking).
I found I was the most useful standing outside on the sidewalk with the doorman and answering questions there. This turned out to be the best thing, because I got to see and hear things I never would have otherwise.
I saw schoolchildren and college students on field trips to see the Convention first-hand, people of presumably all income levels, people selling DNC and Obama buttons, and trucks driving by painted with verbiage protesting various acts and political beliefs. I saw Charlotte natives who were grouchy about sharing their downtown with all the Convention attendees, and those who were so excited to be a part of the Convention that they couldn’t stop smiling. Across the street were a bunch of Secret Service members who inspected each car that had the credentials to come through the roadblock. They searched the cars in pairs, sometimes with a German Shepherd.
When I finished my shift I walked down College Street, which was where all the activity really was. Protesters and advocates of nearly every group you could think of were there. People moved on the sidewalks quickly from one building to another to attend Convention events. Street vendors sold Obama T-shirts and more buttons. Secret Service agents searched vehicles and police officers directed traffic. The atmosphere was bustling and exciting.
Many of the intersections in downtown Charlotte needed a police officer to help direct the traffic patterns, changed up to handle extra flow during the Convention. Groups of police officers from all over the Southeast helped the Charlotte Police Department, patrolling the downtown with their coworkers on foot or by car, motorcycle or horse. A group of officers from Clayton County, Georgia, were at the two intersections closest to my volunteer post, and they entertained drivers and pedestrians with dance moves performed while safely directing cars and people through the intersections. Crowds would gather as an officer would direct traffic while doing the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video or Saturday Night Fever. Some would give high-fives to drivers whose windows were rolled down as they went by. Some posed for pictures with pedestrians. All of them had a great time, and so did the onlookers.
While I watched the speeches from my sister’s living room in Charlotte, the experience I had at the Democratic Convention was memorable. I was able to see people who were both notable and ordinary, with lots of money and with little money, from all parts of the country that were there to do all kinds of jobs from voting on President Obama’s nomination to playing a guitar for those who cast those votes. I saw Charlotte residents who hosted happily, whether than meant city workers who walked around downtown with a broom and dustpan sweeping up trash, the officers who kept the event safe, and the restaurant workers who kept all the Convention-goers fed and full of coffee. It meant seeing the people in expensive, well-made suits and seeing the people who were in need of clean, well-fitting clothes, as well as likely a job and a home.
My favorite part of the Democratic National Convention had nothing to do with politics at all. Experiencing the people, not as much as the politics, was what made this week the most fun for me.