The riot that never was

At the Nevada Democratic Convention, reality was up for grabs


This is a longer version of a piece posted on our Newsview blog last week.

“CHAIRS FLY IN NEVADA,” read the subhead on the front page of the New York Times, describing events at the Nevada Democratic Convention on May 14.

They couldn’t print it if it wasn’t true, or so the folklore goes.

But the article by Yamiche Alcindor under that subhead does not substantiate the claim. Nor do reports in other news or polemic outlets like Breitbart News, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Rachel Maddow, ABC News, CBS News, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, Reason Magazine, and the Hill, all of which reported the claim as fact.

The normal practice in journalism is to attribute such a sighting—“Delegate Mary Doe saw another delegate throw a chair,” something like that. But so far we have not been able to find a single attribution in any publication or broadcast report. The closest thing we found was one Associated Press photo caption that included the term “organizers said.” It did not identify them or say whether they were Clinton or Sanders or convention organizers.

A couple of publications used more cautious language. The Atlantic Monthly posted a piece reading, “The threats came after Bernie Sanders supporters reportedly threw chairs and booed Senator Barbara Boxer as she tried to speak.” (Emphasis in all cases is added.) A Real Clear Politics piece read, “They claim that Sanders supporters were throwing chairs.”

The Associated Press backed off the claim, slightly. A May 16 AP report by Michelle Rindels and Nicholas Riccardi read, “The gathering closed with some Sanders supporters throwing chairs; later, some made death threats against state party chairwoman Roberta Lange.” On May 17, the two no longer reported it as fact, but still reported it without attribution: “Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were accused of throwing chairs and making death threats against Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange.”

Nevertheless, AP’s Erica Werner was still reporting on May 17, “It followed chaos at the Nevada Democratic Party convention Saturday night, where Sanders’ supporters threw chairs, shouted down speakers and later harassed the state party chair with death threats.”

The AP’s reporting is particularly important because its reports run in so many publications across the nation and around the world. The dubious nature of its information could be seen at the Lorain [Ohio] Morning Journal, where the AP story text said the chair-throwing was only an accusation, but the accompanying photo caption said it was fact.

When the original May 20 blog version of this article was posted, the party was keeping its distance from the chair claim. No one in the Democratic Party hierarchy had made the thrown chairs claim, at least so far as we had been able to find. It all originated with journalists. However, after our article was posted, a prepared statement by Nevada Democratic Party executive director Zach Zaragoza was sent to the RN&R: “I saw chairs thrown, as did other members of my staff—end of story. One of my staffers had to grab a chair from someone who was preparing to throw it at myself and Chairwoman Lange on the stage. I was on that stage during much of Saturday, and it was a terrifying situation. Security had to shut down the event after 10 p.m. because they couldn’t guarantee the safety of the room. The Sanders campaign’s decision to downplay the chaos and violence they incited at our state convention is a blatant attempt to distract from their decision to add fuel to the fire instead of simply offering an apology and condemnation of what happened.”

But that statement was not released to the press until May 21. Journalists could hardly make use of it before that. The state party makes much of reporting by journalists who were not present. But this story is being covered around the world, from the London Daily Mail (which quoted Zaragoza on May 17, but did not yet have his chair statement) to the India Times. The aftermath of the 1968 Chicago convention riots was covered by many reporters who were not there.

Moreover, in a hall where security was present and police were called in, no one was detained or arrested for what would plainly have been a criminal act. Nor were there any injuries reported from thrown chairs, and it is hard to conceive of injuries being avoided in a packed hall from such an act. According to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department public information officer Larry Hadfield, “We are not aware of any incidents. No arrests, no citations.” The department was not able to determine immediately if Zaragoza or anyone else later filed police reports of such incidents.

Adryenn Ashley was in the hall. As a filmmaker, she is a professional observer with additional experience as a courtwatcher. She kept an eye out for good visuals. She was the one who obtained the only known footage of a chair being raised. When asked if she would have seen a chair being thrown, she said, “Hell, yes. I saw the chair being lifted, and I shot it. Actually thrown, I would have seen it.”

She also said the density of the crowd would have made injuries unavoidable.

“Had a chair been thrown there is absolutely no way you would not have had an ambulance,” she said. “It was packed.”

She also said she believes, from the equipment she saw in the hall, that the party has its own footage of the convention that has not been released, though it may have been hotel gear.

Fact checking crawls in New York.

Questions were raised about the chair issue very early, but no one came forward with sightings. Some have pointed to a couple of reports by local journalist Andrew Davey, but he didn’t report seeing chair-throwing himself or attribute it to anyone else. Several news sites are investigating how the story evolved. (Counterpunch has run a piece, “The Faux Fracas in Nevada: How a Reporter Manufactured a Riot,” that blames reporter Jon Ralston. It’s not clear how they arrived at that—they seem to fault him for not being a liberal—but there is plenty of blame to go around. Many of us got things wrong.)

The Snopes urban legend site has been monitoring the issue for several days and initially designated the chair story as “UNPROVEN.” It has more recently been ranked “FALSE.”

In 2014, during the Bundy standoff in Bunkerville, which spread out over a wide outdoor landscape, someone on a highway overpass aimed a high powered rifle at federal officials. We know this because people saw it, photographed it. We even know the man’s name. It’s Eric Parker.

Yet in a smaller confined space—a convention hall—apparently there were chairs flying through the air, and the room full of news photographers and people with cameras and phones were unable to capture footage of it. At any rate, we have been unable to find any. To the contrary—there’s one piece of Adryenn Ashley footage that shows Sanders delegates preventing a delegate who had lifted a chair from doing anything foolish, then hugging him. We interviewed one delegate who said she saw a frustrated delegate kick a chair against a wall, and some apparently tripped over chairs during the tumult. The more common response was that of Washoe delegate and longtime University of Nevada, Reno education professor Stephen Lafer. When asked if he saw chair-throwing, he said, “I did not, and that is the absolute truth. All I experienced was a large group of frustrated people voicing their protests with their voices.”

Democratic U.S. House candidate Vance Alm agrees, and said he thinks the Sanders people were walking into a trap: “Everything that’s out there is complete garbage. … It was a total setup, planned.” (RN&R columnist Sheila Leslie, a former Democratic legislator, said, “There are definitely multiple views of what happened. I talked to some friends who were there; they saw chairs thrown, tossed, and held over head in a threatening manner.” She incorporated that information into her column on page 6.)

Rules vote

Democratic National Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz issued a statement condemning what happened in Nevada from her observation perch 2,000 miles away.

What most prompted the bad feelings in the Las Vegas convention hall and set the stage for everything that followed was that some delegates wanted a vote on a motion to substitute Robert’s Rules of Order for a set of rules that empowered the Democratic state chair who presided over the convention to decide who won floor votes. The state party rules read, “All votes taken at the State Convention shall be by voice vote unless otherwise noted. … If the Convention Chair is unable to determine the outcome of a voice vote, a vote of standing division shall be taken.” That appears to make it the decision of the chair whether to hold a real vote. Robert’s Rules provides for delegates to move for a “division of the house.”

According to Politics Without Power by Cornelius P. Cotter and Bernard C. Hennessy, “The Democratic National Committee observes Robert’s Rules of Order rather than the rules of the House of Representatives, which are followed by the Democratic conventions and the Republican National Committee.”

In other words, the Sanders delegates in Nevada were trying to use the same rules Wasserman Schultz uses in presiding over the DNC—and they were refused even a vote on the proposal to switch to Robert’s. That happened at the start of the convention and set the tone, showing the Sanders delegates hostility from the dais.

Party officials say the Sanders delegates were more upset about the credentials report, but the Sanders delegates tell us otherwise, which is why they chanted “Robert’s Rules of Order” at one point. Losing the convention troubled them less than process in which a motion was ignored.

Minority report

One of the best indications that there was no chair-throwing is that it was not included in the complaint filed against the Sanders campaign by the Nevada Democratic Party with the rules and bylaws committee of the Democratic National Committee. That complaint, written by lawyer Bradley Schrager, says this was the worst thing that happened at the Nevada Democratic Convention:

“The most egregious instance of the Sanders Campaign inciting disruption—and yes, violence—came as the State Convention’s Credentials Committee completed its work. Adam Gillette, part of National Delegate Operations Team for the official Sanders Campaign, drafted and arranged for a member of that committee to attempt to deliver an incendiary, inaccurate and wholly unauthorized ’minority report’ charging that the Credentials Committee had fraudulently denied 64 Sanders delegates their eligibility. The final delegate count had provided the Clinton Campaign with a 33 delegate advantage in the hall; one can imagine the rage occasioned by this inflammatory charge, tossed into the tinderbox of a tense convention hall. Not only did this discredit the work of the Credentials Committee—which featured five Sanders delegates and five Clinton delegates and a Sanders co-chair, and who worked all day under extremely trying conditions to be fair and diligent in their duties—it called into question the entirety of the proceedings because it indicated to an irrational minority that the proceedings had been rigged against them. Forcing their way onto the dais to deliver this paranoid fantasy of fraud and delegate theft was clearly intended to throw the proceedings into disarray. It succeeded. From that moment on, there was little hope for any peace or mutual understanding and respect between Sanders delegates and the NSDP; the mantra became simply that the convention had been stolen from the Sanders Campaign.” (Emphasis added.)

All this purple prose was prompted by a single sheet of paper with words on it. Moreover, it is a minority report—something that has been routine at U.S. political conventions for a century or more. In his race against President Carter in 1980, Sen. Edward Kennedy filed a minority credentials report at the Democratic National Convention without anyone—much less other Democrats—saying he was inciting violence. If the Nevada convention rules forbade minority reports, it validates the Sanders delegates’ concern about the lack of Robert’s Rules in favor of the party’s self-mixed cocktail of rules with which only convention officials were fully familiar.

Convention officers tried to prevent the reading of the minority report until another speaker yielded time for it. The effort to block the reading took longer than the reading.

The Sanders minority report was also an appeal of a political decision—pure speech. Democrats always portray themselves as civil libertarians, but here they portray speech as violence—a McCarthyite stance.

Again, the Democratic complaint says this, not thrown chairs, was the “most egregious” thing that happened at the convention. Presumably a violent act would have been listed ahead of a minority report among the most egregious items. Thrown chairs were not even mentioned in the NDP complaint.

Death threats

This is a freeze frame from the only known footage of a chair lifted off the convention floor. Surrounding Sanders delegates pulled it back down to the floor.


First let’s define the term. This is a death threat: “I am going to kill you.” This is not: “You should be killed.” There were no death threats against Nevada Democratic Party chair Roberta Lange. Poor taste? Sure. But this is the United States of America. We don’t have speech codes requiring politeness. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: “It is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, though not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.”

The “death threat” example used by the New York Times, for instance, was (in the Times’ shortened form) that Lange should be “hung in public execution.” The caller didn’t say he was going to hang her. He said, “This is a citizen of the United States of America and I just wanted to let you know that I think people like you should be hung in a public execution to show this world that we won’t stand for this sort of corruption.”

The difference is more than semantic. In fact, the distinction was a factor in the early success of the U.S. Democratic Party.

John Adams requested from Congress and then signed a Sedition Act that made it a criminal offense to criticize the federal government. When Adams appeared in Newark and was given a 16-gun salute, one of his local critics was heard to say, “I do not care if they fired through his ass.” He didn’t say, “I will fire through his ass.” Was it a death threat or political expression? The man was imprisoned and Jeffersonian Democrats were outraged by such actions.

When one of the founders of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson, was later elected president, he pardoned Adams’ speech victims.

In 1972, Sen. Edward Kennedy referenced this episode to emphasize the urgency of defeating President Nixon: “The founder of the Democratic party, Thomas Jefferson, attacked and unseated a government based on secrecy and repression and misuse of the machinery of justice.”

To be sure, the messages sent to Nevada Democratic chair Roberta Lange are often despicable. Expletives like cunt and bitch have no place in a system that seeks to govern through working together, or in a decent society. Posting Lange’s home address was irresponsible. And when they learned of these messages, Sanders leaders spoke up.

Sanders supporter and former state legislator Lucy Flores, who has herself been a target of threats: “There were actions over the weekend and at the Democratic convention that very clearly crossed the line. Progressives need to speak out against those: Making threats against someone’s life, defacing private property, and hurling vulgar language at our female leaders.”

Sanders, knowing the violence-free history of his campaign, wanted more evidence than the say-so of some local party officials. His caution served him well.

But in the end, it still needs to be remembered that these were just words, and politics ain’t beanbag. Once again, Nevada Democratic Party officials are afraid of words.

But did all this have anything to do with the Sanders delegates or the Sanders campaign? The Nevada Democratic Party—which claimed the Lange messages represented the Sanders campaign—released to the public contact information for the people who sent those vitriolic messages, whereupon the senders found themselves receiving nasty messages and getting calls from reporters. That’s when we learned that the messages to Lange didn’t come from Sanders campaign people, or even Nevadans. Rolling Stone and other media outlets interviewed some of them. They were people across the nation watching the convention on television or social media (“I was watching it with myself and my boyfriend”). Only one had a connection with his local Sanders campaign.

That didn’t stop the NDP from trying to define the entire Sanders campaign by its worst supporters. Would Secretary Clinton or any other candidate want to be so judged? (The party’s complaint specified it was faulting the Sanders campaign, not just individual supporters.)

One straw in the wind is that numerous reporters and politicos have begun saying it doesn’t really matter whether any chairs were actually thrown, that the issues are larger than just chairs, or something.

It matters a great deal. Chair throwing and death threats were the two things that were used to portray the Sanders campaign as reckless and violent—and that campaign has until now enjoyed considerable stature.

Without the chair throwing and death threats, what is left? A raucous Democratic meeting, the kind that has been going on in the party since 1791. In 1973, this reporter attended a Washoe County Democratic Central Committee meeting at Smorgy’s on Keystone Avenue where lawyer Bob McDonald and party activist Chow McGarry engaged in a full-fledged fist fight.

While the Sanders people have argued the convention officials suppressed votes and disenfranchised delegates, that may not be so. The convention may have been run strictly in compliance with the rules.

But it was not the job of convention officials just to keep the trains running on time. It was also to use the convention to advance the party’s candidates in the general election campaign—including Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, in all likelihood. Instead, they did a good deal of damage to her ability to pull in Sanders supporters.

The Sanders people, whose regard for the Democratic Party that demonized them before the entire nation has not been enhanced by the experience, are moving on. This appeared on Facebook, posted by Sue Kephart: “Chain controls over Donner Summit. DNC demanding apology from Bernie Sanders.”