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Opinion | What the First Virtual Convention Looked Like Across America

For the first time in the history of our democracy, the Democratic National Convention was not a gathering in person for delegates to debate their chosen primary candidates, hammer out a platform, and ultimately nominate their candidates for America’s top officers. As opposed to a traditional crowded convention hall spectacle, delegates and candidates gathered online this year. From Zoom rooms, Google hangouts and other online spaces they gathered remotely from homes across the country.

Because of the Democrats’ belief in science and concern for the safety of party members in the midst of a pandemic, it was decided in June that this year’s gathering would be an unprecedented “virtual” event. “Anchored in Milwaukee, 2020 Democratic National Convention will be a “Convention Across America,” read the June 24 news release.

What was this first-of-its-kind-event going to look like? As photography editors, we knew convention coverage would look nothing like in Robert Frank’s famous book, “The Americans,” or the remarkable political convention photographs many photojournalists have taken over the last century.

The public has long gone beyond the act of exclusively watching the four nights on television from the comfort of their homes. Inspired by months of quarantine, Americans watched this historic chapter in our democracy unfold from cheap smartphones on New York’s street corners, flat screens in luscious Oregon yards and giant movie screens at drive-in theaters in the heartland. Others chose to watch sports or simply found the warm summer nights more compelling.

The photographs that follow were made in New York, Tulsa, Okla., and Portland, Ore. The four photojournalists frequently contribute to our newspaper and its opinion pages.

Jeffrey Henson Scales, photography editor

In the metro counties of Portland, Ore., indoor gatherings are still capped at 10 people (with social distancing) and social events are generally discouraged. I’d normally scan the Willamette Week, an alternative weekly newspaper, or Facebook for viewing parties, but listings were scant. Most people, presumably, were viewing the convention from home, at a rather awkward time for a photographer to be requesting access into someone’s personal space. All of the gatherings I found were small and informal with varying moods.

In Lake Oswego, a retiree viewed from a recliner in his man cave-style garage, as neighbors with various political affiliations stopped by unplanned, seemingly as much to drink beer dispensed from the kegerator, demonstrate their hoverboard skills or socialize as to weigh in on the convention speeches. At another in nearby Beaverton, a multigenerational group of women gathered around chips and salsa to watch on a kitchen television. The mood in the household seemed cautiously optimistic; one of the women was moved to tears as she watched Kamala Harris accept her nomination, no doubt like many others around the nation.

At two of the locations, I met retirees who are working part time as door-to-door census takers. I could see their proud involvement in collecting census data as part of a widespread and urgent national craving for truth and representation.

I walked around central Brooklyn looking for people watching the convention. Along the residential streets, I saw them through half-closed curtains, blinds and shades of their homes watching the candidates speak.

Walking along the major business corridors in Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill, (namely Fulton Street), Nostrand Avenue, Franklin Ave. and Bedford Ave., I found barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants, bars and lounges with large flat-screen TVs, but very few that were turned to the convention. I asked why at a few locations, and supervisors or owners said that the customers wanted to watch sports, like the basketball game, or boxing.

Along a strip of Fulton Street, where many businesses are owned and operated by West African immigrants (mainly from Senegal, Mali and Gambia), televisions were tuned to France 24 and other international broadcasts like Al Jazeera. On Tuesday, the coup in Mali seemed to be more of a concern. Just one of the West African import shops had the channel turned to the Democratic Convention that night.

It’s rare to find events that galvanize islands of blue surrounded by a sea of red in places like Texas and Oklahoma, which is why I was so interested in what the Oklahoma Democrats had planned in Tulsa. Some felt compelled to organize something that could resemble, at least in spirit, the convention floor of a political convention during normal times. They gathered in real life, albeit socially distant, at a beautiful vintage drive-in theater.

Everyone honked and cheered during the speeches, much like a real-life convention. I was most struck by that when I looked at the modest groups that gathered to see Joe Biden, whose face loomed large on the horizon.

I was out every night looking for people watching the Democratic National Convention. In four nights I covered almost 100 miles by foot and bicycle, through three New York boroughs, checking bars, restaurants, barber shops, anywhere that had a screen. I found three.

During a summer downpour on Monday night, a group of film buffs on the Lower East Side, finished a screening of “Basquiat” and flipped over to catch Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s speech, while elsewhere a couple of waitresses marveled instead at the beauty of the rain.

In Midtown, I rolled past bar after bar and saw every manner of sports — I had no idea there were this many games on TV on a Tuesday night. Baseball, basketball, soccer, ultimate fighting. At Dan and John’s Wings, a few screens were devoted to the convention, but patrons paid more attention to the men sparring on another television.

On Wednesday, the night Kamala Harris spoke at the convention, in the South Asian neighborhood section of Jackson Heights in Queens, people danced to Bollywood songs, families ate dinner at packed restaurants and men shuffled into mosques.

I heard that a bar down on Orchard was planning on showing Mr. Biden’s acceptance speech. So I went early. The bar was closed — the owner said he was worried that the city was going to fine him. Still, a large group of people had gathered for a stand-up comedy night being held on the street, and their laughs echoed off the old tenements as performers made political jokes. I crisscrossed the city — Chelsea, Midtown, the Upper East Side, Murray Hill, West Village, Wall Street and, on a whim, The Winslow Gin House on East 14th St. There I was told that the convention wasn’t being shown on the big screen. “It’s kind of divisive,” Cait Moorhead, a bartender, said, “but I’m watching on a laptop inside.”

The bar closed just shy of 10:30, and Ms. Moorhead started cleaning up. She carried the tables and chairs, wiped down the bar, balanced the till. A friend stopped in and to chat while she worked. When Mr. Biden took the stage, she paused and they watched quietly.

A couple of blocks down the street, a crowd roared. People leapt from their seats, danced and hugged. The New York Islanders had just scored.

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