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How one concession worker at the DNC saw President Obama’s convention speech

Wells Fargo Arena concessions staffer Niyah Harris, 24, watches Barack Obama's speech at the convention.
Wells Fargo Arena concessions staffer Niyah Harris, 24, watches Barack Obama's speech at the convention.
Jeff Stein/Vox

PHILADELPHIA — Niyah Harris knows the Democratic National Convention isn't for her. Not really, anyway.

Harris, 24, is a concession worker at the Wells Fargo Arena. She's been on her feet almost continuously since 4 pm, and she's exhausted. The last few nights, her main responsibilities have been to gather the trash, grill the hot dogs, wipe off the condiment tables, ring up the customers, and steer lost attendees at the Democratic National Convention to their destinations.

"I'm tired, and I'm just ready to go home," Harris says around 10:30 pm, after I ask her whether she hopes to stick around for President Barack Obama's speech. "And I've heard him speak before on TV, so it's whatever."

Conventions are elaborate logistical affairs, and they require hundreds of workers who are scrubbed from the coverage and left out of the TV highlight reels — these are the security guards, janitors, food vendors, cashiers, and dishwashers who make the political stagecraft possible.

They may not get VIP credentials or invites to the post-convention parties. But they arguably have even more riding on the president’s words than the vaulted delegates inside.

Watching Obama through the eyes of a DNC concession worker

As the clock ticked toward Obama’s address, a horde of people streamed around Harris every which way, scattering up and around the stadium. Some stopped and asked for directions, often moving on before Harris had a chance to answer.

A few Bernie Sanders holdouts walked by carrying "Never $Hillary" banners, still wearing face-paint. One posed for a photo in front of three reporters, tape covering her mouth. "DOWN WITH OLIGARCHY," it said.

Another concession worker, Tim Smith, laughed. "I have no idea what these people are doing," said Smith, 51, and a co-worker by his side cracks a smile.

A few minutes pass, and Obama's voice begins to boom beyond the convention floor, reaching the outer-limits of the stadium's walls. Harris says she’s changed her mind. She wants to know if we still have time to make it in to see the president.

A clutch of concession workers, all decked out in matching black polo shirts and black pants, rushes through the hall in one direction. Harris and I duck around to Section 119.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Obama taking the stage in Philadelphia.

The guard at the front notes that only I have a media pass, and that Harris’s badge — "VENDOR," it says — doesn’t give her access to the floor. We ask a second time. He looks furtively around the corner, gives a slight nod, and waves us through.

Harris smiles. We rush headlong toward a booming voice coming from inside the hall.

"We declared that health care in America is not a privilege for a few," it says.

We can’t see over the crowd, but Harris whips out her smartphone. She points it up toward the big screen hanging from the ceiling of the convention hall, and begins filming a video of the president’s speech, capturing a reflection of a reflection.

Reflecting on eight years of President Obama

"A lot’s happened over the years. And while this nation has been tested by war and recession and all manner of challenge — I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your president, to tell you I am even more optimistic about the future of America."

Harris tells me she remembers where she was, in her hometown in Philadelphia, when President Obama was sworn in. Her son had just turned 1. "We had an inauguration party," she says. "It went all night."

I ask Harris if it’s been important for her son to have an African-American role model. She shakes her head. "No, I think what’s important is that the president is a decent person," she says. "There’s decent and there’s not decent, and President Obama is decent."

President Obama begins to speak about criminal justice. "I'm going through something personal with my son, and I feel like there should be a lot of changes with the judicial system," Harris says. "He’s right that there's a lot of laws that aren't fair."

Harris looks back at the crowd. She says she’s only seen security this tight at the stadium for a Taylor Swift concert. (There were snipers on the roof for that one, too, she says.)

It is beginning to feel like something of a music festival here in Section 119. Two hipsters to our left kiss. An old Hispanic man with an orange tie and a bushy mustache starts to cry. A middle-aged black woman is punctuating Obama’s speech by muttering "amen," not after Obama says anything in particular but every few seconds without fail.

Harris, still straining her phone above the crowd, cranes her neck skyward.

"I think he really tried his best. He really did," Harris says of Obama. "And now it’s about to end. It’s the end of the story."

Obama pivots. He’s now talking about Hillary Clinton, and the stadium begins to really roar. A DNC official in a yellow shirt hands out signs that say "Yes We Can."

Harris grabs one. "I think she’s going to win," Harris says, posing for a photo.

I walk out with Harris, who was told by her boss that she had to leave to clock out of work. She’s both apologetic for leaving early but energetic. "This has been a crazy couple of days, but my outlook on politics is different now," she says. "I’ve had the opportunity to meet all of these different people, where beforehand I couldn’t really give a shit about politics."

Harris notes she’s grown worried for her son that libraries and community centers are closing in her north Philly neighborhood, and she wonders if something can be done.

She laments that she often forgets to vote on Election Day. "I always say the world is going to be a shitty place anyway," she says. "But I’d like to start reading more about politics … what if my son wants to get involved in it one day?"

We’re now walking toward the exit of the convention center, but we can still hear Obama’s voice coming over the PA system. After three long days of working the convention, Harris admits to feeling drained.

But that’s not why she can’t wait to get home. The real reason, she says, is because she’ll get to show her son her cell phone footage of seeing Obama live. Even if it’s only a video of a video.

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