Last night on Twitter it was claimed that Bernie Sanders supporters at a Nevada caucus shouted down activist icon Dolores Huerta with chants of “English Only!” when she tried to serve as a translator for Spanish-speaking caucus participants.
The claim shocked many, and circulated widely, but others at the caucus stepped forward to say that it wasn’t true. Eventually, full video of the caucus emerged, and it backed up the Sanders supporters — there’s no evidence of an “English Only!” chant on the tape.
I’ve watched the video several times. Here’s what happened:
At about 51:45, the chair of the meeting, a neutral party, starts explaining the caucus procedures — speaking quickly, and somewhat confusingly, in English. (He later introduces himself as a former New Hampshire state legislator, so he’s pretty clearly not a local. It doesn’t seem like he has much experience running meetings where English proficiency is an issue.)
At 53:34, someone from the floor shouts out: “Excuse me, chair? Some people don’t speak English. Can we have a Spanish translator with you?” There’s a pause, and she says again, “Spanish?”
He replies, “It doesn’t say anything yes or no, but sure. Who is a Spanish speaker?” At this point, crosstalk begins. It sounds like someone says “Dolores.” Someone else says, “The lady by the mic right there.” As the murmuring of the crowd intensifies, he says, “Can we do it quickly?” Then he says, “First person on the stage who speaks Spanish gets to do it. Climb up the stage, then.”
At this point, at about 54:08, people start getting angry, and rightly so. Rather than check on procedure, try to find a neutral translator, or pause the proceedings so that the two sides can come up with a joint plan, the chair is abdicating his responsibility to oversee the process, allowing whoever rushes the stage first to take a major role in the running of the vote. People start shouting “No!” and jeering him. Apparently referring to Huerta, someone yells out “She’s a surrogate!” Near the video mic, you hear someone say tensely, “You have to get up there now.” (On another video of the confrontation, you can hear someone shouting “Neutral! Neutral!” at this point.)
At about 54:30 the chair tries to calm things down, clearly still winging it. “Okay. Okay. Shh. Shh. Okay. Shh. She’s not gonna … Okay. We’ve already got one person. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on everybody. I’m gonna have to clear the back if you keep shouting. You are observers, not cat-callers.”
Responding to the objections, the chair notes that there are a lot of Spanish-speakers in the room, and suggests that “Anything that she says, you’re going to be able to see if she says anything that’s pro-Hillary, right?” Someone shouts “Absolutely not.” Someone else says, “Come on. This is the wrong time.” There’s more crosstalk, and someone says something to him on the stage. At that point, at about 55:20, the chair gives up, and says “We’re moving forward in English only.” There’s a few seconds of clapping, and a few seconds of confusion, and then they start the vote.
The whole thing, from start to finish, lasted a little over two minutes.
I wasn’t in the room, so I may be missing some details, but what happened seems pretty straightforward. Someone asked for a translator. The chair agreed without thinking it through or coming up with a sensible plan. Huerta stepped up to serve, and others objected. The chair tried to answer the objections, realized he wasn’t getting anywhere, and reversed himself — using a phrase (“English only”) that a more culturally proficient moderator would have known to avoid. People on both sides got their noses out of joint as a result of his ham-handedness, but the caucus continued with no major disruption.
So why were the initial reports of the incident so at odds with what the video shows?
Some people — a lot of people, if my Twitter mentions from last night are anything to go by — see an intentional smear, a lie spread maliciously by the Clinton camp. But I’m not so sure. Let’s look at where the story started, with a Facebook post from Clinton supporter Delia Garcia:
If you parse this description closely, it’s actually pretty accurate. The Clinton camp did ask for a translator. Huerta did volunteer. Sanders supporters did object, and did boo — though they may have been booing the chair, or the attempt to put Huerta on stage, that’s a pretty slender distinction. The chair did reject Spanish translation, using the phrase “English only,” and the Sanders camp did seem to support his decision. The claim that Sanders people “demanded ENGLISH ONLY” isn’t confirmed by the video, but it’s possible that happened too — that someone said it wasn’t practical to have translation, so the caucus should go forward in English.
This is a partisan reading of the dispute, and it’s got quite a bit of editorializing that Sanders supporters can rightly object to, but as a factual account it’s somewhere between mostly and completely supported by the video.
The next big step in propagating the story was a tweet from actress America Ferrera:
It’s not clear whether Ferrera was at the caucus, but if she wasn’t — or if she didn’t see and hear the incident clearly — this tweet can be read as a summary of Delia Garcia’s Facebook post. It’s a bit garbled, and a bit more heated, but if Ferrera was working from Garcia’s post, her tweet seems more of a hyperbolic gloss than a straight-up lie.
The one big apparent error in Ferrera’s tweet is the use of the word “chant.” It seems pretty clear from the video that there was no such chant at any point, and it looks like the phrase “English only” was introduced by the chair after the decision was made. It’s possible that the video missed something, and that someone in Sanders’ camp did use the phrase, but my (maybe too charitable) guess is that Ferrera got it from Garcia and wrongly inferred quotation marks from Garcia’s account.
And the most damaging part of Ferrera’s tweet isn’t even the part that’s apparently wrong. Taken in isolation, the claim that Sanders supporters yelled “to stop [Huerta] from providing Spanish translation” suggests that Huerta was shouted down — that she was performing a service to Spanish-speaking caucusgoers, and was chased from the stage by racists. It’s clear that that didn’t happen.
But that interpretation of the tweet — and it was my interpretation, when I read it — isn’t actually in the text. It’s true that Huerta was prevented from serving as a translator by vocal objections from Sanders supporters, and watching the video, I’m fine with that happening. It was my inferences, not her claims — aside, again, from the use of the word “chant” — that were wrong.
Later, Huerta retweeted Ferrera and supplied a tweet of her own:
To the “chanting” allegation, Huerta adds the claim that she was “silenced.” That’s an incendiary charge, and in the context of what a lot of us were assuming happened, it reinforces the idea that she was shouted down. But Huerta doesn’t actually say that she was shouted down — in fact, none of these three accounts make that claim.
And that’s what’s most interesting to me about all this, both as a historian who often works with first-person accounts of contentious events and as a guy who lives on the internet. None of these women are clearly lying. Most of what they say is accurate, and it’s possible they all believe they’re telling the whole truth. But the impression that they collectively left was wildly misleading.
People don’t need to be evil to get these stories wrong. They don’t even need to lie. They just need to speak imprecisely, as we all do, and use hyperbolic language, as we all do. You don’t need a conspiracy to spread these stories — it turns out that a game of Telephone works just as well in text-based media as it does when you’re whispering in the dark.
So I don’t blame Garcia or Ferrera or Huerta all that much for saying what they did last night. They seem to have gotten the story wrong — more so with each iteration — but I’m happy to accept that they may have been mistaken and imprecise, not intentionally misleading. If I’m right about that, they should correct the record today.
The real takeaway is this: Stories get garbled. Stories get exaggerated. We should read skeptically, particularly when what we’re reading backs up what we think we already know. Skepticism is good. It’s not wrong to put the brakes on something like this while you gather facts, and it’s not wrong to say that the people sharing their accounts could be mistaken. Even if they were there. Even if they’re Dolores Huerta.
But if you’re media? If you’re media and you run with a story like this without doing your job and finding out what happened? If you’re media and you don’t understand how all this stuff works?
Well, then you’re the problem.
Update | In an interview after the caucus, Huerta said this (video begins in the middle of her statement): “…shouting, ‘No, no, no.’ And so then a Bernie person stood up and said, ‘no, we need to have … I can also do translation,’ whatever. So anyway, then the person running the caucus said, ‘well, we won’t have a translator.’ But the sad thing about this is that some of the [Sanders] organizers were shouting ‘English only, English only.'”