Taralei Griffin began to cry shortly after 9 a.m. and, moments later, became the nucleus of a 20-person hug.
It was during the wake up meeting for protest group Democracy Spring, inside the tiny front room of a row house in Mantua, on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.
"I’ve been diagnosed with MS," Griffin told the activist assemblage. She brought it up during the "I feel like” portion of the program. Griffin’s began: "I’m not feeling very well today."
Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease of the body’s nervous system. Griffin isn’t sure yet how serious or far along her illness is. She’ll find out more the week after the DNC.
The 25-year-old comes from all over. She grew up in Minnesota, but in recent years her family has lived in Tennessee. Not that she’s been there much the past year. She learned of Democracy Spring while watching a video by online liberal news outlet, The Young Turks. After a couple days thinking about the protest lifestyle, Griffin reached out to Democracy Spring in December last year.
The group is part of a diverse and varied protest faction that came to Philadelphia for the DNC. Democracy Spring specifically advocates for the elimination of corporate donors and the wealthy’s influence on government. Members believe that all other issues — climate change, education, poverty —can be addressed more efficiently if Big Money is taken out of the political process. The group’s motto is: "Money ain’t speech. Corporations aren’t people.”
Griffin’s been part of the inner circle of Democracy Spring since April when she met Kai Newkirk in Washington D.C. Newkirk is in charge of the protest group, which sprung from a larger organization called 99Rise.
She was one of 1,400 arrested on the steps of the Capitol in the spring, what activists like Newkirk describe as the largest action of civil disobedience in American history. Members of Democracy Spring are prideful of their arrest records. Brendan Orsinger, who quit his job at the Pentagon to join the movement, has been arrested eight times. Mary Zeiser, a California nomad and student of the art of non-violent resistance, has been arrested three times.
In Philly, Democracy Spring wanted to bring their non-violent “risk arrest” approach to the protests of the Democratic National Convention. After a march Monday afternoon down South Broad Street from Marconi Plaza, Newkirk and 10 others from his group succeeded in getting arrested -- after much effort. They jumped a police barricade, were taken into custody temporarily, then given $50 citations.
Griffin was not one of those arrested. So soon after being diagnosed with MS, she served the group in an auxiliary and communications role.
"It’s been stressful," Griffin said Monday morning, prior to the first actions of the DNC week. “I want to stay with Democracy Spring. I’m heading back to D.C. after this week to find out more. There’s a lot up in the air.”
Griffin said she was very quiet, an introvert even, before joining the activist ranks.
"It all changed when I joined. Now, I’m very talkative," she said, petting her nine-year-old dog, Layla.
The first sign that Griffin had a deep-seated interest in politics and activism was one Halloween early on in her life.
"First, I was a witch. Then, the next year, I was Princess Leia. Then I wanted to be an American flag."
When she goes back to Washington, D.C., this weekend, she’ll return to Democracy Spring’s base of operations, a rented house in Cheverly, Maryland. About six others have lived there when Griffin stayed in the house the past several months.
TaraLei grew up in a conservative family in a conservative part of Minnesota. And she thought she was conservative, until a high school teacher in her hometown of Arden Hills gave her class a test with questions to rate where one falls on the political spectrum
"I took one of those tests that puts you in a liberal category or conservative," she said. "I said, 'Is this right?' after looking at the result. He said, 'Yeah, you’re very liberal.'"
Anywhere from 10 to 20 people lived in the two-story house on Brandywine Street since the beginning of July. People go five or six to a room, sleeping bags covering every inch of the bedroom floors. One room has a set of bunk beds.
No one seems to mind the clutter: a pile of shoes in the corner near the front door, a bushel of apples under a table crowded with laptops and printed signs.
Tofu is on the menu most days. On Monday, Nicole Hazzard, a North Carolina woman who in Her 40s is one of the oldest members of the group, cooked tofu over potatoes. Some ate cereal while everyone prepped for the first day’s actions.
Griffin made a run to Target in one of the collective’s vehicles. An hour later, she returned with supplies for the house and the March.
She worried about her legs in the heat. Extreme conditions, she said, brought about her MS symptoms -- loss of feeling in her extremities after initial "pins and needles all over."
Hours later, after Newkirk and several others had been hauled off by police, Griffin sat on the outskirts of the protests near the AT&T Station of SEPTA’s Broad Street Line. By 6:30, she and a couple other protesters packed some things and were heading back to Mantua to regroup.
"It’s been an awesome day," Griffin said in the grassy median of South Broad Street, over the still-strong chants of "Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!" And "Lock Her Up!"
There would be more protesting tomorrow for Griffin and Democracy Spring. Two days later, on Wednesday, another contingent of Democracy Spring members would be arrested -- or, according to Philadelphia police, taken into custody and given citations for disorderly conduct.
On Thursday, Griffin said she believed the week went well. Soon, she’d be hopping a ride back to D.C. To find out more about her future. She saw herself staying in the Democracy Spring house, and perhaps she’d help the group find a new home for when their lease runs out at the end of August.
Asked about her future, she pondered life in D.C. And in the activist community, and in the workplace. She enjoys writing.
"After my (doctor’s) appointment on Monday, I’ll be figuring things out," she said.
She paused for a moment, then she let out a single laugh.
"I think I may try to get a part-time job with the Young Turks," Griffin said.