In three months, Laurie Cestnick started a Facebook group and turned it into a Bernie Sanders social media machine 33,000 members strong.
Thousands who joined the online conversation at "Occupy DNC Convention July 2016" pledged to join Cestnick for a week in Philadelphia protesting what many perceived as a subversion of the primary election process in order to hand Hillary Clinton the nomination.
It’s hard to tell exactly how many protesters descended on Philadelphia this week, but local law enforcement said a rough estimate was 5,000. That’s the total for many groups, not just Cestnick’s Facebook collective. She admitted she’d do things differently next time, though she called the overall effect a success.
"If we ever do it again, we would organize more quickly, more efficiently," said Cestnick, a petite, blonde-haired neuroscientist from outside Boston In an interview Wednesday during a protest. "Imagine how many people we could have reached if we had started this a year ago.”
She also conceded that she trusted too many other protest organizers in her first go as an agitant.
"It’s tough trying to organize all this," she said. "It’s hard to know where everyone came from. Don’t work with people you question.”
The fervent Bernie Sanders supporter, who has appeared on CNN to argue what she believes to be several instances of voter fraud during the primaries, so far has spent the convention taking part in protests. Those have been mostly in Center City where she and other protest organizers felt their message would be most heard.
Her considerable success in corralling so many people into one forum had the feel of an experiment in transforming social media into political action.
The results are hard to measure at this point, but Cestnick’s fellow organizer Brianna Jones, a Mount Airy woman who led a coalition called the DNC Action Committee, was somewhat skeptical leading up to the DNC about a Facebook group’s turnout capacity.
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In an interview the week before the election, Jones pointed to expectations most people have in turnouts from evites to parties. She cautioned against putting too much optimism in promises made on Facebook.
Cestnick said she didn’t have a good feel for how many turned out who were members of her “Occupy DNC” group. But she remained in high spirits Wednesday afternoon at the protest she helped organize with another group, Black Men for Bernie, on the Thomas Paine Plaza outside the City of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building.
More than a thousand people appeared to rally at that gathering, including dozens of Bernie Sanders delegates who took a stage built on the plaza to demand the Democratic Party reform its selection process -- and build an even more progressive platform.
Cestnick’s boyfriend, Jim Kelly, who works for a beer distributor in the Boston area, said organizing transportation, lodging, and then ultimately protests became a nearly full-time job.
His girlfriend’s effort did have one very tangible effect.
“He used to be a Republican,” Cestnick said, smiling as she sat with Kelly on the side of a protest stage.
“I was, I was a conflicted Republican,” Kelly said. “But no more.”