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At vote count protests in Philadelphia, partisan bickering yields to a party

About 400 pro-Biden supporters gathered outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center; the pro-Trump contingent was considerably smaller.

Two Biden supporters in Gritty costumes greet each other in Center City.
Two Biden supporters in Gritty costumes greet each other in Center City.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

As one of the most stressful presidential campaigns in American history has emptied to partisan confrontations over how the vote count should proceed, something quite unexpected occurred Thursday evening in Philadelphia in this year of surprises.

A dance party broke out.

“We’re dancing in the streets like Lionel Richie,” said Rowena Dabney, 43, a small-business owner from North Philadelphia. “This energy is coming from hope.”

She was among about 400 supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden who rallied Thursday evening outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where mail ballots were still being counted.

About 50 of Republican President Donald Trump’s supporters had gathered nearby earlier, some sitting in lawn chairs and others waving Trump flags. The pro-Trump “stop the vote” group stood on one side, and the “count every vote” folks on the other.

However their numbers dwindled by nightfall, and the crowd became decidedly pro-Biden, perhaps buoyed by late-counted returns showing that Trump’s margin in Pennsylvania had shrunk to under 100,000. Pennsylvania could decide the election.

It was unclear whether either side would hear what it wanted to before night’s end. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar offered no clear timeline for when all the counties will have counted their ballots, but the Biden supporters appeared to be in a celebratory mood.

At 7:30 p.m., the nearly 12-hour protest dance party was still going strong outside the Convention Center. Just four Trump supporters remained, fenced in by police and barricades.

Little kids, union members, and people dressed like drop boxes all danced alongside each other as DJs blasted music.

“Yo, this has to be the best block party in America right now!” one of the DJs yelled. Sheila Rhames taught Jesse Bacon the electric slide. Rhames, 57, of West Philadelphia, wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, said she was jubilant, despite what she called the Trump campaign’s efforts to “suppress our vote.

“For him to say he’s gonna take us to court? That’s crazy.”

Dabney, and fellow North Philadelphia businesswoman Elizabeth Grace, who had just met that afternoon at the Reading Terminal, still were dancing hours later.

“We really want change,” Dabney said. “I like Biden and I’m a Democrat, but I know that Obama backs him, and that means a lot.”

The pro-Biden crowd, some responding to calls on social media by local elected Democrats, kept growing as evening approached.

They passed out pizza and some occasionally stepped closer to the pro-Trump side, yelling profanities or waving Biden-Harris signs. Because of metal barricades and a heavy police presence, there didn’t appear to have been physical clashes between protesters, though some had exchanged harsh words.

A man in a Joe Biden mask held a sign that read “Did I win yet?” while another man professed through a megaphone that anti-Trump protesters were going to hell. (He was drowned out in part by a pro-Biden French horn player.)

Josh Peskin, of Philadelphia, called the demonstration outside the convention center “a pretty historical moment” as he danced in the street with his 9-year-old daughter, Maya, atop his shoulders.

Staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed reporting.