Protests at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia were larger than the ones at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and they looked better on the news, but then again, Philadelphia wasn't a police state, while Cleveland totally was. In Cleveland, police reinforcements were called in from as far as Massachusetts and California to prowl the parks and sidewalks for unruly protesters. Police stood on corners and directed traffic. Bike cops in stark protective riot gear roamed the streets. Cops wearing cowboy hats on horses clomped down the roads. Protests popped up—Trump supporters, Jesus freaks, Trump opponents, Internet-brewed anarchists—but typically there was more media than protestors.
In Philadelphia, the police mostly came from the city and didn't seem as on-edge as their Cleveland counterparts. Most of the media at the DNC suggested that "ride or die" Bernie Sanders supporters, fueled by an unwavering "Bernie or Bust" sentiment, were more sturdy or fervid than the activists at the RNC. This wasn't quite true; they were just more single-minded. They would come out for Bernie Sanders, and that was about it. Broader social justice issues got a smattering of attention, but not much.
Still, the protests which took place off-site, blocks or even miles from the convention, reflected how the future might look under the two candidates. The DNC protesters eschewed a radical agenda to focus on electoral politics and reforms. The RNC protesters were swallowed up by a massive police force, foreshadowing how the whole country might operate under President Donald Trump.
Capitalist Pig Roast (Cleveland)
On the final night of the Republic National Convention, Cleveland cops took 22-year-old Turner Fair's pig. It was made of papier-mache and it had a nest-like Trump wig on top of it and some cash stuck to its snout. Earlier in the evening, Fair had been running around with his capitalist pig. At one point, he rested the thing on a light or something, and that's when the cops were like, "no more" and grabbed it. They put it in a car and drove it away and Fair became dead set on getting it back.
A few blocks away, not long after the pig was seized, Republican nominee for president Donald J. Trump closed out the RNC, howling on about law and order for 75 minutes.
Broadcast live from an MSNBC outpost near the exit, Trump's speech could be heard and seen by those outside the convention gates including Fair and fellow activists. With his dreadlocks delicately tied-up, dressed in a shirt that read "Mass Incarceration + Silence = Genocide" and rocking an absurd pair of chill brah sunglasses, Fair, along with a half-dozen or so others tried to cross the street and enter Corner Alley, a street usually brimming with bougie restaurants that for the week of the RNC operated as a kind of multitudes-containing corridor of Trump nuts, thirsty journalists, and puckish protestors.
But a wall of police prevented Fair and friends from entering. Fair screamed through a bullhorn at the Donald, who was screaming through a microphone on the MSNBC screen right back at him. And, because everything about this convention, inside the hall and out, was a chaotic mess, MSNBC's Trump live feed got everybody going. The crowd's ethnonationalism was rising to a crescendo: A black Trump supporter asked an Indian couple that was quietly watching the speech where they were from and their curt answer of "here" wasn't enough when he shot back "You sure you're not from Iraq?"; the word "nigger" unabashedly floated out from white conversations; a man demanded "Mexicans, Jews, and fags" all be shot. It was all nervous energy. Thousand-yard-stares and a kind of joy-devoid, ideology-fueled seething that might be mistaken for excitement.
"Donald," Fair yelled through the bullhorn and past the bike cops, "make America great again so that I can cross the crosswalk."
The bike cops held their ground, unblinking.
Fair, a Cleveland-based activist, had been a gadfly activist throughout the week, playing the role of both comedic shit-starter (think Beavis from "Beavis and Butthead" meets Tyler, the Creator meets Dick Gregory) and functional front-liner (getting marchers to hold the line or keep pace, handing out water and food), bopping around to various causes and actions, all loosely tied to the Revolutionary Communist Party.
He was present at the End Poverty Now Rally, a two-mile march through Cleveland on the first day of the convention. There, with a blonde wig threaded through his dreads, he passed out water to thirsty and near-dehydrated marchers and held the line by biking ahead of the group and an absurdly long line of bike cops.
On the third day of the convention, 18 people were arrested for burning an American flag near the convention entrance gates. Among those involved was Joey Johnson, who had rather infamously burned a flag at the 1988 RNC, a gesture that went all the way to the Supreme Court where it was declared protected under free speech. Fair got involved in this as well, leading RevCom members on the final day in a march protesting the arrests. He walked a few blocks followed by a ridiculous amount of police, including a whole bunch of those cops in cowboy hats on horses. Right when RevCom arrived at the Justice Center, where those arrested were being detained, police let some go free, including Johnson. The protest ostensibly petered out, which sent Fair and his pig around town looking for an audience, which led to the pig being confiscated, which led to Fair—as the convention built to its final moment—standing by the RNC gates demanding that police give him $90, the cost of his fat capitalist papier mache pig.
Police failed to produce the pig or the cash. Later on, a Cleveland Police Lieutenant told Fair he could come and pick up the pig at a later date.
Adding to the cacophony of Fair's demands was presidential candidate and prankster (and former Baltimore mayoral candidate and Hour Haus resident) Vermin Supreme, who used his bullhorn to hum the National Anthem, filling it with feedback, adding some psychedelia to the protestor/police stare down.
Eventually, the police—annoyed, scared, bored, or all three—loosened the line and created a corridor of cops allowing people to exit. Fair paced the cop corridor: he brayed "Black Lives Matter" in a Vincent Price-like horror narrator voice; he put a Confederate Flag bandana across his face and began telling the cops, in a Southern accent, how the flag represented his "hurr-a-tidge" and talked of red "slave blood" spilled onto the flag; he mocked a cop's five o'clock shadow; and brashly he paced the line of cops commenting on their physical attributes—their teeth, their lean-ness, and so on—mimicking a slave trader at auction.
Trump's voice on the MSNBC screen echoed in the background the whole time: "It is time to show the whole world that America Is Back—bigger and better and stronger than ever before."
Fair wrapped it up. If one of the police would shake his hand, he'd leave, he promised. A Texas state trooper offered a fist bump.
"No, a handshake."
"Texas! Texas!" Fair declared, then packed it in. He'd get his pig another day.
Bernie Bros About to Bust (Philadelphia)
Fair's shtick didn't end with mass arrests or a riot—and it got lost, like so many other bursts of entertaining and provocative protest in Cleveland: Code Pink sneaking into the RNC to briefly interrupt the proceedings a few times; members of We Will Not Be Silent with their stark black-and-white signs (slogans include: "Queer power," "White supremacy is terrorism") countering the RNC's ambient hate speech; anti-Trump open carrier and practicing Muslim Micah Naziri walking through downtown Cleveland with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder; and a group of women cleverly mocking one of the many Jesus freak preachers by kissing and touching in front of him as he preached eternal damnation for fornicators, porn-watchers, homosexuals, and blah blah blah.
While Trump supporters were fairly unmotivated, they didn't have reason to provoke because cops from across the country dropped into Cleveland to patrol tended to isolate every left-leaning protest group for them. Small clusters of punks with bandanas on their faces got followed for blocks—there was no such thing as too much surveillance. At least one group of activists received a visit from the FBI at their home in Cleveland as video posted to the Internet showed; aforementioned Naziri was questioned by the Secret Service, whereas other open carriers were not; and the 18 arrested at the flag-burning were all held for more than 24 hours, something that the ACLU observed in a statement was inexcusable in a city prepared for mass arrests.
Philadelphia was a bit less colorful and less Orwellian. There, it was idealism gone sour that characterized the marches and gatherings. Sanders' most dedicated congregated at Philadelphia's City Hall on the first day of the DNC, a few miles from the Wells Fargo Arena where the convention is held, and said, "Bernie or bust." Nevermind that Sanders himself told all his most devoted to fall in line. But Sanders supporters—rabid, excited, dogmatic, and bitter all at once—wouldn't fall back.
Bernie or bust-ers began by co-opting the most toxic of slogans from Trump supporters, "Hillary for Prison." This was splashed over T-shirts, printed on buttons, shouted by RNC fans, and even emblazoned digitally on the side of a truck advertising right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' InfoWars. When that same truck circled Philly's City Hall, Sanders supporters whooped and cheered. (The DNC email scandal fueled plenty of Hillary hate from Bernie's fans.)
On the first day of the convention, more than a thousand Bernie or Bust-ers marched down Philadelphia's Broad Street to the front door of the DNC, or as close as they could get—a big tall metal gate protected those with credentials—while some detoured to nearby Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park where there was a rally for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein going on slowly but surely all day.
Amid the Sanders shouters outside, there were some Black Lives Matter protesters here and there, but mostly it all felt like a hangover from Occupy, with lots of class chatter and rage at the moneyed. This put some pressure on the DNC inside, but also highlighted the rub of Occupy: these people can literally afford to be here protesting. It was protest in that activism-as-extracurricular-activity way that's so specific to being #woke but doing fairly OK in America.
Not that those who were sticking it out for Sanders aren't mostly correct about most things, mind you: Sanders was undeniably the better candidate and probably had a better shot at unequivocally beating Trump. Still, while Clinton and the Democrats run on a kind of smug disconnect, the Sanders protesters, are, when they aren't alternately demanding Sanders be the nominee or telling you to vote for Jill Stein, offer a particularly uninviting style of progressivism that's more like hardheaded-ism.
The big action on the convention's first day happened when a bunch of Sanders supporters staged a sit-in front of the entrance to the DNC. They politely and methodically crossed a fence and got arrested—only they weren't arrested, just given citations for disorderly conduct (leading up the convention, the city decriminalized "nuisance crimes").
This initial burst of Bernie-mania took a hit the first night when the entire Democratic party bent over backward to assuage as many people as possible and Sanders proudly took an "L" in hopes of preventing Donald Trump from being president and supported Clinton and addressed the Bernie-or-Bust-ers.
"If you don't believe that this election is important, if you think you can sit it out, take a moment to think about the Supreme Court justices that Donald Trump would nominate," Sanders said when he spoke at the DNC. "And what that would mean to civil liberties, equal rights, and the future of our country."
On Tuesday, the Sanders core had yet to take the "L," invoking Sanders and praising Jill Stein and staging a brief "Demexit" from the convention center in protest following the roll call.
After that there was the Black DNC Resistance March, coinciding with and offering up a less ready-for-primetime version of the evening's DNC speakers, The Mothers of the Movement (including the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland)—a kind of party-approved Black Lives Matter moment.
Intentionally or not, the Black DNC Resistance March answered aggrieved Bernie-ites with an example of what it's like to feel underserved and misrepresented. At one point during the march, Pam Africa of MOVE said there was "no hope" in either Clinton or Sanders—a totally reasonable sort of cynicism from someone who is part of a political movement that was literally bombed by the police in Philadelphia back in 1985. In contrast, Bernie bros boasting that they were gonna take their ball and go home, even after their hero asked them not to, appeared petulant.
Team Sanders and Black Lives Matter protestors were not in opposition—the crossover was significant—but there was a sense that the Bernie or Bust-ers, by sheer force of will, sidelined all other concerns. This happened many times inside, too, such as when Elijah Cummings was interrupted by Sanders devotees. There is something particularly egregious about shouting "No TPP" (Trans-Pacific Partnership) at a black congressman as he invokes Black Lives Matter and abortion rights from the stage.
That the protestors—Demexiters, Black DNC Resistance marchers, and the many that overlap—all gathered together, thousands-strong by Tuesday night and throughout the rest of week is an illustration of how the movement can govern itself and work out its problems and doesn't need the party telling them precisely how to do it, or Philly cops in riot gear containing it either. Still, there is no doubt, Bernie supporters looming outside and interrupting inside shifted the mood and tenor of the DNC and Hillary Clinton's rhetoric—a nice chunk of her Thursday night acceptance speech sounded as if it was culled from a Sanders speech. And the appearance of Black Lives Matter, too, seemed necessary, given the Clintons' disastrous crime bill legacy—and Hillary's "super predators" line, which we all should be reminded of any time she says anything on the topic of race.
Actions that followed throughout the week included protestors climbing over the fence and traversing the DNC's space only to be quickly arrested. At one point, they dropped a casket with "DNC" written on it on the other side of the fence, and there were plenty of spats between police and a flag burning protester (and a counter-protester who sympathized with the message but opposed the flag burning) and more, but the focus was a conjoined rage because Sanders was to remain their only choice.
And inside, pro-Sanders delegates were confronted with security staring them down and intimidating them, while Palestinian flags and other pro-Palestinian human rights messaging were removed from the floor by those in charge. Indeed, the whole DNC was not only heavily planned but aggressively controlled—down to a list of cheers those inside should go along with or counter, depending. And DNC volunteers spent every evening of the convention busily passing out fresh signs that were topic- or speaker-specific, almost shaming those in the audience (like this reporter) who declined to hold one. Democracy—or the messy, fractured, argumentative parts of our more perfect union—was simplified into the DNC's central message. And that message, "party unity" from the top-down, pretty much means the dissenting voices should shut the hell up.