CLEVELAND – Joey Johnson burned an American flag in 1984. His case went up before the Supreme Court and they decided that burning a flag was protected speech in the United States. Thirty-one years later, Johnson burns an American flag in Cleveland and is arrested again, along with 22 others.
The ACLU files a statement because the system is taking so long to release those arrested. After all, Cleveland set up expedited courts in preparation for the many arrests they expected to make. They are released after about a day. In response, two dozen people from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) meet in Public Square, shouting a slogan over and over: “America was never great!”
Hundreds of police, including cops on horseback, surround the park. They line up in an almost-battle formation. Though only 23 arrests will be made during the RNC, thousands and thousands of police from at least 22 different states are in Cleveland to keep an eye on these pockets of peaceful protest.
A young antifa activist shows up with a megaphone and calls for a march to the lockup to meet the protesters who were arrested as they get out, and to support the constitutionally-protected right to burn the American flag. Around 35 people begin to move towards the Cleveland Police Headquarters.
The picture itself – hundreds of cops, a firetruck, helicopter and mounted police arranged against two dozen or so activists – tells a thousand words. It was much the same in Baton Rouge, where mostly everyday citizens on their smartphones got the word out about the extraordinarily disproportionate force the cops there wrought on civilians. I try and text some people I know with press credentials to come and cover this for their mainstream outlets. A fellow traveller texts me back: “I’m at Q.”
Much later, another familiar face shows up. He also mentions the Q. A young woman from Cop Block screws up her face. “The Q?”
Ah — Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention is held. Where the newsmakers live. So far from this battlefield.
Indeed, outside of the perimeter fences and bag checks, the convention itself is far from everyone’s mind. Between the cops and the activists, no one seems to care that much about what’s going on inside. The stakes are higher elsewhere. The war is out here. Just a few blocks from the Q, away from the glitter and balloons, the snarky tweets and accusations of plagiarism, a man lies down in front of cops lined up for a small Black Lives Matter rally with a megaphone in his hands, screaming at the top of his lungs about the murder of Tamir Rice.
In Cleveland, there are at least 5,500 cops from at least 22 states squaring off against communists, antifascists, antiracists, anarchists and people just generally fed up with the state of things. But the press is far away, locked in their own feedback loop. They are handwringing about racists and the emergence of fascism, of a police state. But outside the Q, what they fear is already here in the streets. And they’re not covering it. And their omissions, their locked-in camaraderie is, in part, responsible for this situation.
Self-proclaimed “radical journalist” Laurie Penny piles into a car with Milo Yiannopoulos for a ride-along interview, sure to state the whole way through, despite Yiannopoulos’s arguments otherwise, that she is not his friend.
…the more I tell him I hate him and everything he stands for, the more he laughs and asks when we’re drinking.
She does not mention anywhere in her write up of him, despite her professed-loathing, the fact that Yiannopoulos made his most recent headlines by showing up, vulture-like, to Orlando in mid-June. He stood two blocks away from Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were murdered days before by a private security guard who worshipped the NYPD and also happened to be Muslim.
Yiannopoulos admired a rainbow flag with a “Don’t Tread on Me” snake behind him.
“Don’t tread on me?” He laughed. “It should say fire back!”
I’m from London. I know what happens when governments and the media collude to pander to and to mollycoddle Islam.
100% of British Muslims believe that homosexuality is unacceptable. This is not radical Islam, the phrase that your president has finally been forced to say. This is not terrorism. […] This is Muslims in the West. 100% of British Muslims believe that homosexuality is unacceptable. […] This is not radical Islam. This is Islam.
When you google “Milo Yiannopoulos” and “Islam”, there are about 552,000 results. When you google “Milo Yiannopoulos” and “feminism” there are about 207,000 results. Yet, Laurie Penny does not mention either his ghoulish appearance at Pulse, nor does she mention his Islamophobia. She mentions his vile misogyny, but this is not entirely uncommon in the current discourse. Indeed, in his address at Pulse, Yiannopoulos specifically insists that people should take up arms against Muslims to protect women. But it is noteworthy for an alt-right senior editor at a publication like Brietbart would go figuratively stand on a pile of gay Latinx corpses to call for taking up arms against another minority threatened by the system he peddles to youth in by way of counterculture posturing.
Laurie Penny says she didn’t know about the press conference in Orlando. So maybe it’s this blinkered view of fascism or her willingness to write on his “charm”, that he is “secretly quite a sweet, vulnerable person” despite her insistence that she hates his views, that she is not his friend — perhaps this is why he keeps asking her out for drinks.
At least 22 states sent cops to participate in what a colleague of mine called a “Blue Lives Matter Woodstock”. While the ideas and platform of fascists were showcased by the media, those who gathered to demand an overthrow of the system of oppression that threatens their lives and those of their children seemed to be mostly locked out of the conversation. People like Milo were not.
Despite their self-professed dedication to challenging power, the media seems to do its job in such a way as to address what is being said, not so much what is being done. There are unconfirmed dispatches based on police rumors about activists throwing urine, stabbing cops with syringes or tagging them with poisoned stickers. There is little, if anything, about being kettled during a peaceful protest for 2 miles and then followed back to your car by more than a few cops.
No rumors; you could see it with your own two eyes if you’d bothered to be there. The same can be said for nearly all the coverage here at the Q.
To see legal advisors, Amnesty International observers, medics and volunteers bringing around food and water contrasted with legions of cops on horseback everywhere you turn outside the Q certainly casts the current events in this country in a different light. The sensational – Nazi salutes, a plagiarized speech, a drunk man on stage, Milo Yiannopoulos – this is what makes headlines at the RNC. Not the man who spent what little savings he had to lay on the ground in front of a line of cops from South Carolina, demanding justice for Tamir Rice. That’s not sensational. That’s not funny. That’s really serious. That reminds some of us too much of what we glamorized on TV and movies during the various revolutions overseas.
When the march to Cleveland Police Headquarters arrives, they stand on the steps and give an impromptu rally. Their comrades have been released. The streets are blocked off all around them. The overwhelming police presence has moved with them. The rally is entirely peaceful.The media cameras present earlier in the day when paid protesters ambushed an antifa rally are nowhere to be found, though the police presence is far more crushing here.
Perhaps it was because the antifa rally had paid employees of Turning Point USA following them aggressively, trying to disrupt the rally by pushing activists and screaming “Capitalism Cures Poverty!” through megaphones. It made a good story, the kind of class conflict that goes down well with the editor.
After the rally and reunion with their comrades, the group sits on the steps with other antifa and snack on the vegan burritos and water provided by the Cleveland Chapter of Food Not Bombs. Street medics and legal observers mull around. I cannot help but marvel at the ridiculousness of the scene, the utter absurdity seeing all this money and effort spent to intimidate these people who simply want everyone’s needs to be met and to live in a just society.
Here, on the steps of Cleveland Police Headquarters, no such attempts to bring media attention to a well-organized, principled action are taking place after the city of Cleveland goes against constitutionally protected speech. Though, I suppose this has been the point all along with the perimeter fencing shielding protesters from view, the all-access passes that will get you through checkpoints, the air conditioned media lounges, and, of course, the police. All to keep the very real dissent happening in the streets invisible from view, out of sight for those who may otherwise care. Replace it instead with something more palatable. Something charming yet hateful. Something that serves power, something that gets a voice.