In both Philadelphia and Cleveland, despite the heat and exhaustion of long marches and sore feet, protesters lost their voices screaming out the same message: No good cops in a racist system!
There were other things in common between the two conventions besides the ubiquitous eight-foot metal perimeter fencing that separated protesters from the delegates and media. Surveillance, or the constant feeling of being under surveillance, was commonplace. Activists insisted on communicating via Signal, an encrypted messaging app promoted before the conventions and largely funded by the State Department, but police thwarted direct actions anyway. Local organizers received visits from the FBI in advance. I witnessed political organizers tailed by police outside of protest areas in Philadelphia. Cops saw both conventions as opportunities to reaffirm their solidarity to “Blue Lives Matter”.
Both cities that hosted the conventions suffer high rates of poverty. In Cleveland, 48% of households live on less than $25,000 per year. In Philadelphia, that figure is 36%. Both received $50 million from the federal government to scale up for police. And scale up they did.
The city of Cleveland boasted 5,500 police for the RNC. Though the Cleveland Police Department has refused to confirm or deny what states sent police, 22 states were identified. There were police officers on horseback in cowboy hats, police in full riot gear, police in sleek bike pants, police in helicopters, police in camouflage, undercover police infiltrators dressed as activists – a very diverse crowd. This doesn’t include police from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Secret Service and other agencies. Yet, for the money spent on security for the RNC, for all these cops running around, there seemed to be very little need for it. Only 23 arrests were made, most of them from Joey Johnson’s attempt to burn an American flag. Johnson burned his first in 1984 at the RNC and the resulting case law made flag burning protected speech in the United States. In 2016, he was arrested again for doing the same thing.
This pointless over-policing seemed bizarre at the time. After all, by the second day of the RNC, there were probably less than 350 people actively protesting the convention. It was striking to see twenty members of Johnson’s Revolutionary Communist Party hold a jail support rally on the steps of Cleveland lockup while surrounded by hundreds of cops on bike, foot, horse and car — plus a firetruck and a police helicopter overhead.
On the second day of the RNC convention, a group of a few dozen antifascist activists decided to “take the pigs for a walk”. They walked in circles in intersections and disappeared into parking garages, with the police dutifully following them the entire way. Legal observers and medics were conspicuously followed by cops like some cheesy scene out of a spy movie. Activists had their belongings dumped on the ground and their bags seized because of some vague restriction on backpacks.
It was clearly old-fashioned bullying. Here were a few handfuls of loosely organized activists being pushed around by police for seemingly no reason. It was a show of force. Police from Kentucky told me that while 22 states were represented, some states (such as Montana) sent only a handful of cops just to “be represented”. Be represented — at what, exactly? This was starting to seem like some sort of “Blue Lives Matter Woodstock”.
Antifascists (activists who generally challenge Nazis and the Klan) didn’t seem to have all that much to do, either. The people they came to protest were mostly wearing suits and taking their seats inside the convention. They watched Laura Ingraham throw what seemed to be a Nazi salute, listened Joe Arpaio speak about “terrorists coming in over our border” and “infiltrating our communities”, and nodded along with David Clarke, the black sheriff from Milwaukee who spoke on the danger of Black Lives Matter. Donald Trump did his thing too, which is generally to rally the millions of Americans who cling to what makes them feel good about themselves: racism and capitalism. He bullies. There doesn’t seem to be any need to bully people who end up in anonymous mass graves in Texas or disproportionately gunned down by police, but he does it anyway. Some people love it.
At the DNC in Philadelphia, the police presence put on a different face. Police still had their bikes, horses and helicopters, but they were mainly local. They showed their support for “Blue Lives Matter” by flying identical black and white American flags with one of the stripes colored blue from their bicycles. While the police in Cleveland for the RNC were there to allegedly protect from terrorism, police in Philadelphia were there to allegedly protect protesters. After being slammed by the ACLU for their plans to crack down on protests, they changed their approach into something that was more media-savvy. Instead of mass arrests, they would throw protesters in plastic zip-tie cuffs, detain them briefly, and then issue a citation. They handed out 103.
A relevant example of the police tactics at the DNC was when an impromptu sit-in during a large march down Broad Street towards the convention. Someone spotted the Mississippi state flag, which contains the Confederate “stars and bars”. “Take it down!” they chanted. What started as a handful of protesters blossomed into hundreds as the afternoon wore on. The police did not make any arrests, but threatened to do so if anyone tried to take the flag down themselves. They even shooed away a good samaritan who brought a ladder. It wasn’t until authorities from the city showed up with a cherry picker that the flag came down almost three hours later Philadelphia was going to be the one to seize the media spotlight and come away looking like patient, sensitive heroes — though they put the flag up in the first place. Protesters were welcome to sit in, but they were not welcome to take matters into their own hands.
Hillary Clinton once called young black men “super predators” and helped her husband push through laws that resulted in mass incarceration and impoverishment for vulnerable communities, particularly those of color. She was just as bloodstained a Secretary of State as Madeline Albright or Donald Rumsfeld — if not more so. On her watch, there was a right-wing junta in Honduras, the foreign-financed and fought “Civil War” in Syria, and the utter decimation of Libya, which previously had the highest Human Development Index rating in Africa. Clinton even oversaw the State Department’s battle to slash Haiti’s $.62 per hour minimum wage in half.
And yet, here she was, standing on stage, smiling and calling for peace, unity and racial and economic justice. The cops outside reflected this pivot – from brutal mass arrests to smiling and supportive as they followed you to your car. Sanders supporters could not believe their eyes and ears, and up until Sanders’s concession speech on Monday night, many of those I spoke with honestly thought some miracle would occur and he would stand for election come November. Instead, Sanders stood sweating at the podium and called for party unity and votes for Hillary Clinton, having to hold up his hand for silence when his supporters booed.
But this was no ’68. Some of his delegates got up and walked out, people heckled the speakers on stage, but there was no tear gas in the streets. Sanders’s most ardent supporters were all neatly confined nearly a mile away behind eight-foot tall metal fences in FDR Park. Eleven people scaled the fences, and nobody threw anything at motorcades. As the roads and highways next to the convention were staffed by checkpoints, closures and heavy police presence, there was very little opportunity for this sort of thing anyway. After marching in 95-degree heat for a three and a half miles from City Hall, most protesters were simply too exhausted to scale fences. Not that many of them would be inspired to anyway. The majority of protesters in Philadelphia were, after all, Bernie Sanders supporters. What the Sanders campaign really aimed for was a seat at the table, not to flip it over.
The most militant march was the March for Black Resistance, called by the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice. They joined up with socialists, communists, anarchists, and even a few very angry Sanders supporters, chanting: “Don’t vote for Hillary! She’s killing black people!” and “From Palestine to Mexico, these racist borders got to go!”, as well as “Eat the rich!” People burned American and Israeli flags. Again, no arrests were made.
I interviewed Rasheed and Sagal, two young people from Philadelphia who were part of the march. Between Trump and Clinton, “it’s like we’re expected to choose between overt racism and systemic racism,” Sagal said.
After the march, Rasheed stood at the perimeter fence, his eyes wide at the scale of the police mobilization surrounding the convention. “This is so hopeless,” he said. Indeed.
The lack of fireworks, the distance between protesters and the convention, the heat of the long marches, the inevitability of surveillance — all seemed intended to exhaust and demoralize. Resistance is futile, the people in power seemed to say. Burn a flag, we don’t care. Nobody cares, and you can’t make us. Take your citation and go home. Much like the Clinton campaign itself.
Between the two conventions, the police presence was nowhere near as intense and overwhelming as it was in Baton Rouge just a few weeks ago after Alton Sterling was killed. At times, the protests and police response at the conventions seemed like Kabuki theater, with both sides just going through the movements.
I wondered how two sides of the same coin – bullying and velvet-glove tactics, might play out in different locations as the summer goes on. Does it matter which tactics will win? They both seemed to be working towards the same end, to extinguish dissent and spread hopelessness that anything can be done about who’s running for President in November.