This is the way the RNC protests ended, not with a bang; or even a whimper.
The biggest theme of the protests at the RNC was, well, the lack of any true protesters — either for or against the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Through Thursday July 21st there were 23 arrests, a far cry from the thousands that Cleveland anticipated. I didn’t have to worry for a second about using my woefully under-powered gas mask for a tear gas outbreak.
The largest demonstration was actually on Sunday afternoon, one day before the start of the convention. Called “Stand for Love”, hundreds of Clevelanders gathered on Hope Memorial Bridge with a single goal: Peace.
“Of course we heard about potential things happening here in Cleveland,“ said Joy Roller, a march organizer. “We will stand up [against] the fear and hatred that creates violence in our country, our world and our city.” While the original march section of the protest had to be scrapped due to permit issues, the group still met on the bridge. There, hundreds, if not thousands, stood in two long parallel lines facing one another, stretching from one end of the mile-long bridge span to the other. The line of participants linked the east and west sides of the city “in the name of peace, unity and love.” As I walked back into the city for some shade, I saw the cops on the scene receive more applause than anything else, a far cry from the antagonism some people speculated about in the lead up to the RNC.
The rally wasn’t widely covered, in part, because so little happened. There were no blustery speeches, no flag burnings, no open-carry weapons. Instead, protesters stood hand in hand, in silence, for thirty minutes.
But the peace didn’t exactly last.
Wednesday afternoon July 20th was the most tense moment of the week. Protester Greg “Joey” Johnson’s attempt to burn an American flag resulted in 18 people arrested, including Johnson himself. On that day, there was a sizeable police presence outside the Quicken Loans Arena including officers with riot gear and others on horses. According to official statements, an officer put out the fire only after it spread to Johnson’s clothing, but videos taken by bystanders appear to show an officer using a fire extinguisher as soon as the flag was lit. The incident was the one glaring case of the police at the RNC breaking from their non-intervention policies.
When everyone has a video camera that instantly uploads to the internet, it doesn’t take long for eyewitness statements, pictures, and videos from the scene to begin contradicting the official story.
Let’s just move on to Thursday, which was billed as the peak of the RNC. The big night of Donald Trump’s speech was also expected to be the biggest day of protests.
In the morning my producer and I heard about a planned protest that would be much larger than any we’d previously seen at this convention (other reporters we talked with had received similar information), but we kept getting different times for when protesters would arrive. And the times kept shifting. The weather got hotter. And in the end, nobody showed up besides the same small clusters of various pro- and anti-Trump groups we had been seeing all week. In some cases, the protesters were even wearing the same clothes from previous days.
There was no real tension in the air, and the area of downtown Cleveland just once again became the world’s weirdest carnival. The city turned on the water in the fountain in Public Square, which attracted a drummer, dancers, and dogs. It was the kind of scene you might see on a college campus, but with the press corps of the nation in the background.
The only real moment of intrigue for me was when we saw a large group of officers descend upon the square. For a moment we worried that something was about to change. But then as fast as the new officers came in, the ones who had been stationed there moved out. It was a simple changing of the guard. Good for them. It was hot out there.
Shortly afterwards, against the backdrop of a sun that was beginning to set, my producer and I came to a realization: the real story about the protesters at the Republican Convention was their near total absence.
So what caused this near no-show of protesters, when thousands were expected? Was it fear of the massive number of law enforcement officials everywhere in the downtown and convention areas? Or is it something about how Clevelanders do things differently? Or even, as fellow reporters and I talked about while trying to fight off sunstroke, were they all just going to Philadelphia instead for the Democratic National Convention?
For the past 18 months, safe policing at the RNC has reportedly been a major issue of local and civic discussion in Cleveland. Citizens and police were intentional about hosting the Republican National Convention—in the most peaceful manner possible. According to Cleveland’s ABC News, the weekend before the convention started, the local pro- and anti-Trump organizations released a join video statement calling for peace. “We want all of our messages to be heard, we respect each others’ rights,” said Ralph King, an organizer of the pro-Trump demonstration.
Christina Stehouwer, an anti-Trump protester standing next to King, agreed. “We believe the Republican Party has the right to a safe and peaceful space in which to hold a convention,” she said.
And the RNC sure got that. Even within the convention area itself, a constant topic of conversation was not about the goings-on of the convention, but just how everything outside was… well, tame.