CLEVELAND, Ohio—I was loitering in this city’s attractively redecorated Public Square at about half past three, trying to take a decent picture of some sort of social justice quilt without being knocked over by two middle aged women holding a banner that demanded an end to chem trails, when shit went down. A loud bang caught the attention of the scores of journalists gathered in the southeastern corner of the square, and within a few seconds, there was a media stampede—50 photographers and Fox correspondents and helmeted members of the foreign press running in the direction of the convention center, bravely toward the sound of the guns, like the Big Red One landing on Omaha Beach, or Marines reinforcing Khe Sanh, only better dressed.
Now, it just so happens that I have heard a rich and varied sample of gunshots in my years, generated by a wide array of calibers and fired at various distances from myself. I would have bet my house that whatever that noise was, it hadn’t emerged from a firearm—or, for that matter, from an explosive. I also felt a little stupid, because, well, everyone else was running, and no one wants to feel left out. Apparently the police felt the same way, because moments later I saw a dozen or so of Cleveland’s finest take off in the wake of the press at full sprint, joined from the other side of the square by a detachment of state troopers. Not wanting to seem obstinate, I followed at an awkward half-running shuffle in trace of the pack. On the off chance I was wrong it seemed likely that the 70 or so people in front of me would catch the worst of it, which would be convenient, because if I allowed myself to get shot in Cleveland my wife would probably shoot me again in a rage over my lack of responsibility.
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Rounding the corner onto Euclid Avenue and hopping up onto a bench to look over the first ranks of the immortals, all of whom were jostling in the middle of traffic for a good picture, I saw a scrum of Ohio highway patrolmen on their knees, and briefly considered that maybe someone had been shot and was being treated on the pavement. Then I made out that one of the officers was resting his hands atop a spare tire, and another was holding a tire iron. Then I saw that the front-right tire of the burnt-orange Kia Soul next to which the officers were crouching was flat, having awkwardly blown out two blocks from the Republican National Convention.
Bashful looks were exchanged among journalists, who started to take pictures of how many fools were taking pictures of a flat tire and the ad-hoc pit crew. The cops in turn had to tell the press not to block the other lanes of traffic to take pictures of each other.
So goes this week in the streets of downtown Cleveland, a city in which there are six members of the press for every delegate, something like six police officers for every member of the press, and not a whole heck of a lot happening that you can’t more conveniently watch from the comfort of your own living room. The atmosphere is somehow less tense than it was earlier in the week. People are more comfortable in the vicinity of the secure area, restaurants are more full, and the dozens of small groups of political protestors and plain kooks have been accepted as part of the scenery, contributors to a carnival of street musicians and cable news celebrities and earnest Republicans.
There was one moment of unrest at the main entry point to the convention that briefly threatened to have serious consequences, but the officers of the law squashed it in seconds. About a dozen members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (you can look them up at revcom.us, their signs insisted—no doubt a .com address would have been both linguistically awkward and uncomfortably late-capitalistic) set an American flag on fire immediately in front of the checkpoint. Because joining the Communist Party in the 21st century is a pretty decent indicator that other opportunities in life have passed you by, this bold revolutionary almost set fire to himself, giving officers more than enough pretence to intervene. Some of the protestors resisted arrest, and low-grade scuffles ensued.
I was around the block at the moment of Old Glory’s ignition, alerted to the fact that something was happening by the sight of the Cleveland chief of police, Calvin Williams, breaking off from an interview with a TV crew to run in the direction of the checkpoint. Feeling less embarrassed about following the chief, who seemed likely to be in the know, I went after him, and our merry band was joined at the corner by a squad of mounted officers trotting in the same direction. Coming upon the checkpoint at the moment of peak scuffling, the scene was that of the small group of agitators lamely struggling with police, surrounded by another scrum of curious onlookers and eventually, literally, at least a hundred members of the press, all crammed into a very tight intersection and hard up against the black metal temporary fence surrounding the Quicken Loan Center. A protester obscured in the midst of the scrum was shouting into a megaphone, "AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT!"
Curious to know what had started it all, I asked my neighbors for the details, and was a little surprised when the woman next to me, in a tone of strangled emotion, spat out the words, "They arrested Joey Johnson!"
"Who is Joey Johnson?"
The woman half-turned to me, eyeing my press pass, a look of rich disgust on her face.
"Joey Johnson! You know, Texas versus Johnson? The Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was constitutional, but they arrested him!"
I took a more careful look at my new companions, not only because they seemed to know what was happening, but also because we were by this moment effectively trapped together, pressed up against the convention’s barrier fence by the crowd and a line of bicycle police who were clearing a space for arrests to be made. They were a group of five rather short men and women of varying ages, shabbily dressed, speaking to each other in low, tense voices, and altogether doing a pretty good imitation of the members of Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea fearing capture by the Romans.
"Who did they arrest?" my interlocutor asked her companion in a battlefield whisper.
The other revolutionary, standing on her tip toes to see over the police, responded, "They got Micah…" and some other names I couldn’t make out.
Having been separated from their comrades inside the bicycle cordon, which kept expanding and pushing us more tightly up against the fence, one got the sense that the protesters missed the charismatic leadership of Mr. Johnson, who was at that moment en route to a paddy wagon. There was some confusion over whether to stay and rejoin the battle, or to execute a tactical withdrawal and consolidate elsewhere downtown.
"We can stand here, or we can move," one hissed to another, receiving a blank stare in return.
Their protest signs ("America Was NEVER Great! We Need to OVERTHROW This System!"), which they had been nervously holding rolled up in their hands or upside down at their feet in an attempt to avoid notice, were placed into a black trash bag, but then taken back out, and put back in. Feeling sympathetic to the confusion they were feeling here in the fog of war, I turned on the charm, inquiring in a friendly way what they had in mind to do next. This was dismissed with a bothered and contemptuous glance—which, to be fair, only serves a corporate tool like me right.
When one of the Communists removed their revcom.us t-shirt and squirreled it away, it seemed they were done for the moment. No judgment, please: There is no shame in a well-organized retreat in the face of overwhelming opposition, especially when it preserves your ability to battle the System elsewhere, preferably after dinner. Meanwhile, the scene as the police steadily pushed out their cordon was sweaty and cacophonous, with a street preacher using the moment, and a megaphone, to turn our attention "TO THE DEMANDS OF GOD," some noticeably well-behaved Bikers for Trump peering at the arrests, delegates trying unsuccessfully to barrel their way to the completely sealed gate, someone pointing out with another megaphone that "THE FLAG WAS BURNED BECAUSE IT FLEW OVER UNSPEAKABLE CRIMES," a delegation of Westboro-types marching solemnly up 4th Street bearing enormous signs inquiring, "Got Aids Yet?" and a dozen other absurdities happening all at once.
It was plain that any real danger here had nothing to do with the protesters, and much more to do with the fact that they had caused an extraordinarily vulnerable blob of humanity to gelatinize in this small space, all outside of the checkpoint where one is searched for guns and bombs and the like. If anything keeps Chief Williams up at night, it is likely this phenomenon, and not the plans of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
Figuring that this was about done and it was time to go, I found myself surprised and, frankly, a bit impressed when my companions, having apparently changed their minds yet again, decided to rejoin the revolution. My original interview subject, her body language infused with a sudden military bearing, stood up straight and squared her tanned shoulders at the agents of oppression. Producing a megaphone seemingly from nowhere, she strode boldly in the direction of the ongoing arrests, announcing her counterattack with, "THIS SO-CALLED DEMOCRACY IS ACTUALLY A DICTATORSHIP!" The other members of the People’s Front followed her. Alexander leading the charge at the Granicus could not have presented a more inspiring scene.
Modern industrial warfare is lamentably unkind to classical heroics, and she was rolled up pretty quickly, of course—as were more pockets of dead-ender Communists up and down the street in the ensuing minutes. The police behaved with restraint, as they have done throughout the week, arresting those who essentially demanded it while insisting that other agitators just stay out of each other’s way.
The protestors continued to chant about Hiroshima and Iraq and drones and so on as their information was recorded and they were put away in the vans, at least one tattooed and rather gender-ambiguous young person pausing to smile brightly for the field expedient mugshot before rejoining the chorus. A gentleman in a dark pinstripe started heckling the protestors from the crowd, ostentatiously thanking the cops and trying to get a round of applause going that didn’t really take off—though he did succeed in getting a few to join him in a round of "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!"
I asked this man, Robert Lawrence of Washington and New York, if he was in town to support Trump.
"I know Donald. I don’t have to support Donald. When you know him you support him!"
Bob, who’s in security and real estate, said his daughter was in town covering the convention for Breitbart, and that he feared for her safety, and so came on out to join her. He intimated some sinister connections between Black Lives Matter and jihadist training camps in upstate New York to me ("There might be more to this than meets the eye…") and got into a nasty exchange with a scruffy local who was out to support the protestors as a half-dozen officers looked on warily. The local, who looked like comic book guy from The Simpsons, didn’t take kindly to Bob mocking the protestors, and started screaming at him, accusing him of stepping off the sidewalk even though the police had directed the crowd to stay off of the pavement.
"YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN US?"
Bob, standing there in his pinstriped splendor, considered the question for a moment, and answered brightly in his New York accent, "I am!"
"Yeah, I am!"
"ABIDE BY THE LAW! ABIDE BY THE LAW!"
Unimpressed by these admonitions, Bob continued to give interviews and to offer gratitude to the cops: "Thank you guys. It was a great job. THE LAW PREVAILS!"
Two senior officers in white shirts looked at Bob with only lightly restrained expressions of contempt. It has taken them the better part of an hour to secure the intersection, push back the somewhat fragrant press mob, and reopen the checkpoint to a steady flow of delegates—and they clearly had no desire to have to make more arrests, especially as Wednesday evening’s program was just about to begin.
The carnival atmosphere was beginning to reassert itself. Some enterprising locals walked by hawking a t-shirt bearing the slogans "Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica!" and another one reading, "IF YOU DON’T BLEED RED, WHITE, AND BLUE, TAKE YOUR BITCH ASS HOME," with, naturally, "DONALD FUCKING TRUMP" on the back. A passerby in the uniform of a Cleveland sanitation worker responded in the general direction of the salesmen, "Fuck Donald Trump!"
Of course, Ted Cruz was on his way over to do just that.