CLEVELAND — Spectacle trumped substance Wednesday outside the Republican National Convention as reporters and police often seemed to outnumber demonstrators.
Like inside the convention, some of the moments seemed scripted rather than spontaneous.
After a flag-burning and fight with police, handcuffed Revolutionary Communist Party demonstrators chanting “now or never” and “we are revolution” were led into vans by officers. Before entering the vans, protestors remembered to promote their website, chanting the web address as dozens of reporters filmed the scene at Prospect Avenue and East 4th Street.
While the flag-burning was planned well in advance, leading to a large media gathering, not everything went according to script.
Cleveland officials said a demonstrator burning the flag accidentally lit himself and two others on fire, causing minor burns. A fight broke out — police said two officers received minor injuries breaking it up and 18 people were arrested.
No one came to blows nearby at Public Square, where right- and left-wing demonstrators posed for the media and argued in front of the cameras.
One man dressed as an apostle held a sign saying, “The end is near. Thanks GOP” on one side and “Trump is the Antichrist” on the other.
Another man sat with a sign that said “Drumpf” — a reference to the Donald Trump’s German heritage and ancestral name — with swastikas around it. The swastikas were a reference to Trump quoting Mussolini in tweets and retweeting posts by neo-Nazi groups.
Conflict drew coverage. Reporters crowded around verbal combatants.
“You aren’t from Cleveland!” a woman told a man wearing a T-shirt that said “Feminists are Sluts” on the front and “You are Whores” on the back. “Get out of here with that noise!”
“This is America!” he screamed back.
“Capitalism cures poverty!” a member of Turning Point USA, a conservative student group, shouted at supporters of socialist and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “Big government sucks!”
Hanif Phelps of Cleveland held a sign saying “All Lives Matter* Except Muslims, Mexicans, Natives, LGBTQ, Veterans, Refugees, Homeless, Black Folks, Unborn.”
Phelps said he won’t be voting for president: “I’m not really into hiring a master and then he beats me and I complain.”
Viewing the spectacle was Oberlin resident and activist David Ashenhurst, an ACLU and NAACP member and Oberlin city councilman from 2006-2009.
He was curious about the demonstrations outside the RNC. “It’s nice to get a mood and flavor of it,” he said.
Among those Ashenhurst spoke with was Melissa Hill of Minneapolis. She wore a “Free Chelsea Manning” shirt, a reference to the Army private who leaked thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning also leaked video of U.S. soldiers in an Apache helicopter in Iraq in 2007 fatally shooting two Reuters journalists and wounding children while shooting at suspected Iraqi resistance fighters.
Manning in 2013 was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. The soldiers in the helicopter, who killed 12 people including members of a family who had stopped their vehicle to help the wounded, received no discipline.
Hill said she also demonstrated at the 2008 Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul and G-20 summits in Pittsburgh and Toronto. The economic summits involve 20 nations and have been protested by anti-globalization demonstrators.
Hill carried a tennis ball — Cleveland officials banned people from carrying tennis balls near the convention while allowing open carry of pistols and semi-automatic rifles — and said she came to protest economic inequality in the U.S. The richest one percent of Americans controlled 42 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2012, according to a May study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkley. The richest 0.1 percent controlled 22 percent of the wealth.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity, especially if you’re marginalized,” Hill said. “It’s something that has to be consistently protested.”
Hill said there were more protestors at the 2008 convention and at the G-20 summits. A legal assistant who took a week’s vacation to attend the convention, she said some people can’t afford to take time off. Some local people may have been scared to attend due to the fatal shootings of five police officers in Dallas after a Black Lives Matter protest and the killings of three Baton Rouge police officers days after Baton Rouge police roughed up demonstrators and arrested about 200, she added.
On Euclid Avenue, Ashenhurst spoke with John “Dr. Vote” Olsen, a voting rights activist and political memorabilia collector from Ankeny, Iowa. Wearing a red, white, and blue suit covered with pro-voting buttons, Olsen said more people need to vote, particularly in local elections.
About 62 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the last presidential election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 42 percent voted in the last congressional election in 2014.
Olsen said a 2013 Supreme Court decision, which allowed nine mostly southern states to change their election laws without federal approval, has restricted voting. “We shouldn’t make it harder to vote,” he said.
Most of the merchandise outside the convention was pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton, crafted in the American tradition of political mudslinging.
Along those lines were T-shirts including references to former president Bill Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky: “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica.” Another showed Clinton falling off a the back of a motorcycle ridden by a smirking Trump.
“Trump that b—h,” a T-shirt vendor repeated again and again to pedestrians. “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica.”
Vendors had few worries about thefts. Fearing violence, police from around the nation saturated downtown Cleveland — police on foot. Police on bicycles. Police on horseback. Police with dogs. Police in Robocop-like riot gear.
While their presence may have discouraged dissent, there were no deaths or serious injuries reported through Wednesday. A total of 23 people, including those arrested in the flag-burning melee, had been arrested.
Ashenhurst said he was glad he traveled to Cleveland and was able to to witness mostly civil dialogue to counter the “inflammatory” rhetoric of Trump, who has urged supporters to beat protestors at his rallies, called Mexican illegal immigrants rapists, and advocated banning Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the U.S. saying they may be terrorists.
“It gives me a better feeling of how alienated some people are from the message of the Republican party,” said Ashenhurst, a Democrat. “He’s an equal opportunity insulter and hater.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.