Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Neither the hordes on the right nor the left showed up for a Republican National Convention, where the drama is all inside the convention center.
CLEVELAND—The Prophets of Rage may never play for a more intimate crowd. The conscious-rap supergroup, featuring members of Cypress Hill, Rage Against the Machine, and Public Enemy, played to a group of maybe 60 people in downtown Cleveland late on Monday afternoon, the first day of the Republican National Convention.
Fans of the band (or bands) rocked out to some of their members’ former greatest hits, including “Killing in the Name,” a rap-metal banger from 1992 that builds into a rolling, profanity-laden crescendo. Chanting in chorus, the group and their fans made its message to the GOP clear.
“We’re not buying the bullshit,” Cypress Hill’s Louis Freese, a.k.a. B-Real, told CityLab after the show.
“How come [Donald Trump] can’t just start being a mayor of a city, instead of trying to be president?” said Public Enemy’s Chuck D. “Your resume is not legit to be president of the United States.”
The surprise appearance may have been the highlight of the RNC so far, at least in terms of high-energy spectacles happening outside the Quicken Loans Arena. While the convention-center floor has seen everything from an attempted political coup to plagiarism and norovirus, outside the convention center, demonstrators have remained calm as they’ve carried on.
Even on Tuesday afternoon, during perhaps the largest protest so far, media and reporters easily outnumbered demonstrators. Yoni Appelbaum, my colleague at The Atlantic, captured an ironic scene during this protest: Alex Jones, the notorious anti-government conspiracy theorist, being spirited away by police for his own protection, after an exchange with from a heated exchange with protesters.
Two days into the RNC, the Cleveland Police Department reports only 5 arrests, all over relatively minor infractions. Calm is all that residents of The Land could hope for in hosting the RNC, but calm isn’t necessarily what anyone predicted. Amnesty International even sent teams to monitor the police during the protests—the first time the organization has ever deployed monitors to a convention.
“We’ve seen largely peaceful protests, and for the most part, police ensuring that people are able to come into the streets and protest peacefully,” says Eric Ferrero, the deputy executive director for communications at Amnesty International. “It’s early, of course, but so far, so good.”
What happened to the mass protests that were supposed to greet Trump, easily the most divisive and confrontational candidate in a generation? Even a protest-rap super-team failed to spur more than a few dozen head-nodding, fist-raising followers.
In fact, next weekend’s Democratic National Convention could potentially see protests in far greater numbers, despite the party’s unity behind the candidate at the top of the ticket. Location, race, and geography are all factors shaping the outpourings for the conventions.
The Land is far from the seas
After the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Finals in June, the team beckoned some 1.3 million people to the city to celebrate. The team’s victory parade drew a record crowd—but then, a national championship was something many fans in Northeast Ohio never expected to see within their lifetimes. In this part of the world, LeBron James is a bigger figure than either Trump or Hillary Clinton.
For whatever reason, the RNC has simply not pulled in protesters from around the region the same way. While Cleveland and Akron have their share of Democratic voters, Ohio is still far from the elite coastal bastions of liberalism where politics plays like sports.
The police are respecting the process
While the Cleveland Police Department bought 2,000 suits of riot gear in the lead-up to the RNC, you’d be hard pressed to find any armor on the ground in Cleveland. Only for a few planned, mid-sized protests, with marchers numbering in the hundreds, have police bothered to deploy shields. Cleveland Police Department Chief Calvin Williams even insists that his department has no riot gear—more of a semantic distinction than a real difference.
Across downtown, officers hailing from law-enforcement agencies from dozens of cities and states are patrolling Cleveland. The patrol officers appear to be getting along well enough with Republican delegates and anarchist protesters alike, chatting here and there with people in the streets, leaning in for selfies, and even catching Pokémon. The officers maintaining security cordons, on the other hand, are all standing vigil at a healthy distance from any potential protest activity (with the exception of the area just outside the convention center).
There’s nowhere to stay
Even people who are here in Cleveland on official business have had to book accommodations outside the city—some as far away as Akron—thanks to Cleveland’s relatively limited hotel capacity. The new Hilton Cleveland Downtown, a tower that opened in May not far from the venue for the RNC, adds just 600 rooms to the city’s supply. Prices for hotels downtown are running for as much as $1,000 a night (though most are charging less).
While protesters might have looked to Airbnb for alternatives, rates for those rooms skyrocketed in advance of the event, too. The market isn’t perfect: Rates for Airbnb units still available now are not marked as high as they were before the start of the event. But the lack of reasonably priced advance accommodations may have kept protesters away.
Two missing factors: Black Lives Matter and Bikers for Trump
One major component of national protests over the past two years has gone fishin.’ As Wesley Lowery reports for The Washington Post, national leaders of Black Lives Matter decided to skip Cleveland altogether. These leaders aim instead to focus their attention on the Democratic National Convention later in the month in Philadelphia.
Conservatives might have expected Black Lives Matter protesters to appear in record numbers. They also predicted a counter-balance in the form of Bikers for Trump. In the #TCOT corner of conservative social media, users continue to post pictures like this one, which appears to show bikers gathered like the Riders of Rohan at first light on the fifth day at the Battle of Helm’s Deep.
Whatever that picture shows, it isn’t downtown Cleveland. The bikers never showed up here. UPDATE 7/20: Late on Tuesday, I did finally spot some Bikers for Trump milling about downtown—about six or seven. There very well may be more, but not thousands more.
But the notion that the presence of one group or another might guarantee violence, in particular anti-police violence, a belief held closely by some on the right with regard to Black Lives Matter, drives at a question about race and policing. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in The Atlantic, anti-police violence is predictable when the police fail (and have always failed) to protect or serve their communities, specifically black communities. The crowds gathered for the Republican National Convention, including the protesters, are overwhelmingly white. This is not a community that is poorly served by police, by and large. There is no reason to predict enmity between police and protesters here, even if it exists, and even if it boils over before the end of the week.
There’s still time—and logistical hurdles
The public spaces around the Q, where the RNC is being held, are open plazas, even discounting the space closed off to demonstrations by the Secret Service. One exception is East 4th Street, a nightlife corridor where a number of news organizations have rented out restaurants to serve as pop-up news bureaus. Along this corridor, the pedestrian avenue is narrow and cramped, thanks to wide iron gates enclosing restaurant patios along both sides of the street. It’s a potential flashpoint: Were a skirmish to break out between liberal and conservative demonstrators, police would need to fight through crowds to reach the agitators. And 4th Street runs directly into the Q.
If an inadvertently cramped pedestrian thoroughfare is the worst outcome of the convention and its discontents, then the event will be greeted as a security success story. So far, everyone is doing their part to make sure that happens—although with two days left, the quiet tenor of proceedings could still change.
This post has been updated.