CLEVELAND — Cleveland braced itself for large-scale protests and the potential for unrest in the streets as the Republican National Convention rolled in to town this week. In the end, calm prevailed in the city that loves to brag about how much it “rocks.”
The law enforcement presence throughout the area was enormous and impossible to miss. Hundreds of police, emergency technicians and crowd-control experts were enlisted from around the country to keep the peace while the GOP got down to business inside the Quicken Loans Arena in the downtown Playhouse Square district.
Police patrolled the city in large clusters — on foot, on bikes and on horseback — and in groups that appeared to be assembled with an eye toward reflecting ethnic and racial diversity. But for a few shouting matches, a brief sit-in on the street and the torching of an American flag, the sporadic protests around the arena were uneventful. In the designated protest zone of Public Square, the demonstrations were noisier but not violent.
There had been much speculation in the media about the potential for disturbances in Cleveland because of the controversial positions staked out by GOP nominee Donald Trump on immigration, and his more recent tough talk about being the “law and order” candidate. And tension was high, of course, because of the recent string of police-related shootings — both police shootings of African-American men and this month’s deadly sniper attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
As it turned out, there were exponentially more police and journalists prowling the streets than protestors. Most of those who came were from fringe groups including religious fundamentalists, anarchists and Communists. The female activists of Code Pink were visible but not in large numbers.
The absence of a sizable demonstration or march indicates a lack of a centralized organization capabilities for hot-button causes such as Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movements. Convention veterans noted that the protest efforts were more plentiful in the recent past, both for Republican and Democratic gatherings.
One stalwart activist who made his presence felt was Rage Against the Machine co-founder Tom Morello. He timed the public debut of his new outfit, Prophets of Rage, to coincide with the RNC gathering. Prophets will also be on the scene next week as the Democrats gather in Philadelphia.
Prophets is composed of Morello and fellow Rage members Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, plus Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and B Real from Cypress Hill. The group also released its first recordings online this week.
Morello bills Prophets as “an elite task force of revolutionary musicians bent on overturning the apple cart of this insane election season.” Wearing a red “Make America Rage Again” baseball cap, Morello spoke to Variety prior to Prophets’ July 19 concert at Cleveland’s Agora Theater.
The veteran musician-activist cites fear as a possible reason for the low turnout of protestors in Cleveland. “People might be afraid of open-air gatherings,” he said. “That’s a guess.”
Morello also thinks the age of instant communication via social media works against the traditional means of confronting the powerful by getting feet on the street. He’s performed with one band or another at every presidential nominating convention since 2000.
“Maybe there’s a complacency that comes with thinking that you can change the world with a hashtag or an Instagram post,” Morello said. “In the case of police brutality, that might be true — the revolution may be Facebook-ed. In 1968 the only way to let the world know that you were opposed to the Democratic complicity in the Vietnam war was to be there in the streets. Now you’re always just one hashtag away from expressing your feelings.”
In fact, the diffusion of media makes it harder to galvanize attention to a single cause. “To me, that is a briar patch of complacency that both the Democratic and Republican parties are pretty content with,” he said. “There are no pitchforks and torches at the gate.”
The diverse young crowd that has turned out for Prophets of Rage shows to date includes a lot of young adults who were fired up during the primary season by Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He notes that the fact that both Trump and Sanders attracted supporters by pointing out the impact of globalization and trade agreements on blue-collar employment in the U.S. indicates that there’s a groundswell of real anger in the country that is ripe to be channeled into action.
To that end, Prophets of Rage will be taking part in Saturday’s “Rock Against the TPP” free concert event in Denver. That show aims to raise awareness of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the latest target of opposition from the anti-globalization movement.
“One of the few issues where Trump, Sanders and I agree are that these trade agreements are horrendous,” he said. “That lane is wide open.”