Organizers for the Stand Together Against Trump rally in Cleveland had planned for 5,000 participants. The march, a peaceful demonstration that “America’s fundamental ideals of liberty and equality are greater than Trump’s incessant scapegoating and bullying,” was supposed to close out a week that some had predicted would overshadow the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which came amid nationwide civil unrest and race riots and exploded in violence.
But there was no mayhem in Cleveland.
On Thursday, hours before Donald Trump took the stage to accept the nomination, a couple hundred people showed up for what had been expected to be one of the week’s largest events. The event did in fact turn out to be one of the largest in a series of relatively unimpressive ones — a fitting end to the massive protests that never were.
I feel like I'm crossing the Sahara... And there's a protest on the other side of it #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/w92JNSPRpv— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
It's like Trump's wall went up in Cleveland overnight #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/I9ZKgInPKy— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
Abandon all hope ye who enter #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/PW8qXCvfiR— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
Those who made it to the rally — trekking out in scorching heat to a designated parade route a half-hour walk from the convention center — were unrelenting. On a long bridge overpassing a desolate industrial zone, nowhere close to the buzz of the convention center but also far from cars, passersby, or really any sign of life, they carried hopeful signs claiming “We’re better than this” and “Love trumps hate” and chanted “Vote your conscience” in a nod to Ted Cruz’s words the night prior.
People chanting "Vote your conscience" #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/fAC8luf8Fo— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
But their physical isolation in a deserted section of the city sent a stronger message.
A line of bored police officers on bikes — a trademark of the convention — stopped the protesters, without too much enthusiasm, as soon as they came in sight of the city’s downtown skyline.
Guess we're not allowed through here? #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/VaiRvbLWxC— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
Surrounded by metal gates on one side and a dirt hill on the other, demonstrators shouted, unironically, “This is what democracy looks like.” Then they turned around and went back to where they came from — an empty lot that the ACLU, which sued the city over the remoteness of the official parade route, called an “industrial wasteland.”
Last glimmer of resistance crossing the Cleveland desert #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/SGaBRomIXA— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
Thanks to the ACLU lawsuit, which led to a settlement with the city easing up some of the restrictions on protest, not all rallies this week were confined to a highway in the middle of nowhere. But even those that took place downtown struggled to make a mark, and the drama on the convention floor far outdid that on the streets.
“Last night was a quiet night,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told reporters at a Thursday morning press conference, repeating what he had said every other morning this week. “We don’t have much to report on.”
In total, 24 people were arrested in convention-related incidents as of Friday morning, most at a flag burning protest on Wednesday. But while legal observers denounced those arrests, and delays in the processing of arrestees, as “troubling,” the final count was significantly lower than what most expected, with the city having announced ahead of the convention that it was prepared to “handle upwards of 1,000 arrests per day.”
With hours to go to the official nomination, the mayor and Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams seemed both relieved the week had passed without major incidents and mindful not to jinx their good luck before it was really over. “We still have an entire day to go through,” Williams said. But in a sign that the fear of chaos had largely passed, he spent the rest of the time talking about the heat expected in the city for the last day of the convention — well into the 90s.
“If you’re a protester, bring some water with you,” he said. “It’s going to be hot.”
The heat didn’t stop a few last attempts at resistance. On Thursday afternoon, a small group of protesters, including a handful with masks and bandanas over their faces, briefly spilled into the streets, chanting, “Our streets,” while a couple of rival protesters shouted back at them, “Socialism sucks.”
"Don't touch me!" #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/rSWzsNuJgF— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
The arguing group circled around one of the downtown areas designated for protest a couple of times, swarmed by dozens of reporters and followed closely by even more officers on bikes. A few verbal confrontations ensued, as journalists, protesters, legal observers, and even a handful of police officers recorded every move on dozens of cameras and cellphones.
Then, as quickly as it had erupted, the last short-lived burst of protest ended at a nearby park, where volunteers with the Food Not Bombs group handed out apples and water to exhausted anarchists, Trump-supporters, and reporters alike. The RNC was almost over.
Rod Webber, an artist who came from Boston for the week and said he had been to 173 protests and political rallies this year alone, handed out yellow daisies to fellow protesters of all views — “offering a flower for de-escalation,” he said.
He and other activists staying at a house outside the city were raided by the FBI earlier this week, the latest in a series of similar incidents that civil rights advocates say have seriously stifled dissent and had a direct impact on the low turnout at the convention. And while the response to protesters didn’t escalate to the levels seen elsewhere, Webber denied it had been peaceful.
“Sure, no one has been shot, so it was peaceful in that sense,” he said, adding that protesters were sometimes pushed around and officers put guns “in people’s faces.” “I don’t want to have higher expectations for violence,” he added. “Any level of violence is unacceptable to me.”
Especially when you shoot them at people #RNCinCLE pic.twitter.com/T4KceiUHsp— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) July 21, 2016
For Anna Fisher, a high schooler from Youngstown, Ohio, holding a “Guns save lives” sign, this was the very first protest.
“I thought it would be a little more violent,” she said, echoing what seemed to be a widely held sentiment.
By Thursday evening, Cleveland’s Public Square, which throughout the week had been home to preachers of all ideologies, anti-war grandmothers, gay bashers, supporters of black and blue lives, open carriers, and wall opponents, was filled with children playing in a water fountain and reporters napping on benches next to helmets and flak vests they never had to use.
A couple of locals walked around in shirts reading “Make America Cleveland again,” and out-of-towners started talking about next week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, sure it would be “bigger.”