I overshot the airport by a good ten miles and found myself at a traffic light somewhere around downtown Akron.
The expected unrest at the Republican National Convention ending the day before never developed. I was frankly disappointed. The streets had been flooded with law enforcement officers. Everywhere troopers–from everywhere–California Highway Patrol, Missouri, Indiana, Florida state troopers–in squads or moving through the crowd in threes and fours, fielding the condescending handshakes and thank-yous of the respectable crowd. And almost as many bike as foot platoons, moving, or staging for their next move, never staying put anywhere before a sergeant barked the command had them moving again in disciplined columns. Mounted police, more bicycle cops, motorcycle cops, dog teams, stray SWAT pairs in full gear, Secret Service directing traffic into and out of the arena.
In the middle of it all the Cleveland cops in their old school uniforms, black, classic peaked hat with visor, like something out of a seventies cop movie. Buffed-up cops, with tattoos, fat, powerful-looking pot-bellied cops, big, shambling old-school cops, all of them looking just like cops. Spotters on rooftops. Everywhere cops.
Concrete barriers and heavy-duty, black, of course, framed chain-link temporary barriers separated sidewalks from street around the arena, guiding foot traffic away from closed areas that one followed at points like a mouse in a maze; I found at least one of these that simply dead-ended, forcing you to come out the way you came.
What didn’t appear were the protesters in number. No procession was better than a hundred, maybe; the vast majority numbering in the dozens. Even the anarchists were determined to keep their hands to themselves, rabid but restrained.
The Black Lives Matter presence wasn’t nearly black enough to inspire the intended dread.
A few, presumably, local black activists, old, tired, spoke in the square, some heartfelt but ridiculous, some just ridiculous, the more psychologically unbalanced ones more sympathetic than the stupid or cynical ones. On the final day a few rough-looking hood representatives showed up, perhaps looking for trouble but too few to manage the required quorum for chaos.
Any energy came from the young, predominately white college-age activists or the grim Latino pro-immigrant groups, humorless from message to tone, or the zealous, genuinely insane loners cruising the crowd. The common theme is performance; everyone seems to be, above all, self conscious of making a display, of being seen and heard. And the chanting, the dread, crude chanting, like a child’s parody of argument, the same chants over and over, as if a gang of idiots is trying to hypnotize you.
Away from the protests in the tight streets around the arena there are all these earnest Midwestern and Mormon Republicans threading through the crowd; something different about their heavier bond structure. Curiously handsome people. And the women, with a primped and styled Fox News aesthetic, sensible but snug dresses over gym-worked waists, heels everywhere clacking along the hot sidewalks. The occasional natural beauty. Dull-eyed locals and homeless taking it all in.
And more prevalent than any the same group of extreme evangelists (no one could decide if they were Westboro Baptist Church or not), drawing a crowd from behind a cordon of cops that grew thicker by the day, taunting Black Lives Matter and the gays with equal vigor and energy. If Cleveland was one giant scrum for attention, these were the winners. A small, hardy ban armed only with its pickets, its bullhorns and its audacity, dominating attention wherever they went.
As often as not the police contingent following a procession was larger than it, sometimes comically so. A single character might even draw bodyguards; there were plenty to go around. The protesters simply did not show up in force.
The last I saw of the fire and brimstone preachers they were still droning provocations through bullhorns, most of which were doubly offensive for being true, from behind a cordon of police four deep, as the crowd–united in this at least–shouted impotently.
I drove about aimlessly the day after the convention. Into the black ghetto to the east, past dull, mostly empty looking block-style project buildings, old, verging on ruin, here and there little, trapped architectural treasures and, always it seems in these places, you find at least one old, grand church deserving of renovation, fenced off, waiting.
I went back downtown, against the flow of outbound tour buses and trucks; the press is already gone, vendors, depressing, crude, idiotic vendors, mercifully no longer calling like carnival barkers. I abandoned Cleveland and drove, for no particular reason, to Ohio City to the west. Again, through block after block of ghetto or marginal neighborhoods; here and there a gentrifying flare, maybe. I came across a Catholic Church in, I think, high-gothic style. For some reason I felt compelled to leave the camera behind. I went inside. The nave was overwhelming; ornate, high arches contained that Catholic statuary, colorful, detailed virtuosity that issues like a challenge you can’t possibly meet from the vaunted arches. Of course this inspires the minimalist reaction of Protestantism, and its inevitable artistic mediocrity.
The small dark figures of the Mestizo congregation sat silently before a bad recording of a Spanish language hymn, indifferent to me. I found myself inexplicably moved, tearing up. I determined that it would not be epiphany, or a “moment”; and it wasn’t, because awareness of the moment instantly destroys the integrity of the moment; something like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is at work. Never being free of the self-consciousness, of the sense of being watched, of giving a performance…moments of revelation are no longer possible. I think this standing in a brilliant work of art the design of which is to make me aware, I think, not just of the presence of God, but of being seen by God. His absence here, now, is unbearable.
That was Cleveland; the revolution didn’t show up. The dread was not realized. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all. This, more or less, occurred to me sitting there at a traffic light, sensing without quite thinking, as one is apt to do, the weird life-randomness that finds one, say, sitting among commuters in Akron, Ohio thousands of miles from home.
It took a moment to notice, but the street we were waiting to cross was filled with a procession of cars. They threw up gang signs from behind the wheel or as they hung gleefully out the side of minivans, bobbing their heads, shouting, performing. The black ghetto was putting on an unofficial parade. Our light turned green. And they just kept coming. A few meek honks of the horn. Our light turned red, and they just kept coming. A few more honks. The intersection cycled through several times before they finished passing, cursing, taunting, laughing. Intimidation achieved, power demonstrated, message sent with admirable clarity: we can take over your town.
It was just short of terrifying. I couldn’t help thinking: there my niggas at! Someone is answering the call to revolution, at least.