What Anti-Republican Protesters in Cleveland Care About

Far from the action at the Republican National Convention, Trump demonstrators of all political persuasions voiced their concerns for America.

Conor Friedersdorf

CLEVELAND––On day one of the Republican National Convention, the most visible protest occurred deep within the secure zone, on stage at the Quicken Loans Arena, where Senator Mike Lee, the Utah civil libertarian, led a last-gasp effort to force a rules vote in the hope of denying Donald Trump the GOP nomination. As forces loyal to the billionaire thwarted the push, the factions that oppose him booed, and the Colorado delegation stormed away from the scene in disgust.

Outside the arena, blocks beyond a perimeter formed by concrete barriers and metal, black security fences, protesters of all sorts gathered in a public square designated as a free-speech zone. Code Pink arrived in color-coordinated costumes.

Conor Friedersdorf

Immigrant-rights advocates shouted into a bullhorn, proclaiming the dignity of undocumented Mexicans and the indignity of labeling them rapists. Various signs showed a surprising number of ways to imply that the GOP standard-bearer is like Adolf Hitler––“Jews Reject Trump,” one said, “We’ve seen this before.” A short woman in a patriotic hat held aloft a blow-up doll, naked save for a blond wig and a sign proclaiming, “Little Hands, Small Mind, Big Asshole.”

A bit farther afield, in another public square, a young man with a rifle slung on his back wore a Make America Great Again hat and a T-shirt with a logo resembling the Nintendo game Duck Hunt. The text said, “Cuck Hunt Entertainment System.” He stood giving an interview to a young blonde woman with a Conservative Review microphone.

On the edges of the square, anti-abortion protesters passed out flyers and a man in a Holy Ghost jean jacket held a 7-foot-high crucifix that urged, “Vote for Jesus.”

Throughout these public spaces, most every protester, counter-protester, and activist spoke, whether through bullhorns or in one-on-one conversations, in the clipped phrases of tested sound-bytes and activist bromides, as if proximity to the machine of partisan politics and mainstream media compelled it.

Conversely, every attempt at nuanced civic expression I’ve yet heard in Cleveland, and the most heartening examples of civic participation I have witnessed, occurred outside the Quickens Loan Arena, outside the security perimeter, beyond the public squares of downtown, down a long, straight road with a crumbling sidewalk, past an FBI building, over a highway, under a rusty steel bridge, past a barbecue joint, farther even than two men conducting a drug deal on a street corner, a number of down-on-their-luck bars, and an industrial site owned by Day Glo, “the world's leading manufacturer of daylight fluorescent pigments.”

Then, one merely has to pass an Ohio Technical College building, any number of automotive repair businesses, and some closed factories, hang a left roughly an hour from the convention center, cross two sets of railroad tracks, and descend a small hill into a parking lot to arrive at the park that the city of Cleveland designated as the one spot in town where out-of-town visitors can legally camp for a night. The intersection, should anyone want to arrive by car, is 49th Street at Marginal Road.

Amid a broad grassy area, beneath a few trees, and with cars rushing by on Interstate 90, I stood among a dozen or so tents talking to the people who had set up camp the previous night and made it through a thunderstorm together in the early morning.

* * *

Lee Garnett, 39,  is a tech consultant from San Francisco.

"Why did you come here?" I asked.

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“To defend civilization,” he replied matter-of-factly. “To resist the rise of authoritarianism in the Republican Party, a party that has made enormous contributions over its history in the struggle against authoritarianism, and which is embracing a nationalistic, xenophobic ideology. I think it's important to note that I have voted for Republican candidates in the past, and what happening now is different than what has happened in previous elections. It's not that I'm against the GOP or think it is a wicked institution. I think it is being destroyed, and that is a tragic thing for the country. I wish that they exhibited more shame. In my view, the Republican Party's position throughout the Cold War was to resist the construction of closed societies. And that has completely changed. The explicit construction of a closed society is now the ideological project of the party. And I'm appalled by it.”

Trump’s decision to target his campaign rhetoric at ethnic minority outgroups was one factor that turned him “from someone who said I'm going to vote against this guy to someone who said I have to demonstrate against him.” Still, he went with trepidation.

During past travels in Istanbul, Turkey, he attended a gay-pride march without expecting any trouble, only to be caught up in a government crackdown that put him on the receiving end of tear-gas canisters and a water cannon. “We saw a woman shot through the ankle,” he recalled. “It was a terrifying. All of those are very vivid memories. Given a lot of the anticipation of what could happen here, conceivably, I'm pretty frightened.” But “I wanted to contribute to demonstrating to the country and the world that we’re not just going to passively assent to the transformation of one of our two major political parties into an authoritarian movement,” he said. “It's the obligation of a free citizen, sometimes, to perform acts like this.”

The outcome he regarded as a best-case scenario? “An RNC coup d'état,” he declared. “After that, the best possible outcome is a defeat in the general election.”

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Todd McDonough is a 50-year-old Donald Trump supporter from Minnesota. He came to Cleveland, at the urging of Bikers for Trump, in hopes of keeping things calm. “I’ve seen all the violence going on at some of the rallies, the paid protesters,” he said. “The Bikers for Trump started going to the rallies and keeping the protesters at bay. I don't know if they keep them from getting out of hand or what."

When Trump first entered the race, McDonough thought he was a joke.

“But I’ve been waiting for years to hear a candidate talk about NAFTA, and getting us out of these bad trade deals that have screwed us over, you know, he’s the only one,” he said. “People think it doesn’t affect them, but they don’t realize how much better our jobs and wages would be if it wasn’t for that. I’ve seen it in my industry.”

He’s in construction, and earns $22 an hour doing electrical work, just $2 more than he earned at age 18, doing less skilled work on similar job sites. And sometimes his wages fall to zero.

“I got laid off last month,” he explained. “I’d been planning to come here for months. And all of a sudden I didn’t even have the money to get here. I don’t even have any hopes for the future anymore. But if the government is going to affect my life this much I’m going to get involved, just for my kids and my grandkids. My kids are 28 and 21, and I have two grandkids. I feel like we all need to fight for our freedom and somehow we have to get rid of this corruption in D.C. that’s killing us all. So I decided I was going to take off anyway. I had $60 when I left. I decided I would stop and play guitar for tips here and there to get gas money. Every time I needed money I’d find a place, play guitar for awhile, I’d have $25 or $30, and I’d hit the road again.”

The factor that first persuaded him that politics was important enough to engage in? “I served in the Army and found out things that I didn’t like about what was going on.”

As he told the story:

This was in 1988. They locked us all up into a classroom under armed guard and passed out these surveys, they called them. They said they just wanted to find out what the morale was like, so just answer everything honestly, it's all anonymous. It was like 260 questions. But the one question that they asked the most is if we would be willing to fire on American citizens or shoot American citizens for all these different reasons.

I was like, why are they asking me this?

And as we were turning them in we had to show our IDs. They’d stick your name on your survey as you turned it in. I  said hey, you said this was anonymous. And this guy from military intelligence said well, we lied, what are you going to do about it. Right then I was done with the Army.

I mean, I finished my time, but I wanted nothing to do with it.

The experience caused him “to start looking into the global push for one world government,” to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to become a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. “There are people in our own government who, at a minimum, stood down,” he said.” They knew what was going to happen and let it happen.”

* * *

Twenty yards away was another motorcyclist, Daniel Wilson, a fellow U.S. Army veteran, though from an earlier era––just after the Vietnam War ended. Wilson works as an emergency-room nurse in South Florida and strongly opposes Donald Trump. “This is Bikers Against Trump,” he said, indicating his tent. “I also belong to a SuperPac,” he joked, “Americans Against Billionaires with Tiny Hands. I'm here because Trump is––can I swear?––because Trump is a fucking Nazi.”

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His purpose in attending: “Somehow, I'm going to make my name known that I dissent, so history will go, well, at least there was one guy in America, Daniel Wilson, who was really against him. Please put it in print so that future generations can look back and know that I had nothing to do with this fucking fiasco.”

If Trump is elected, “I have an escape boat,” he explained. “I live on a sailboat at the tip of Florida. We’ll pull up anchor and go to Neves. There's no guns there. I'm very anti-gun. And being in south Florida and anti-gun I don’t have a lot of friends!”

As if to achieve maximal differences with his fellow motorcycle rider, he said he would like to see one-world government. “I’m a complete liberal,” he explained. “I’m really, really weird. I don't believe in countries. I believe we should be one country. One world. One people. One social system. One government. One court system. One leader. Me!” He laughed. “I keep forgetting” he said, “to leave that last part out."

* * *

David Guthrie is from South Bend, Indiana. He spent 15 years working there at the front desk of a local hotel and hasn’t worked since, at least not in the formal economy: “I live on the gift economy. I make myself useful in South Bend. I take photographs that people find flattering. I write poetry. I’m an activist. I find out who is struggling and I do my best to help them not sink below the waves. I couch surf. People feed me. People like me. Most people like me. I don’t have an employer or a master who pays me. I mostly live without currencies except for trust and attention.”

He came to the RNC because he desired an adventure, has a background in hacktivism and photography, and thought photographing the protests would be fascinating.

“I'm here on a whim and a prayer––it’s my first hitchhiking adventure,” he explained. He thumbed it to Vermont, got a ride from there to Manhattan, where has has friends, dined there on fine food with a higher-up at Standard & Poor’s, boarded a bus to Cleveland, and arrived at 2 a.m., just enough time to walk to the park with free camping and set up his hammock before the thunderstorm arrived in force.

He described himself as a former libertarian turned voluntarist who supported Bernie Sanders and hates Hillary Clinton, who he considers a kind of populist because she lets polls determine positions that she takes. “I could never cast my vote for someone who considers Edward Snowden to be a traitor,” he said, and he switched party affiliation just so that he could vote against Clinton in the 2008 primary.

As for her private email server?

Hillary, owing to the witch hunt that she endured when her husband was president, has developed something of a complex about privacy, which if she was running for anything except the highest office in the nation would be okay. But when you're running for president you don't get the luxury of privacy. And the freedom of information act is a very strong piece of legislation, and needs to be. She set up her private server—I'm not so concerned about mishandling classified information. What concerns me is that she set up a battle station, as we hackers call it, so that she could not be exempt from but could ignore Freedom of Information requests and have control over what gets out. That troubles me greatly.

Knowing lots of people who are “mired in dead end, underemployed jobs struggling to pay student loans and not making use of the resource we’ve made of their minds,” he believes there is a student-loan-debt bubble that will burst in coming years. ​​​

Still, he is optimistic for the future beyond this election.

“I really think the youth are engaged in a way they never have been before,” he declared. “For years, for decades, we've been saying, oh, if only the youth would vote then we could get a progressive. Well, it looks like the youth have started voting. They were just shy of what they needed to take control. And maybe that’s okay. If they aren't completely disillusioned, and I don’t think that they are, they’re going to be the most powerful force in politics for 40 years. And that excites me.”

* * *

Sean Maupin, 29, is a maintenance man for an apartment complex in Denver, “the most beautiful city I've ever been to. It's liberal enough to legalize pot and conservative enough to not take your guns away. It's right in the middle. All people have the right to believe what they believe and prosper in their own lives.”

He gets two vacations a year from his job.

“I could be on a beach,” he said. “But Cleveland sounded better.”

He got interested in politics as a response to post-9/11 wars and civil liberties abrogations. “Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, the wars in general, the drones, the Patriot Act, the fact that we no longer have a right to our personal privacy our property. One bill took away half of our rights in one day. I was 13 years old when it happened and I still haven't figured it out. Obama said he would reverse it but he hasn’t.”

Five months ago, a friend of his had an idea. He asked Sean if he wanted to come and be a buffer during the protests––to make sure that everything unfolds as  peacefully as possible.

“I’m here,” he said, “to support a bunch of people who I don’t really agree with who have ideas I don’t really believe in, some I can’t even stand to be around, but everybody has a right to believe what they believe in. I would really like to see both sides take a deep breath, look each other in the eyes and have an actual conversation.”

He isn’t a Trump supporter.

“But I want to make sure that Trump gets his nomination. That’s what the people voted for. I want to open up dialogue between the white supremacists, Black Lives Matter, and the cops. I want to stress the fact that not all cops are bad, the white supremacists are allowed to march because that’s they’re right, even though I don’t agree with them. And I feel the same about those who carry guns––I don’t have a gun or a need for it, but I fully support the gun march because it is their right to do so.”

He hopes that cooler heads prevail all week, and that going forward, his generation starts to participate in the political process more often. “We voted in Obama, which I thought was a good thing,” he explained, “but we screwed him on the House and Senate. If we don’t get out to vote and understand there are elections every two years, not just every four years, we’re never going to fix things.”

* * *

Bella, 34, came from Denver with Sean and his photographer friend. She isn’t as politically active as they are. “But I had the car,” she said. So she left the Burner collective where she lives and drove them across boring old Kansas to the Republican convention and weathered a thunderstorm in her first-ever night sleeping in a park.

In this election, she is anti-Donald Trump. Her reasons are straightforward.

“I work for these very nice Muslim brothers in Denver and I make schawarma, falafel and baba ganoush. And I do hookah. We get the men straight off the boat from the Middle East, and they look at me skeptically when I bring their food out. But then they taste it and they’re like this is delicious, you know what you’re doing.”

“They are Muslim, and they are kind and wonderful and awesome people, and I love them,” she said. “And I love a lot of their friends because I’m part of that community. Then Trump is like, I want to deport your friends and build a wall and blah blah blah. And he’s getting the Christian right vote? What? It doesn't make any sense.”

And yet.

“I'm really considering voting for Trump,” she said. “I despise him. I hate everything that he stands for.” But she’s tempted to heighten the contradictions, as the Marxists like to say:

Apparently things aren’t messed up and broken enough, though they should be obviously, but the large majority of people are still apathetic.  

So for me, how bad do things need to be. So Trump is a pretty good option for how bad things could get so that people would say this is a fucking farce, we need something different, and just burn it all to the ground. Not literally, metaphorically. That's the only reason I would vote for him, because it needs to be brought into stark relief, just how ridiculous this thing has become. I'm amazed he's gotten as far as he has. My biggest problem with him is the fact that he spreads hate and fear to the masses.

* * *

After several hours spent in conversation with the temporary residents of that Cleveland park, I heard a lot of ideologies and policy stances and tactical decisions with which I agreed, and as many or more with which I disagreed, but everyone there was investing more effort and engaging in more sacrifice than most Americans ever will to participate in the civic process. And despite their internal disagreements, the Trump supporters and opponents, the proponents of denying him the nomination and the ones determined that it be delivered to him, the advocates of one worlds government and the people horrified by that idea, all co-existed.

After one night, on the morning that I visited, they’d already felt out one another’s opinions. And despite deeply political divides––while gathered at a national political convention to protest––their posture, as they shared food and water and directions and lent assistance in pitching tents and kept an eye on one another’s property, was clear: They behaved as if, despite it all, they were all in it together. In all this, they bested many who were much closer to the center of the RNC.