Reporters and police grossly outnumber protesters at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and reporters are hungry for some kind of spectacle to break out so they can justify their presence. A few outlets have even opted to express their dismay by publishing stories framed around the question, “Where are all the protesters?”
There is a key reason why establishment media had particular expectations, which do not match what is unfolding on the ground. They do not choose what protests to cover or not cover based on their networking with grassroots organizations. They base their expectations on the fears of law enforcement, and collectively law enforcement plans for the worst case scenario, including riots stoked by so-called left-wing or right-wing extremists.
Media outlets fueled concerns of violence stoked by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. POLITICO warned, “The shooting of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota by police — and the murder of five Dallas police officers by a lone gunman looking to kill white people — has heightened racial tension across the country, frightening demonstration organizers who worry that even one violent agitator could provoke chaos.” The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan and Wesley Lowery maintained, “The Republican National Convention opens in Cleveland with a giant welcoming party Sunday in a national political climate so divisive that violence is expected and unprecedented police presence is in place.”
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer adhered to this frame and suggested, “Clashes between supporters of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and his detractors at rallies in cities across the country have turned violent. And the sniper attack that left five Dallas police officers dead only heightened security concerns ahead of the convention.”
However, there has been zero examples of Trump-stoked violence so far. Dozens of journalists, who are trailing a handful of protesters, did not get the bloodshed they wanted to capture in order to bolster their respective outlet’s profile.
Kriston Capps of The Atlantic’s CityLab appeared disenchanted by the lack of violence. Capps described a scenario in which “agitators” might be able to create a disturbance that would possibly lead to police struggling to quell a disturbance. He ominously concluded, “The quiet tenor of proceedings could still change.”
More than anything, reporters are accepting the scale of protests will not be what they anticipated.
USA Today journalists Kevin Johnson, Trevor Hughes, and Mary Troyan wrote:
The list of no-shows and reduced numbers is growing for a protest movement at the Republican National Convention that had once sent shivers through planners and helped prompt a massive security buildup that has barricaded much of the city. In two days of the convention, only a handful of minor arrests have been made, and the thousands of protesters expected to descend on the city has turned out to be several hundred instead.
There are numerous problems with this summary of the action.
First off, what protest movement? The anticipated protests were expected to come from left-wing groups and right-wing groups, which represent parts of different movements. Just because they all wind up corralled in the same “free speech zone” does not mean they are now part of a “protest movement” feared by planners.
The city had a permit process for protest groups. Numerous people submitted requests and waited for weeks while the city refused to respond. That has the impact of dissuading people from exercising their First Amendment right to protest.
Additionally, the security buildup has no connection to the specific protests planned. The investment and establishment of a militarized security perimeter has been routine since 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed a law to enable the designation of events like the RNC as “National Special Security Events.”
Political conventions, G20 meetings, and free trade meetings automatically lead to tens of millions of dollars allotted so the government can have an army on hand to respond to whatever happens. For the RNC in Cleveland, nearly $50 million was granted by the federal government to “bulk up security.”
Four thousand federal agents from the Secret Service, TSA, Customs and Border Protection, FBI, etc., are on hand. There are 3,000 police, with a significant number on police bikes, who are wearing helmets with cameras affixed on top to conduct continuous surveillance.
Police have armored vehicles called BearCats. Some of the agents or officers on hand have AR-15 semi-automatic rifles or even M-14 rifles, typically used by snipers, to wield against protesters.
The gaggle of establishment press hovering around protesters do not publish stories questioning the expenditure of millions of dollars or the militarization of areas in and around the Quicken Loans Arena, where the RNC is taking place. Rather, what the public gets are stories amplifying the perspective of law enforcement.
Here is a sample of reporting calling police bikes a “secret weapon.” USA Today effusively praise the way the bikes are used to control protesters:
…At one of the public squares, when an aggressive group of Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators engaged in a shouting match with an anti-Trump crowd, the bike cops swiftly slipped between them to create a buffer.
In a coordinated move repeated several times throughout the day, police officers dismounted and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their bikes in front of them. At one point, on the signal of a supervisor, they all lifted their bikes in unison and thrust them forward a few feet – effectively pushing the crowd back without making physical contact…
Absent protesters with targeted objectives, establishment reporters default to publishing propaganda praising the tactics of police. But should a 3.3-square mile zone of Cleveland be transformed into a police state for the week of a political convention? Is that necessary or gratuitous?
While thousands of journalists are glued to the spectacle inside the convention center and what little protest activity happens outside, a number of current events happen, which receive little reporting. Whether they would receive coverage if the press were not in Cleveland is beside the point. As they wait around for something to transpire, they could be conducting journalism elsewhere.
There were signals that the number of protesters expected were extraordinarily hyped. For example, FBI agents contacted Black Lives Matter organizers in the run-up to the RNC and urged them not to attend. However, activists like Mervyn Marcano explicitly stated the movement would not converge at the RNC. They were not “getting on a plane to waste time with Donald Trump.”
If the nationwide movement for black lives, the most prominent and energetic movement in the United States currently, was not planning to mobilize around the RNC, then the press should have known it would be as uninspiring as past conventions, like the 2012 RNC in Tampa.
Establishment press do not set their expectations for events like the RNC by corresponding with the very organizers, who will drive protest. They depend on the fear-driven bulletins or worst-case scenarios promoted by law enforcement or city officials. They fully accept the excessive spending on the construction of week-long military occupations that can later be dismantled.
Except, the dismantling is never total. The event zone may appear to return to normal, but newly installed surveillance systems are likely to remain. The new gear, which police departments bought for the RNC, will be available to deploy against citizens when there are uprisings in response to the latest killing of a black person by Cleveland police.
The chilling of dissent makes it easier for the political class of the Republican Party to gather for its extravaganza without having to confront a cloud of protest hanging over it. Meanwhile, police can pat themselves on the back and say job well done when no violence happens, if there never was any substantial evidence that violence would happen.
UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Kriston Capps contacted the author to take issue with our description of his coverage. He claims he is not “disenchanted” by the lack of violence at the RNC, which was anticipated. Capps stated he believed police would not greatly outnumber protesters.