PHILADELPHIA — A group of American communists wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the message “REVOLUTION — NOTHING LESS!” had just finished burning a United States flag when a young man confronted them. Wearing a camouflage bucket hat that cast a slight shadow over the burn scars on his face, he called out the revolutionaries.
“Capitalism built this country and made it as great as it is,” he said.
He stood in sprawling FDR Park. The Democratic National Convention was happening in the Wells Fargo Center, barely visible over his shoulder beyond a tightly guarded metal-fence perimeter.
“And if you cannot deal with capitalism, you have to leave. You cannot stand in my country and burn flags,” he said.
Actually, they can, so long as they do it peacefully. That didn’t work out so well one week earlier outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, when a similar demonstration by the same group triggered a ruckus that resulted in 17 arrests. And while avoiding violence isn’t exactly their top priority, they’re loathe to create it either.
At least not yet.
For now, the members of the Revolutionary Communist Party are focused on spreading word of their impending revolution and recruiting people to join. As they paraded in formation during protest marches outside both the RNC and DNC, they held signs proclaiming, “Time to get organized for an ACTUAL revolution.”
They mean it, quite literally, and they’ll defend their right to talk about. So when the man in the camouflage hat accosted them for flaming up a flag, five members of RevCom quickly formed a human wall in front of him.
A sixth member stood behind her comrades and held up a sign. It was a poster-sized, black-and-white sketch of their leader, Bob Avakian.
Welcome to the Free Speech Circus, a show staged every day outside the political conventions these past two weeks. The cast included revolution-minded flag burners and bandana-wearing anarchists, college graduates drowning in debt and millenials desparate to move out of mom and dad’s home, minorities who’ve been oppressed, voters energized by non-traditional candidates, and karaoke-singing hate groups.
They’re a disparate collection of people loosely bound by a singular concern: They do not like where this country is headed. They want change, and they want to tell you about it. Which, in the circus of free speech, is easy to do. Because when you walk into it, you’re surrounded by cameras. It’s a place where the realness of problems spawns the most unreal of reality shows.
Let’s pull back the curtain.
By and large, the protesters’ complaints are serious, complicated and – whatever your opinions – important. Among those frequently voiced in Cleveland and Philadelphia: the intersection between police violence and race (and specifically the Black Lives Matter movement); LGBT rights; fair treatment of Native Americans, Muslims and other minority groups; fair trade and capitalism; assistance for the poor; the legalization of marijuana; climate change; and government corruption.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump qualify as “issues,” too, as protesters in both cities largely assailed the competency of both candidates.
“I think we’re all but doomed to either a Clinton or Trump administration,” said Travis McNamara, a 39-year-old Buffalo resident who protested with the Workers World Party in Cleveland. “What I want is for people to come to the full realization of just how thoroughly corrupt the system is. Money will buy you anything in this country now. Free speech has been turned into a commodity. Freedom has been turned into a commodity.”
McNamara, who is also a member of the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition, calls both candidates “war-mongerers.” That, too, echoes a familiar refrain of demonstrations in both cities (and especially Philadelphia), where protesters often voiced a preference for the Green Party’s candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, or Sen. Bernie Sanders, even as he conceded the Democratic nod to Clinton.
“Bernie has ignited a flame within me that I had to keep going,” said Leo Crudup, who marched in Philadelphia with a cardboard sign that said, “Need Money to Buy My Own Congressman: Please Help.”
Crudup, who is from New Jersey, has $25,000 in health care bills and, on top, student debt from his two-year degree in computer information science. Standing in FDR Park near the blue-and-gray Coleman tent in which he camped for the week, Crudup started thinking aloud about how he wants better for his niece and nephew.
“Being here is a representation of how I feel and making sure that my voice is heard no matter what,” Crudup said.
His companion, Destine Madu, was dreaming bigger, too. She’s 31 with a graphic arts degree but can’t find a job in her field. She’s moved back to her parents’ home, is working as a medical clerk and going back to school to carve a new career path. Madu’s first shot at full-time work as an artist was shot down, in part, by the recession of 2008.
“It started affecting everybody, and I was like, ‘This can’t be right. I have plans,’” Madu said. “I was going to use my degree. I thought I was going to have a house by now. Maybe my white picket fence. Maybe married by now. Maybe pop out a unit or two.”
She laughs. Crudup joins her.
“Not yet,” she added. “I can’t afford it.”
A few hundred yards away, near the gate leading inside the secure perimeter of the Democratic National Convention, Sanders delegate Maurice Taylor of Massachusetts was talking recession.
“What really (angered people) is the banks got bailed out, the car companies got bailed out, right?” said Taylor, who was wearing a gray suit and purple shirt with his DNC delegate lanyard hanging from his neck.
Chris Nelson, an onlooker standing near Taylor, agreed.
“Everybody got taken care of, instead of our people,” he said, presumable referring to working-class folks.
“The people on top got taken care of,” Taylor added. “But the people who put their money to the taxes are losing their homes to the same people, (and) they didn’t get taken care of, right? So that’s fueling people’s frustration.”
But there’s more, he said. While economic issues are apparent to anyone who’s struggling to find or keep a good job, other issues – like the police shootings that drive the Black Lives Matter movement – aren’t as tangible from a distance.
“White people have heard black people’s pains over the years and are saying, ‘You know what? You’re BSing me,’” said Taylor, who is black. “They haven’t experienced it.”
But the ubiquity of cameras – everyone has one – and the ability to share videos instantly on social media has changed that.
Now, said Taylor, “They’re able to see processes of people being killed, right, and they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. This is crazy.’”
Daria Drozdova, a native of the Czech Republic, whose husband was inside the convention serving as a Sanders delegate, was listening in. She joined the conversation and explained that in her Southern California neighborhood, “I don’t see that many black people.” (Drozdova is white; her husband is Asian American.)
Social media, she said, has helped her grasp the issue and made her willing to speak about it.
“I have seen these videos of black men basically being ruthlessly murdered,” said Drozdova, whose white dress was covered in blue “Bernie” stickers. “That really helps us build solidarity.”
For some protesters, though, the cameras enable their inner narcissist. And for media of all stripes – from national networks to basement bloggers – those same cameras feed the insatiable desire for one more viral story.
Rose Hamid, a Muslim woman whose early childhood was spent in Buffalo, was handing out pens on a bright, hot afternoon in Cleveland’s Public Square.
The RNC was going on that week and Hamid, who now lives in North Carolina, has been wary of Donald Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims. So she showed up with her pens, colored green like a stem and with a rose on top and imprinted with the words, “Salam, I Come in Peace.” Her goal was to meet RNC delegates – who were proving elusive – and talk to them about Muslims. Unlike most protesters, Hamid put a positive spin on what we see in the news.
“I think we have a perception that things are bad, but in reality, things are pretty decent,” she said. Bad news “is making more headlines, but I also see a lot of grassroots things where people are coming together as well. I think the negatives are waking up the folks who want to see a better world, and it’s getting people to come out of their circles and their comfort zones.”
That’s measured, reasonable, and likely provided a good starting point for dialogue with those delegates she managed to unearth. What it didn’t do, however, was feed the circus mentality and attract a horde of cameras.
That was left to scenes like this one, which happened across the square, where two women were squaring off over police violence. The language in this dialogue is cleaned up heavily for public consumption:
“Police murder black and brown people with impunity,” said a woman whose hair was dyed red like a candy apple.
“Are you kidding me?” responded a woman in a pink-and-white Trump hat. “Impunity, huh? Don’t be calling all cops racist.”
“They don’t murder white people,” the first woman said.
Enter a twenty-something guy in a dark suit and a white American flag hat. He looked like a cross between a stand-up comedian and the sixth member of a five-man boy band, and his companion held a camera.
The guy was looking to cause a scene.
“I’m not speaking to you,” the red-haired woman said. “Get out of my face right now or we’re about to have a problem.”
The guy smiled for the cameras and started spitting on each of his elbows. The red-haired woman tried to spit at him, but her mouth was so dry – presumably from screaming – that nothing seemed to come out.
“Get out of my face or I will spit on you,” she warned him still.
The woman in the Trump hat recoiled. “Don’t put your bodily fluids on people.”
The man looked to the cameras and said, “Hey guys, the jiggy movement is real. There is a third party that is running for president right now and all he’s saying is love. All he’s saying is dance.”
He starts dancing. So much for a discussion – even a heated one – about police shootings.
But the first woman, whose angry face now matched the color of her hair, brought it back.
“While you’re dancing,” she screamed, “black and brown people are still getting murdered.”
The Trump lady couldn’t resist.
“So are white, yellow, green, purple and blue, baby,” she said.
Serious matters, circus treatment, and the media plays right into it. Mickey Osterreicher, a photojournalist-turned-lawyer who is general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, has a word for it: trolling.
“Everybody’s here and they’re trying to find a different angle or something exclusive,” said Osterreicher, who’s also of counsel to the Buffalo firm Hiscock & Barclay LLP. He traveled to both Philadelphia and Cleveland in the last two weeks and, as part of his role with the NPPA, goes to protest sites at major events around the country to ensure media’s First Amendment rights are being met.
“The protesters and the media kind of served each others’ needs,” he said. “(Media) were looking for stories; (protesters) were looking to be a story.”
That dynamic can suck attention away from the more positive imagery. One afternoon during the DNC, the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas – widely noted as a hate group – sent four protesters to hold signs outside a Philadelphia health clinic that services people who are transgender. Long in advance, supporters of the clinic rallied hundreds of people to come and play music, hold positive signs, and form a so-called Wall of Love “so people who use these services don’t have to deal with them,” said Sarah Hill, a social worker from Buffalo who moved to Philadelphia in 2007.
As Hill spoke, a children’s choir sang “Let It Be” in the background. The Westboro crew was at the end of the block, out of sight and not audible, even as they held tall signs with anti-gay and anti-transgender messages and sang spoofed, hate-filled versions of popular songs. (The local example: Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” became “Philadelphia Treason.”)
“They said we shouldn’t talk to them,” Hill said of the Wall of Love organizers.
But cameras and curiosity transform regular people into paparazzi, and so Westboro was surrounded not only by police, but by news photographers and onlookers. When their half-hour of permitted protest time was up, the Westboro members – two older women, and two younger women – packed up their signs and grabbed their speaker. One mockingly sneezed into an American flag to antagonize the crowd, and then headed to their car with a police escort — and a full cadre of cameras.
Angry onlookers shouted obscenities at the women. One of the women looked to the crowd and said, “Please repent.” That triggered more obscenities.
Taking it all in, the woman who appeared to be the youngest Westboro member, and who was capturing the scene on her camera phone, looked at another of the women and said, dryly, “Is this part of the Wall of Love?”
Or take the last night of the DNC, when a crowd of several hundred anti-Hillary protesters showed up outside the convention gates to hold a mock “public trial” of Clinton. It was raucous, which meant it was for cameras.
Around sundown, a man named Kelphala Sessay showed up in shiny gold African garb from his native Sierra Leone. He held a sign: “Sierra Leone supports Hillary Clinton, appreciates Bill Clinton.”
Sessay, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, marched on the White House in the mid-90s to ask for then-President Bill Clinton’s help in stopping a civil war in Sierra Leone. Sessay talked to a White House official at the gate and says he saw Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton look at his group through the window. He believes that moment encouraged the president – and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton – to provide logistical support that helped end the war.
“People don’t know that he saved a nation,” Sessay said. “They were killing people left and right. Innocent people. Hillary talked to her husband, I saw her talking to him, and it started to change. She has saved the nation of Sierra Leone. That’s what I want people to know, that she’s a life-saver.”
Accurate or not, it’s the man’s memory, and he wanted to share it. A few reporters talked to him. A few protesters engaged him politely. But largely, Sessay stood alone.
Maybe he should’ve screamed and yelled.
Protesters want change, but an important element gets lost in the spectacle: How are they going to achieve it?
In Cleveland, a group of about 30 anarchists spent a couple of days demonstrating. They got into discussions – and sometimes arguments – about the virtues of communism (their preference) over capitalism.
Depending whom you ask, they either led police on goose chases around public areas or were forced to march or move by law enforcement or a crush of cameras.
When they finally settled down and sat in a small public park – sweaty, thirsty and hungry for lunch – two group leaders talked to reporters about their vision.
“The whole reason I am a communist is I served overseas in Afghanistan,” said Pat Mahoney, who wore a black T-shirt that said, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and had a daisy tucked behind his ear. “I did three tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman, so I was right there with the things. And I realized on my second tour that … the whole thing is to keep us separated from these people. Afghan workers, regular Afghan citizens, have more in common with me than some guy, some Republican, yelling about the free market.”
“Now I’m aiming at taking down this corrupt system,” he said. “I think that’s the only thing you can do.”
Abolishing capitalism is big task. It’s a catchy sound bite and good for a protest chant, or a sign. But how do you actually do it?
Matt Meister, a 41-year-old anarchist with a bushy brownish-red beard and straw cowboy hat, had the answer: Organize workers not only to unionize for wages and benefits, but for workplaces. For example, refusing to do work they consider morally or societally wrong.
“The goal is gigantic,” he said. “It would be like one person trying to eat an elephant. It’s possible, but it’s going to take a lot of tenacity and perseverance, and it’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some strategy. We’re patient.”
So are the flag burners from the Revolutionary Communist Party. When they say they want a revolution, they mean it.
“We are organizing for a revolution at the soonest possible moment,” said Carl Dix, the organization’s spokesman.
The founder, Bob Avakian, who is honored in the group’s marching chants and whose name and picture are held in great reverence, does not often speak publicly.
That revolution, Dix said in Philadelphia’s FDR Park, is happening in steps. The first phase, which is happening now, is sharing the need for a revolution to “fight against these horrors: police terror, mass incarceration.”
Right now, Dix said, his group is spreading that word and recruiting people to become a part of the revolution. To that point: The group’s members in both Cleveland and Philadelphia were diverse: young and old, black and white.
In this phase, he said, they don’t initiate violence, although he acknowledged that demonstrations like flag-burning can provoke a physical reaction from others.
“Violence is not now a part of it from our end,” Dix said.
“Well, in the future, we’ll have to see,” Dix said, adding that the “system” of government that suppresses people in the inner cities “is very violent. It’s always been violent, and we’re going to have to meet and defeat their attempts at violent suppression.”
Moments later, he joined in formation with 11 other members and marched off. They had shared their message, and headed out, leaving the cameras to find the next storyline.