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‘Please ignore the man with the bullhorn’: A reporter’s diary from outside the GOP convention

Tales from the streets outside the GOP convention, where thousands were holding their own debate over America’s future.


Day 1: Paranoid in Cleveland | ‘Dysfunctional veteran’ | Demilitarized zone | Day 2: Rock ’n’ roll moment | Water guns | Protest bingo | Day 3: The courts | Merchandise | Flag burning | The revolution | Protest? | Vermin Supreme


‘Love will see us through’

Performance artist, activist and perennial political candidate Vermin Supreme, seen earlier in the Republican National Convention
Performance artist, activist and perennial political candidate Vermin Supreme, seen earlier in the Republican National Convention (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Day 4, 11:18 p.m.: The streets outside the Quicken Loans Arena were calm as Trump ascended the stage and accepted the nomination for president. Police officers loitered on Prospect Avenue, waiting for a threat to face as partiers watched Trump's speech from behind the glass windows of Flannery's bar.

Things were nearing an end out on the streets. Sitting on a sidewalk outside the Secret Service security zone, I listened on my phone as Trump promised to end crime when he took office on Jan. 20, 2017, and as he thundered that the country had become weak, disrespected and violent.

Then I heard a voice on a bullhorn.

It was coming up the narrow street where the media outlets had rented out storerooms and where a group of Hare Krishnas was banging a tambourine.

"Love is on our side," the performance artist and political prankster Vermin Supreme sang through his bullhorn, wearing a rain boot on his head, and dragging a retinue of followers, reporters and police with him. "Love will see us through."

Vermin Supreme, one of the Republican National Convention’s celebrity street urchins, has served as a kind of left-wing counterweight to the provocations of Alex Jones. Where Jones has sown chaos around the convention, at one point interrupting a filming Thursday of the left-leaning “Young Turks” show, Vermin Supreme has inserted himself more playfully into the confrontations with protesters and police on the streets. Vermin — or does he go by Supreme? — looks like a scrawny, anarchist Santa, wearing a black vest that says "RESIST TELEVISION, POLICE ARE YOUR FRIENDS," a fake plastic butt, and a necktie that really couldn't get any looser.

He's teased the fundamentalist preachers who have been howling hellfire at every gathering, and he has pranced in front of the police, just like he was doing now as the crowd sang the national anthem.

"...O’er the land of the free, and the home... of the... brave."

Things in Cleveland were coming to an end.

"Soon you'll be in your living rooms drinking beer," Vermin Supreme told the crowd. "Keep it cool."

He skipped down Prospect Avenue, which was now empty except for a bank of police horses, state troopers, and cameras. The street was filled with people but nearly silent, except for the sound of the Hare Krishnas in the distance, and the quiet drone of a journalist playing video of Trump accepting the nomination for president.

"What's the name of the gentleman with the boot on his head?" an officer asked me.

"Vermin Supreme," I said.

"Vermin Supreme!" the officer said. "I'll have to look him up later."

"Please move along!" Vermin Supreme hollered from down Prospect Avenue, which was lined now by dozens of police.  "Please ignore the man with the bullhorn. Thank you. I am Vermin Supreme, and I am running for president."

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What if they gave a protest, and only the reporters came?

The Stand Together Against Trump march across the Hope Memorial Bridge
The Stand Together Against Trump march across the Hope Memorial Bridge (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Day 4, 3:31 P.M.: If you hold a protest march on a bridge where nobody except the police and media can see you, are you really marching? Or are we all just slowly descending into madness together?

I've seen a lot of stuff outside the Republican National Convention that I could appropriate for a graphic novel about the end times. Bicycle officers dressed like Robocops. Police horses dressed like Robocops. Bikers chasing Communists. An activist in a diaper. Alex Jones.

But we may have reached the height of absurdity Thursday afternoon when the activist group Stand Together Against Trump held a permitted parade rally on the city-approved parade route outside the RNC.

Before the convention began, activists had complained that the city's protest restrictions violated the 1st Amendment. To hold a parade, you had to have a permit, and you had to follow a route over the Hope Bridge, which isn’t particularly close to the convention.  Activists called it the "bridge to nowhere."

Most of the organized protesters here this week have ignored the rules and just marched wherever they wanted, or at least wherever the hovering brigades of bicycle police would let them. They made a lot of noise and lots of bystanders saw them, and I can report that things basically ended up fine.

By contrast, Stand Together Against Trump followed the rules, got a permit, gathered at the permitted time, at the permitted place — it appeared to be the only significant march held along the official parade route all week.

And it turned out like a zombie movie.

At the front of the march, about nine activists held up a long banner that read, "STAND AGAINST TRUMP: STAND FOR AMERICAN VALUES." Others held signs that said, "HISTORIANS SAY NO TO HATE," "A HATE-FILLED MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING," and "LOVE HAS NO BORDERS."

As about 100 activists began marching across the bridge, it became pretty clear that the only people who could see the messages of love were the bee swarm of journalists and a cluster of religious protesters who had come to tell everybody they were going to hell.

The protesters and the journalists proceeded to march over the river, lots of people chanting and somebody banging a drum. As far as I could tell, nobody back near the convention hall in the distance was even looking at us. When we reached the end of the route, a small army of police was waiting.

The surrounding streets were empty. Nary a delegate nor a casual passerby was to be seen. At one point I counted about seven construction workers watching from an overpass.

The protesters milled around a bit, realizing the route was a dead end. Then parade organizer Brian Hambley took a bullhorn: "Back over the bridge!" he boomed.

They pivoted back toward the action.

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The revolution is coming. Or not.

Carl Dix, a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, says supporters will challenge the arrests of 17 people in Wednesday's flag-burning protest.
Carl Dix, a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, says supporters will challenge the arrests of 17 people in Wednesday's flag-burning protest. (Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

Day 4, 10:57 A.M.: I wonder when's the last time American Communists got this much media attention.

It's the final day of the Republican National Convention, and so, of course, I'm at a news conference for Revolutionary Communist Party supporters. To be honest, there's not much else going on. The '60s this is not. Norman Mailer's armies of the night have not materialized on the streets of Cleveland. Which is why I have ended up here with a couple dozen other journalists, clogging the sidewalk in front of the Cleveland Justice Center to hear what supporters of communist revolution had to say.

"America was never great," Sunsara Taylor, a Revolutionary Communist Party supporter, told a bank of television cameras. She ticked through America's sins: slavery, imperialism, capitalism, police killings, and now, the "Nazi rally," otherwise known as the GOP convention, happening inside the nearby Quicken Loans Arena.

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FOR THE RECORD

8:18 p.m. July 21: An previous version of this report misspelled Sunsara Taylor’s first name as Sansara.

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RCP supporters were responsible for the most dramatic bit of activism outside the convention thus far: an American flag-burning ceremony Wednesday that ended with 17 arrests, including the flag burner, Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson. He was the one who burned the American flag outside the RNC in 1984, and whose arrest led to a Supreme Court ruling that flag burning was constitutional.

The Communists say the arrests were illegal, and have signaled that Wednesday's arrests could lead to another battle in court.

Police claim they moved in not to stop the flag burning, but because the protesters had accidentally set themselves on fire.

I've seen video showing that an official almost instantly tried to douse the burning flag with an extinguisher, and things turned chaotic as Johnson tried to protect the flame."The police have lied," Taylor said this morning.

The RCP’s supporters are a pretty common sight out on the activist circuit; if there were a protest Olympics, they might send a delegation. I remember seeing them in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 when the city's black residents began rising up against their Police Department.

Even there, in a scene known for its stridency, they were not exactly popular among other activists, some of whom accused them of instigation. At one point, protesters and St. Louis City Councilman Antonio French shoved one of the group’s members, apparently Johnson, to the ground.

Maybe it’s because they are, as their title suggests, revolutionary. They want to overthrow capitalism because they think nothing good can come from it. And it's probably worth saying that they're probably as far away from the Democratic and Republican nominees as you can get ideologically. They think Donald Trump is a fascist and Hillary Clinton a war criminal.

In other words, you can expect to see them right back outside the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, calling for the same revolution.

But first, there's the matter of Trump's acceptance speech tonight. "Everybody who's in Cleveland or who can get here needs to be a part of these protests," said Carl Dix, a founding member of the RCP, adding that the party was "organizing for an actual revolution at the soonest possible moment."

As they have been for years.

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The Star-Spangled Banner in flames

Police arrest protesters from the Revolutionary Communist Party as they burned an American flag.
Police arrest protesters from the Revolutionary Communist Party as they burned an American flag. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

DAY 3, 5:06 P.M.: There is enough international media in Cleveland to cover a nuclear catastrophe, and it's starting to feel like we're all photographing the same 50 protesters antagonizing one another.

Take what happened outside Quicken Loans Arena, headquarters for the Republican National Convention.

For days, the Revolutionary Communist Party — an old-school Maoist group led by Bob Avakian — had given notice that its members were planning to burn an American flag outside the convention on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

Burning an American flag is constitutional. The Supreme Court said so after a communist burned the flag outside the RNC in 1984. Yet burning the flag remains reliably infuriating, especially for veterans, who have been patrolling the streets outside this year's convention on the lookout for protesters who might be up to no good.

By the time 4 p.m. rolled around, the intersection at 4th Street and Prospect Avenue was clogged with journalists, police, veterans, communists, religious proselytizers, onlookers and a guy in a baseball hat that said “Make Serbia Great Again.”

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams stood in the street, trying to personally clear the intersection. TV cameras formed debris clouds around anybody who looked as though he was about to do something.

Finally, the communists burned the flag, photographers bobbed around the action, police officers crashed through the wall of journalists' bodies, and a series of arrests began, for unknown charges. I wasn't close enough to see, but police said that two officers were assaulted and suffered minor injuries, and that officials took the flag after dousing it.

At that point, mounted police began pushing down the street, blowing whistles. Officers marched an older woman in a purplish shirt into the back of a van, with a contingent of communists in pursuit, chanting, "Let her go!" A woman hollered on her bullhorn, "You've got to get with the world-class revolutionary leadership of Bob Avakian!"

By the time it was over, 16 members of the communist group had been arrested, according to supporter Sunsara Taylor. (Police later said 17 were arrested there, while they made an additional arrest elsewhere.) One of them was Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson, who burned the flag — the same guy who had burned the flag at the RNC in 1984.

“His message was that 'America was NEVER great! We need to overthrow the system,'” Taylor wrote later in a direct message on Twitter. "The U.S. flag is even more blood-soaked than when he burned it the first time.” She proceeded to tick off names of African Americans killed by police, then threw in victims of the Iraq war for good measure.

"Pisses me off," said an Arizona Sons of Liberty member in a leather jacket as it all unfolded. He told me his name was Hoss and said he and some of his fellow Sons of Liberty were keeping a close eye on the communists.

Hoss said he had served in the Army, had family members who had died serving. He’d taken an oath, he said, to protect America from enemies foreign and domestic, and now it was time to make good on it.

He was there to protect the Republican delegates from the kind of violence that broke out outside a Donald Trump rally in San Jose in May, Hoss said. "We didn't want to see a repeat of what happened."

As it was, there wasn't much for him to do. The police presence in Cleveland has been overwhelming, and up until then, things had been pretty mellow.

Tomorrow, Hoss predicted, all that would change. Tomorrow, Trump would accept the Republican nomination. Look out, he said.

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Keep the merchandise coming, please

Shy Drayton of Indiana, a street vendor at the Republican National Convention.
Shy Drayton of Indiana, a street vendor at the Republican National Convention. (Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

DAY 3, 1:36 P.M.: Once upon a time, there were a bunch of buttons being sold on the streets outside the Republican National Convention, and this would not normally be news, except my mother would disown me if I ever bought some of them.

Euclid Avenue outside the Quicken Loans Arena has the feel of a souk, where protesters bark like street prophets (and are mostly ignored, just like street prophets) and street vendors peddle Trump hats, Trump shirts, Trump magnets, Trump buttons.

And Hillary Clinton buttons.

LIFE'S A BITCH. DON'T VOTE FOR ONE.

VOTE NO TO MONICA'S EX-BOYFRIEND'S WIFE IN 2016.

KFC HILLARY SPECIAL: 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS ... LEFT WING.

I've seen them displayed at the eye level of a child by several street vendors, who are overwhelmingly male.

Except for Shy Drayton.

"Oh my gosh — jeez," Drayton said as I showed her photos I'd taken of other vendors' Clinton buttons. "I think that's very rude."

Drayton had a stand of merchandise set up in the shade of the House of Blues, where she was selling buttons (one for $3, four for $10) and shirts ($15 to $20).

"This is how I make my everyday living," said Drayton as she folded a “HILLARY FOR PRISON 2016” T-shirt. "I'm not too much into politics."

Drayton, who is from Indiana, has been hawking whatever sells at public events since she was 14, starting with Obama's election "back in the day." Most recently, she has been peddling gear in Atlanta, North Carolina, Iowa, Alabama and now Ohio.

"I've been to 42 states already, and I'm only 21," Drayton said proudly. "I meet people from all over the world."

Her personal philosophy: The president matters less than your personal motivations. "If you want to be rich, you can be rich," Drayton says. "You got to figure out how to do it."

Everybody at the convention has been nice to her, Drayton said. Her perch on Euclid Avenue has given her a front-row seat at the circus.

Recently, she watched as a group of armed men — calling themselves defenders of the 2nd Amendment — marched down the road with rifles, a brigade of police bringing up the rear.

But nothing much happened. Drayton turned away and kept selling her merch.

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The courts: All dressed up, but nobody’s at the party

One of the protesters who appeared in court Wednesday is seen during her arrest the previous day outside the Republican National Convention.
One of the protesters who appeared in court Wednesday is seen during her arrest the previous day outside the Republican National Convention. (Collin Rees)

DAY 3, 9:56 A.M.: A sign outside Cleveland Municipal Courtroom D says “NO LO TERING.” The "I" has fallen off, sadly. "Is there anyone here scheduled for a protection order hearing?" a court worker asked the young men and women waiting in the rather Soviet-era hallway.

Nope. This morning, a group of activists sat outside Courtroom D, not loitering, but awaiting judgment.

Municipal court is maybe the closest thing protesters have to a stern church: hard benches, rules that cannot be broken and a rather stiff penalty for skipping attendance. Jails and municipal courts often form the crucial backstage to all the protests you see on Twitter and TV, the place where the system takes in arrested activists, parks them behind bars and then spits them out after a fine or, more rarely, jail time.

For defense attorneys, representing activists can be a little weirder than regular criminal cases. As opposed to 99% of your other clients, your activist client might want to be guilty, want to go to jail for what he or she believes, or at least want to have a bonkers political trial in which a spectacle can be made in court, in front of the public, to draw attention to a cause. Sometimes it works.

There are three people who have been arrested for protesting in the first three days of the Republican National Convention, which was widely expected to be the most chaotic convention since 1968.

Yesterday, Jacqueline Zepeda, 28, and Sharon Spencer, 34, shimmied up two flagpoles outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to hang an anti-Trump banner as Liz Butler, 44, watched out from below. The police, of course, busted them on suspicion of  trespassing and generally causing a ruckus. After spending about eight or nine hours behind bars Tuesday, they were released, and this morning they came to cut a deal.

No spectacle here, I can report. It was all very quiet. One by one, the women came in front of Administrative and Presiding Judge Ronald B. Adrine, listened to a series of brief charges from a municipal prosecutor and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. They were released with fines as low as $75. It went by so fast that I could barely catch what they were charged with.

It's probably here in municipal court where you can best see how surprisingly calm the Republican National Convention has been. Cleveland's municipal courts had cleared out all their dockets and kept staff and judges on call in preparation for facing as many as 1,000 protester arrests a day. They even set up live streaming in three courtrooms in anticipation of huge dockets and packed galleries. They've needed none of it.

"So far, it's worked out perfectly," Adrine told me after the arraignments, knocking on the wooden walls of the court. "If somebody told me that three days in, we'd have a grand total of three convention-related arrests, I'd probably ask them what they'd been smoking."

Outside the courthouse, Zepeda, Spencer and Butler were ready to talk. They are anti-fracking and pro-immigration activists who said they met through friends. Butler said it was a "small price to pay to lose a day of freedom" to oppose deportations and "climate injustice."

"I'm glad we did it. It's a privilege to stand up for these communities," she said.

Spencer said it was unfortunate that for police and court systems, "their first priority is to protect corporations. I would like to see that changed." Then she had a word about fracking, an oil extraction process that has been blamed for fouled groundwater, earthquakes and other environmental ills.

"I'm just not interested in Ohio being a dumping ground for surrounding states," she said.

Zepeda, of northeast Los Angeles, munching on dry Trix cereal, said it was her first time getting arrested for anything. "It wasn't horrible," she said.

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‘I’m here today to say what I want to say’

Alex Jones, center, an American conspiracy theorist and radio show host, is escorted out of a crowd of protesters after a scuffle with some of them.
Alex Jones, center, an American conspiracy theorist and radio show host, is escorted out of a crowd of protesters after a scuffle with some of them. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

DAY 2, 6:03 P.M.: Remember when I wrote that things were calm, that it almost seemed as if the world outside the Republican National Convention was falling asleep? Ignore that. That was wrong. I was wrong.

The chaos seemed to begin — I suppose it's fitting — with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose airplane banners, truck advertisements and calls for Hillary Clinton's imprisonment have rivaled Donald Trump for setting the dominant tone in downtown Cleveland. 

Jones was passing through Public Square when, he says, he was confronted by communist protesters. A scuffle followed. By the time Jones was whisked away in an SUV, the scene had become a psychodrama.

The plaza filled with hundreds of people — police, Christian fundamentalists, communists, reporters, curious bystanders and a famous performance artist named Vermin Supreme wearing a boot on his head.

It was like protest bingo.

A group of grizzled men calling themselves the Bible Believers warned of the hell to come, and they stood on a ledge with signs; one said, "Jesus Christ, God manifested in the flesh, crucified, resurrected, and coming again, has a pressure cooker (THE LAKE OF FIRE) for every dead Muslim!"

On a different side of the square, the chronically inflammatory Westboro Baptist Church stood with its batch of fundamentalist signs warning "GOD HATES PROUD SINNERS."

On the opposite end of the square, the signs of the Revolutionary Communist Party could be seen bobbing in the distance over the heads of the police. They were using their bodies to build human picket fences between all the ideological factions in the square, which was starting to bulge like an angry neck vein.

The Bible Believers screamed damnation to the crowd on a megaphone, and Vermin Supreme jovially shouted back on his own megaphone, saying he couldn't understand them.

The Bible Believers then started chanting, "Police lives matter," and a different group with red, white and blue parasols started drowning them out with chants of "All lives matter."

At that point, in an unexpected turn, the Bible Believers started condemning the Westboro Baptist Church, calling them a "hate group." By then, more than 100 police had filled the square, slowly squeezing out lingering civilians like white blood cells trying to purge an infection.

The voice of a boy in a red yarmulke pierced the crowd as he started shouting at the Bible Believer, and as they started marching away, the boy confidently extended a middle finger for all the world to see.

I had to talk to him.

He said his name was Ranan Steiger, of Cleveland, and that he was 16, but he sure looked a lot younger. He had a sign that said, "Just say no to white supremacy."

"I'm here today to say what I want to say," said Ranan, making it clear he was offended to have been told he was going to hell. "Jerks like those, you can't let them do what they want to do."

What did he think about Donald Trump? He's an "idiot," Ranan said.

Was he a Republican or a Democrat?

Ranan shrugged. He didn't know yet.

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The guns come out in Cleveland. But do they squirt?

Stevedore Crawford Jr. of Delaware, Ohio, shouts at a police officer in Cleveland.
Stevedore Crawford Jr. of Delaware, Ohio, shouts at a police officer in Cleveland. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

DAY 2, 2:29 P.M.: "They're both carrying AR-15s," the police scanner barked.

I was sitting in the shade at Public Square when I heard the descriptions of two armed men come over an officer's radio — not with any seeming urgency. There have been other armed men, 2nd Amendment advocates, wandering around with their weapons outside the Republican National Convention, which is their right in Ohio. Up to now they haven't caused any trouble.

Still, I hopped up to see whether I could find these two who had caught the police's attention, to see what it looks like when you bring weapons to what feels like one of the most heavily guarded places on Earth.

It's probably a sign of how well things are going in Cleveland that I couldn't find anybody with AR-15s, or even any other sign of trouble.

Public Square in downtown Cleveland has become a pulsing jugular of the republic, where pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators mill about with signs and score TV interviews. It's peaceful. There are no brawls between sides. Protester riots have not materialized. Guns haven't been fired or wielded in anger. When I wandered past the square, I saw two groups of performance artists dancing in a grassy lawn, moving in slow motion, figures from a hallucination, as if this weird little world outside the convention had started falling asleep.

"I see people with water guns," one of my photographer co-workers, Marcus Yam, texted me.

AR-15s are legal in the protest zone, but water guns are not. They were temporarily banned by the City Council as a security measure. I decided to check it out.

I found Stevedore Crawford Jr., 53, of Delaware, Ohio, standing in a white T-shirt that said “TAMIR RICE ONLY,” with what looked to be three technically prohibited lime-green squirt guns on the sidewalk. (Actually, I couldn't tell whether they were squirt guns or regular toy guns.) Rice was the 12-year-old shot and killed by police while playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park in 2014. The officer who shot him was not charged.

Crawford was there with a woman and two very young girls who appeared to be his daughters. "I find it hard to live my life ... knowing Tamir Rice was shot down where she will be playing," Crawford, who is black, shouted to anyone who would listen, patting one of the girls on the head. "They murdered Tamir Rice in this city!"

A group of police officers walked past, and a white officer hailed Crawford: "Hey, boss." They bumped fists as cameramen circled — one of those made-for-media moments when a black American and a white cop come together for something — a visual metaphor for the idea that we can bridge our differences, even though the reality tends to be much, much harder.

The fist bump was a little awkward. Crawford began crying and bent over after the officers passed, overcome by emotion.

The officers left the play guns alone. After Crawford collected himself, he wandered down the street in the other direction.

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A rock ’n’ roll moment in Cleveland

Activist Jacqui Zepeda of Los Angeles is arrested outside Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Activist Jacqui Zepeda of Los Angeles is arrested outside Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Collin Rees)

DAY 2, 10:25 A.M.: I've never been around so many police in my life.

In downtown Cleveland, there are thousands of them, roving in specially sworn patrols on seemingly every block. They might be from California, Texas or Georgia, and the units all have different uniforms — black, blue, tan. It's got a quasi-multicultural flair, kind of like a gathering of Olympic delegations where the pole vaulters from Ukraine have guns and the power to arrest you.

Which is what makes Tuesday morning's first protest so interesting.

Despite the city's enormous police and surveillance presence, about 7:15 a.m., two women began shimmying up the two flagpoles outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has been hosting Republican National Convention guests. The two had managed to unhook and slip past the least rock ’n’ roll thing imaginable: metal barricades around the hall, draped with signs that say "MUSIC DEFIES BARRIERS."

"Slightly ironic in its own right," said activist Collin Rees, who was assisting with the protest from the ground and whose favorite group is the Temptations.

It was immigration and anti-fracking activists who were defying the barriers this time. As police arrived about 15 minutes later and helplessly barked for the two women to stop what they were doing, according to Rees, the activists hung a 25-by-25-foot banner that said, "DON'T TRUMP OUR COMMUNITIES: Ban fracking, tear down the wall, stop climate injustice."

The flag hung slightly above the American, Ohio and Cleveland flags, which had been lowered to half-staff for the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.

The two women, Jacqui Zepeda of Los Angeles and Sharon Spencer of Akron, Ohio, were arrested as soon as they climbed down, Rees said. A third activist helping from the ground, Liz Butler of Mount Rainier, Md., was also arrested, he said.

"They were doing their job; we were doing our job," Rees said of the officers, adding that the activists were not part of a formal group. "We were sending out the message we set out to send."

By the time I got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the protest had ended, the women were arrested, the banner was already gone — gone, like dust in the wind. Because all we are is dust in the wind.

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The demilitarized zone between left and right

Mildred Lee, 82, was one of a minority of pro-Hillary Clinton Democrats outside the Republican convention
Mildred Lee, 82, was one of a minority of pro-Hillary Clinton Democrats outside the Republican convention (Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

DAY 1, 5:35 P.M.: This afternoon, the eastern and western ends of downtown Cleveland could have been mistaken for two halves of an American brain no longer communicating with each other.

There was the right-wing rally on the waterfront to the west, where InfoWars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — sort of a human volcano who is always erupting — led the crowd in a near-screaming of "HILLARY FOR PRISON! HILLARY FOR PRISON! HILLARY FOR PRISON!"

It was a great show for the conservative-minded crowd gathered on the banks of the Cuyahoga. "Don't tread on me" Gadsden banners flapped in the wind. Vendors outside the event sold Trump swag, including family-unfriendly buttons that said things like "KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts... Left Wing."

Elsewhere at the rally, Mike "H.P." Roberts, 29, of New York proudly wore a button that said "Hillary 4 Prison" (complete with the presumptive nominee in an orange prison jumpsuit). Yes, he's for Trump, and, full disclosure, yes, he's black.

"Not all of us think like a herd of sheep," Roberts said. "There's a lot of black people like us, but they're intimidated, they're scared."

Roberts stopped as he heard a man speaking in the distance. "That's Alex," Roberts said — Alex Jones. "I know that voice."

At the worldview to the east, there was the antipoverty rally filled with anarchists, communists, assorted other lefty types and one Sikh cartoonist dressed in a Captain America costume holding a sign that said "LOVE TRUMPS HATE." (His name is Vishajvit Singh.) Muscle-bound men — whose haircuts and concealable body armor screamed plainclothes police or paid security — strolled through what was clearly not their kind of crowd, trying to keep a low profile. Nor was this a Clinton kind of crowd.

Alex Chabbott, a rangy 35-year-old from Santa Barbara, laid out neat rows of photocopied pamphlets with titles including "Guide to Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) Destruction," "Autonomous Resistance to Slavery and Colonization," and an antifascist tract called "Claim No Easy Victories: A History and Analysis of Anti-Racist Action."

"The real power comes from people — grass-roots action," Chabbott said, ticking off historical human-rights victories, like the end of slavery in the United States. Chabbott had been in Michigan for an environmental conference and decided he had to drop by the RNC, to "talk to people, hang out — get rid of all of these zines, so I don't have to take them home."

After the protest, music group Prophets of Rage played a short set on the abandoned lot where everyone had gathered and the crowd marched dozens of blocks toward downtown holding signs like "NO WAR BUT CLASS WAR."

At the front of the group, way ahead of the crowd, marched Mildred Lee, 82, dressed in a green and gold embroidered dress, an elegant red hat, and long, white gloves. She called it the outfit of an African Queen.

"I'm walking faster than the people," Lee beamed, as a human fence of bicycle police rolled past her and kept the crowd in the road from spilling onto the sidewalks. "I walk every day, so I'm used to it."

Lee was also probably an anomaly: She was a pro-Clinton Democrat and said she thinks it's time for a woman to be president. Asked if she was worried that the protest might turn violent, she shrugged. "When God gets ready for me, I'm ready."

But after the crowd had walked about two miles in the sun, nearing convention headquarters, its energy dissipated. Participants followed the routes blocked out by police without resisting. And by the time they spilled into a small park less than half a mile from Quicken Loans Arena, they were clearly done.

They flopped onto the cool grass, shaded by high-rises. And the small army of police that formed around them was left with nothing to do.

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‘Dysfunctional veteran — leave me alone’

"I don't want terrorism to come to nobody," says Mike Welch, whose brother was killed in a Beirut bombing. "It destroyed my mom. It destroyed our family. For what?" (Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

DAY 1, 12:25 P.M.: At a pro-Trump rally on the Cuyahoga River waterfront, I saw a man in a U.S. Marines vest with a patch that said, "DYSFUNCTIONAL VETERAN — LEAVE ME ALONE."

Of course I had to talk to him.

"Los Angeles Times!" Mike Welch barked, immediately fearing a liberal reporter who would twist his words. He took out his phone to take a picture of my ID badge. I promised I would record what he had to say and give him a fair shot, so Welch, still feisty, said he came from Michigan to prevent leftist protesters from shutting down the Republican National Convention.

"Bill Ayers I would like to meet. I come to these to find him," Welch, said, referring to the man who co-founded the Weather Underground during the leftist domestic bombing campaigns of the 1970s. "And when I do — you can have that — I'm going to kick his ass."

Welch wanted tougher immigration laws, a tougher fight on terrorism. He was sickened by the recent terror in France, sickened by the recent nuclear deal with Iran. Terrorism, in fact, was deeply personal to him. That's why he was for Trump.

"They killed my brother. They killed him," Welch said, projecting  disbelief. "Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Welch. Defense intelligence. The last bombing in Beirut." A suicide car bomber attacked the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon on Sept. 20, 1984, and two Americans were among the dead. "Michael Ray Wagner, of the Navy, and my brother…. Nobody gives a damn today because they're too busy running around."

Welch had a photo of his brother and his brother's name and rank sewn onto the front of his vest. On the back of Welch's vest were the names and photos of other fallen service members: Staff Sgt. Gregory McCoy. Sgt. Chad J. Vollmer. Spc. Holly McGeogh. Pfc. Casey Mason.

"I don't want terrorism to come to nobody. It destroyed my mom. It destroyed our family. For what?" For international politics, Welch said.

"Now we go to Arlington to see him, see a name on the wall. George Bush Sr. asked if we were proud of him. You know what? I was proud of him while he was alive. I don't need him blown apart to see his name on the wall, we didn't need that from him. So when families are affected, you see the bitterness that comes back. You think I am, my mother was five times worse. So I'm here for him, and people like him that served."

Welch sounded sad now. "Sorry about the cuss words."

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Hot, sweaty and paranoid in Cleveland

Police officers stand guard as anti-Trump protesters take to the streets on the eve of the Republican National Convention.
Police officers stand guard as anti-Trump protesters take to the streets on the eve of the Republican National Convention. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

DAY 1, 10:40 A.M.: Cleveland is already hot, sweaty and paranoid, as if a slice of the Rust Belt had been colonized by Washington, D.C., and turned into an outdoor airport security checkpoint.

Men in suits and women in dresses (I suspect this is not how most Clevelanders normally dress) drift past black metal fencing that surrounds the arena, the mayor's office, the city's convention center.

Police officers roam alleyways between the buildings downtown, guarding vulnerabilities unknown to the public. Local activists have been spooked by FBI agents knocking on their doors, looking for information or threats to this week's proceedings.

Through all this, I watch two men rolling a cart of transparent tubs filled with thousands of tortilla chips down the sidewalk, headed to parts unknown.

For the last week, almost everyone who finds out I'm going to be covering the protests outside the Republican National Convention has asked me a version of the same question: How bad do you think it will be? Will there be riots? Will protesters get in fights with Trump supporters? Will a lot of people bring guns (which is allowed under Ohio law)?

My answer each time has been: I really don't know. But like many other journalists, I packed body armor just in case, and would have brought a gas mask if the Cleveland City Council hadn't banned them. Sunday a man was arrested when officials said he tried to rip away the gas mask strapped to a state trooper's side. They think he may have been mentally ill.

"Can you hit ctrl+alt+delete for me?" a security agent asks as I try to enter the fenced-in security zone, where journalists are prompted to open their laptops and power them on. A woman in front of me can't get hers to turn on. Dead battery. She's sent away to plug it in. The security agent sees my password screen, swipes his finger randomly across the keyboard to enter a gibberish password and hits Enter. Incorrect password, but the right answer. It's not a bomb.

I regret to report that my mother isn't pleased that I'm here.

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Follow @mattdpearce on Twitter.

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