Were the Protests at the DNC and RNC a Sign of Democracy Returning to Conventions?

Jul 28, 2016

Protests at political conventions are a given. But there were some differences in the voices raised this year. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports on the contrasts between Cleveland and Philadelphia and between 2016 and years’ past.

Blasting sodomites and fornicators, the Westboro Baptist Church showed up in both cities – as it does at just about any event that promises to be the center of media attention. But that was one of the few similarities between the protests in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Michael Heaney has been traveling to the political conventions since 2004. He teaches organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan. And his studies  include surveys of the crowds who gather outside the political conventions to press their points.

Ten days ago, he sat in a Starbucks in Cleveland, and noted, "Everyone’s been anticipating that the Cleveland protests would chaotic. Actually, I think there’s going to be more protests in Philadelphia.

He was right. Crowds that rarely grew beyond hundreds in Cleveland were often in the thousands in Philadelphia.

Some suggested that fear of violence suppressed the size of the crowds in Cleveland. Heaney says that’s possible. But he thinks it’s likely tied more closely to organization and location. The anti-war movement that drew as many as 100,000 to New York in 2004 has faded. So"there aren’t strong national organizations behind these protests.

"A second reason is that this geographic area doesn’t have a large population to draw on for protests.”

Across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

Fast forward to Philadelphia. Another Starbucks, down the street from City Hall and the plaza that’s been the center of the daily protests rhat fulfill Heaney’s predictions.

All Bernie all the time

  Still, he says, there has been a surprise.

“The most interesting thing that I’ve seen in Philadelphia is that the protests are very candidate-centered. And that’s not something that we saw either in Cleveland or in the previous conventions. … In a lot of ways, Bernie Sanders protesters have taken over this convention.”

That means protests on a range of issues, from immigrant to LGBTQ rights,  “Bernie Sanders supporters have overshadowed all of these demonstrations. That’s really unusual.” 

Michelle Mahon, a Strongsville nurse who helped organize protests in Cleveland and then made the trip to do the same thing in Philadelphia, says it’s more than location or even the Bernie factor. She says the protesters put their energy into two main events in Cleveland: The End to Poverty march and the Circle the City with Love march that drew as many as 4,000 people

“In general when we talked about these things, a lot of the groups did not put organizing, time and resources into demonstrating at the RNC because they’re really not movable.”

So instead, she says they focused on the Democrats and Philadelphia. “When you have limited capacity and limited resources as everybody does, it makes sense to use them where you’re most effective.”

O-H-I-O

Another contrast between the DNC and the RNC protests is inside the convention hall itself.

About as close as anything got to protests inside the Q in Cleveland was the O-H-I-O chants of Cleveland’s delegation as it cast its 66 votes for Gov. John Kasich – instead of Donald Trump --  and as other state’s delegates booed Ted Cruz off the stage.

In the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, anti-war – nearly all of them Bernie Sanders -- delegates tried to shout down retired CIA Director Leon Panetta as he spoke of fighting terrorism. Other delegates tried to drown the protesters  out with chants of USA.

Making conventions relevant again

Political scientist Heaney says it would have been a stunner if it had gone the other way.

“The Democratic party has a strong tradition of pluralism and dissent and social movement activism. The Republican party has a much more hierarchical ethos.”

Overall, Heaney says the disagreements that marked both conventions this year were a good thing.

"“The fact that you’re seeing protests and booing inside the convention hall shows that politics is returning to these conventions.”

So instead of being elaborately staged TV commercials, Heaney says this year’s conventions were much more an exercise in democracy -- both in the convention halls and out.

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