The storms surrounding Hurricane Isaac shortened the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, and stole some of the headlines Republicans hoped to generate. The rains mostly kept the delegates and party regulars indoors, fairly well insulated from the demonstrators outdoors, who were fewer and less visible than organizers promised. And, in the event that the protest zones weren’t far enough from the staged Republican party action to keep the two groups separate, there have been plenty of police.
What’s going on here? Why are the demonstrators there in the first place, and why have they been so, relatively, invisible?
Long ago, party conventions were places where Republican and Democratic leaders made decisions about important matters, particularly, who would represent them in national elections. While ambitious politicians made speeches, bosses made deals in rooms filled, no doubt, with smoke. The primaries were a sideshow that generated sideshow like attention. There were often several rounds of balloting for presidential and vice-presidential nominations, and bosses shifted their delegations’ votes with an eye toward the November elections and their own political fortunes. Journalists covered the conventions to get real news.
In the old days, before 1976 or so, activists turned out at the conventions to challenge the politicians and to steal some of their spotlight in the media. Activists could make claims directly to politicians who made decisions, from national figures to local precinct captains, and to a broader national audience. Sometimes it was disruptive and ugly. At the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968, demonstrators assembled in large numbers in Grant Park, protesting against the war, particularly, and against a process that allowed Vice President Hubert Humphrey to win the nomination without contesting a single primary. Mayor Richard J. Daley, the dictionary definition of a party boss, ordered the police, his police, to keep the demonstrators out, and some of the demonstrators fought back. The confrontations, including police attacks on members of the media, made national news–and it wasn’t pleasant. Below, you can see a young security forces rough up a young Dan Rather, who was trying to report on a delegate being kicked out of the convention.
Certainly, it was no help to candidate Humphrey, running against Republican nominee Richard Nixon who promised a return to law and order.
Since then, activist protests have been a fixture at party conventions. As the conventions themselves became less important in making decisions, they remained a tempting target for activists trying to get their message out to a national audience. And the causes proliferated. While there were plenty of grievances in 1968, the conduct of the Vietnam War was the major focus of the demonstrations in Chicago. It’s harder to distill one clear issue from the demonstrations at later conventions, even though even larger numbers of people participated, for example, in the protests outside the Republican convention in New York City in 2004.* (See the section on convention protests in The Politics of Protest.)
Activists promised a substantial presence at the Republican convention, and a vigorous challenge to promised Republican policies on a large number of economic and social issues. But the turnout in “Romneyville,” a protest zone set up a “safe” distance from the convention, underwhelmed journalists looking for a story.
The weather was part of the story; it’s hard to get even the very committed to board buses heading for a hurricane, particularly when plans for where to sleep haven’t quite come together. And activist networks in Tampa are nowhere near as dense and developed as those in New York or Minneapolis-St. Paul. (Even Floridians are staying away. 1Miami is organizing its convention protest in Miami, not Tampa.)
It’s not just a grievance that gets people to turn out, it’s also organizing. Activists from the left side of the political spectrum will have a hard time locating potential allies inside in the developing Republican party, homogenizing and shifting rightward at the same time. This was not the case for previous activists confronting somewhat more diverse parties. And the energy and activism of Occupy has spread into scores of other campaigns on a wide range of issues, with no powerful group taking the responsibility to direct its efforts to an anti-Romney protest in Tampa. Of course, Occupy’s norms of base democracy and consensus would make organizing such an event even more difficult than in the past.
But people keep protesting! All kinds of people! Supporters of Ron Paul, disaffected with the Party’s treatment of their hero, walked off the convention floor–but not all the way down the street to Romneyville. The Phelps family and its Westboro Church turned out to protest the country’s tolerance of homosexuality, attending the convention in between military funerals no doubt.
And there were protesters on the left as well. But when the numbers are smaller, the actions need to be more dramatic to get much attention. Code Pink tried to effect a citizen’s arrest of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for war crimes. (They didn’t get close enough to yell her her rights, but they’re ready to go after other veterans of the Bush administration.)
So at the moment, the rain has partly drowned out the Republican message, which has pushed the anti-Republican message even further off-screen.
*On the uphill struggle activists face in using convention protests to portray their cause and themselves to a broader audience, see Sarah Sobieraj’s excellent book, Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism.