Leading up to this year’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, many worried that protests would be large, unruly and violent. That’s for several reasons: the violence seen at Trump rallies in past months; tensions about the recent killings of African Americans by police and police by African Americans; the growth of the Black Lives Matter (#BLM) movement; declarations by some gun activists that they would be carrying weapons openly to assert their Second Amendment right to do so; and the increasing security around national party conventions since 2000.
But chaos hasn’t arrived. In fact, the protests at this year’s RNC are considerably smaller than we’ve seen at recent conventions.
The answer is not a newfound love of Donald Trump among social activists. The story is about organization — or rather, the lack of it.
Here’s who was protesting in Cleveland
The groups interested in protest failed to forge a broad, unifying coalition that could bring together protesters in coordinated opposition. My survey research of activists on the ground at the convention (conducted with the assistance of students at the University of Michigan and Kent State University) shows that they were fragmented in a series of smaller coalitions that staged modestly sized events.
A Black Power coalition led a small protest on Saturday, which notably did not include most of the #BLM activists in town for the week. A locally planned Keep the Promise March on Sunday was canceled in favor of an indoor event. Shut Down Trump and the RNC, which draws principally on out-of-town leadership and participants, rallied on Sunday and Monday behind causes such as immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter and peace. The End Poverty NOW! March for Economic Justice on Monday drew heavily upon Cleveland locals, but marched separately from Shut Down Trump.
While some labor movement activists showed up at the poverty march, from the Service Employees International Union in particular, labor’s organizing strength was not on view as it has been at some previous conventions.
No large demonstrations were held on Tuesday and Wednesday. Instead, there were small, roving gatherings by Code Pink: Women for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Revolutionary Community Party USA, anarchists and others. For example, Code Pink conducted an “open carry of tennis balls” outside the convention to challenge the absurdity of the fact that Ohio allows firearms to be carried openly but Cleveland banned tennis balls near the convention’s perimeter.
Monday saw the most obvious missed opportunity for coordination when End Poverty Now (mostly local activists) and Shut Down Trump (mostly national activists) held the largest anti-Trump rallies at the same time in different places. Conceivably, these events could have been joined with a common theme and held in the same location, for a larger impact. The permits issued by the city gave both groups permission to stage protests much larger than the ones that they ultimately produced.
These scattershot protests contrast with the more coordinated protests in 2004 and 2008
By contrast, in 2004 and 2008, seasoned antiwar organizers brought together various elements of the left and staged impressive rallies outside the Republican conventions. As Fabio Rojas and I explain in our recent book, “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11,” the antiwar movement was able to identify themes that unified various faction of the left, both locally and nationally. For example, hundreds of thousands of people marched past Madison Square Garden during the 2004 RNC with the theme of “the world says no to the Bush agenda.” Although this rally was planned by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) — an antiwar coalition founded in 2002 — it was able to work closely with leaders of many other left-leaning social movements.
However, by now this coalition has dissolved — specifically because the Democratic Party gained power in 2006 and 2008. The reason: Activists identified with the Democratic Party did not want to challenge their party’s leadership by protesting.
Where might the left’s national leadership come from?
Black Lives Matter has shown some elements of national leadership, and may have the potential to replace the antiwar movement as the new organizing center for the left. It speaks with a powerful voice on an urgent issue and draws support from many leftist activists.
But #BLM doesn’t yet have the organizing capacity that the antiwar movement did after 9/11, when it was able to draw on years of ongoing organizing experience and groups, some dating back a century.
BLM’s principal strength in organizing has also been its chief weakness. By relying heavily on social media, #BLM enables people from around the world to participate from their keyboards. But this approach keeps the movement mostly decentralized, making it harder for central national leaders to emerge who could build trust and relationships within the movement. Such leaders might then be able to negotiate with other organizations and movements, pulling them together into a working coalition.
UFPJ had the experience and relationships to play this role deftly, holding together a robust coalition of local, national and international organizations roughly from 2003 to 2008. BLM is only three years old and doesn’t yet have the seasoned organizers, broad networks and relationships, financial resources and encompassing vision needed to bring groups together toward their shared goals.
Had the various left-leaning opposition groups been able to coordinate efforts, join their messages and unite their rallies, they might have been able to draw in a much wider constituency to protest.
But there’s a larger reason we’ve seen no violence or chaos
Lack of coordination among left-leaning factions is only part of the answer to the question: Why no chaos? The deeper answer is that in the United States, the vast majority of protesters intend to express their grievances peacefully. Only a tiny minority intend to stir up violence. We could see that in Dallas, where a peaceful protest was disrupted by a lone shooter, a type so familiar in the United States.
Michael T. Heaney is assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan, and coauthor of “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11.” Find him on Twitter @michaeltheaney.