The fear was palpable, heightened by a pervasive sense that the country was in disarray, that the social compact was near collapse, that Americans could no longer get along. “Disorder and even violence will disrupt the convention,” one columnist wrote. Extraordinary security measures were taken. Some respected party elders announced they were staying away. The prospect of nominating a wild card, a provocateur, a man who seemed disturbingly comfortable with extremism, caused many to wonder if the Republican party was falling apart. But perhaps the most angst in the days before the convention centered on the likelihood that there would be blood in the streets, a massive show of protesters determined to push back against the unprecedented choice of a candidate from far outside the mainstream.
Cleveland 2016, the Trump moment? No, San Francisco 1964, on the eve of the Barry Goldwater nomination.
There was no violence. There were protesters, but not nearly as many as had been expected. The authorities, the press, the politicians had all gravely predicted a racial confrontation, an expression of black rage over the rising prominence of white supremacists among the ranks of Goldwater’s supporters, and a white backlash against that black protest. It didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen in Cleveland last week either, despite eerily similar expectations. A few stray protesters engaged in half-hearted, tragic color wars in the city’s central square, yelling across lines of expressionless police officers that black, or blue, or all lives mattered. Despite the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, despite two years of rising tensions over relations between police and black Americans, the protests near the Republican National Convention were small, almost entirely peaceful and generally ignored.
A flag burning just outside the convention’s security zone led to a handful of arrests — Cleveland police, who had stocked up with 2,000 sets of riot gear, reported fewer than two dozen arrests all week — but even the activists said they were surprised by the thinness of their ranks. Amnesty International had sent teams to monitor how police handled demonstrators, and the National Lawyers Guild positioned observers between protesters and police, but there was little to see other than placid-faced officers standing at their posts.
That gulf between expectations and outcomes has been a consistent story outside Republican conventions for several decades, leading both protesters on the left and party loyalists on the right to conclude that activists are less inclined to show up where conventioneers’ views are distant from their own, and more likely to go where they might confront people who are closer cousins ideologically. By that theory, there will be more protests in Philadelphia at this week’s Democratic National Convention, and activists say that is indeed their plan.
“I hate to think this is the defining moment,” said Francis Chiappa, co-president of Cleveland Peace Action, which held a small demonstration a few blocks from the convention only to find their little group speaking mainly to a tight line of police officers who had been brought in from the Indiana State Police and the California Highway Patrol. Chiappa wanted to raise delegates’ consciousness about the merits of immigration, but there were no conventiongoers in sight.
“America loves the spectacle, the clash of ideas,” Chiappa said, “but look around: We have a right-wing conspiracy theorist over there and the Revolutionary Communist Party folks who come here just to shout everyone down. It’s just a little collection of extremes.”
Some activists said the small turnout was a matter of location — Cleveland isn’t as easy to reach as a city along the northeast corridor might be. Others noted that with hotel and room-sharing prices jacked up to take advantage of the convention crowd, protesters may have been reluctant to make the trip. Leaders of Black Lives Matter, some of whom had visits from FBI agents in the days ahead of the convention, said they decided to skip Cleveland because Republicans were far less likely to hear their concerns than Democrats.
“The closest I ever came to being killed was at a Goldwater rally,” recalled R. Cooper White, who as a young stockbroker from Greenville, S.C., was a delegate to the 1964 GOP convention. “The crowd was so big and thrilled to see Goldwater that they were just crushing us.” When White got to San Francisco, he expected the worst: “There was a lot of animosity. I saw two guys get into a fight on the floor of the convention, a Goldwater guy against a Rockefeller guy, and a newsman got in between them to break it up.”
But out on the streets, there were just a few quiet protesters, said White, 89, who went on to become mayor of Greenville.
Similarly, in Cleveland, the action took place mainly on the convention floor, where pro- and anti-Trump delegates went at each other, not with fists, but with chants, taunts and coarse insults.
A massive police presence produced street scenes that left some delegates chuckling — an energetic band of communists, 38 of them to be precise, paraded along Euclid Street in the city center, accompanied by 49 police officers, most of them on bicycles — and some activists exasperated.
When two small groups of protesters, one chanting “Black Lives Matter” and the other responding with “Police Lives Matter,” came toward each other in the square, the call went out for police reinforcements. Within three minutes, more than 160 officers had walked over and formed single-file lines separating the two groups. The police said nothing, did nothing, just stood there. The stalemate continued for more than a half-hour, and then the protesters moved on.
“Black people, go hunt some white people! White people, go hunt some black people!” mocked Michael Landingham, 34, an African American and a Cleveland resident, as he encouraged gawkers in Public Square to ignore the clusters of shouting and chanting protesters.
“Look,” Landingham said, “I want justice just like anybody does, and I don’t want to see another black kid, another cop killed. I came down here because the news was saying war was going to break out here with all the protests, but look around: It’s just a few extreme people. And the rest is the media and the police. Most people aren’t so extreme they want to come here and shout at people. The chasm isn’t really so wide. Put out your hand and have them all talk nicely. Here, I’ll show you.”
With that, he walked over to a spot where a shouting young black man and a tough-looking, jaw-jutting white man were yelling at each other about police shootings. Landingham waded into the circle of camerapeople and police that had surrounded the two shouters. He stepped right up to the debating duo and stuck out his hand.
“Go on, now shake each other’s hand,” he instructed them, and they did as they were told.
“I want to see the Black Panther Party hug the Klan,” Landingham said.
At the 1964 GOP convention, many of the party’s most prominent leaders warned against the selection of an outsider candidate whose campaign preached an “America First” message and gave encouragement to white nationalists. Michigan Gov. George Romney, father of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, cautioned delegates that choosing Goldwater would “commence the suicidal destruction of the Republican Party.”
Inside the convention hall, Goldwater supporters shouted down fellow delegates who dared to oppose their man. Outside, a few thousand protesters, blacks and whites together, marched along San Francisco’s streets, calling Goldwater the anti-civil rights candidate, carrying signs and wearing costumes mocking him as a white supremacist. In the parade were black civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer, as well as Brooklyn Dodgers baseball great Jackie Robinson, a longtime Republican.
The predicted racial confrontations failed to materialize; there was no violence.
“There was no fear, no security issues — the city was a great host and we had a fine time,” recalled Frank Boggus, then a young car dealer from Harlingen, Tex., and a delegate to the convention. He was a loyal Republican who turned to Goldwater because he believed the country had turned toward socialism and that only a harsh conservative could reverse that.
“Goldwater was more extremist than Trump,” said Boggus, now 87 and still running the Ford dealership that bears his name. “We’ve been leaning liberal and even socialist, and he’s the man who can turn it around.”
Boggus never noticed the protests outside the convention.
Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in one of the most lopsided races in history, winning only six states and 38.5 percent of the vote.