Bridget Callahan is in Cleveland covering the scene surrounding the Republican National Convention. The story begins here.
America, I have defended your love of selfies to strange men on Tinder and old folks who don’t understand you. I tell them America– like anywhere else– is just figuring itself out. The Internet represents a new shift in communication, like the telephone or the text, and nobody knows the rules yet because it hasn’t been around long enough to codify them, and America is like a baby looking in the Internet mirror, discovering it has expressions and arms and teeth– we are all babies looking in the mirror, just slowly connecting our inner thoughts with our outer appearance piece by piece. I have had your back, America. America isn’t obsessed with ourselves, I told them. It’s a phase. Duck face is like when babies don’t understand that your whole face isn’t disappearing behind your hands every time.
America, here’s a selfie I took of you:
I went downtown to Public Square, to see what was going on. The only places there were any people was on the square, and right by the convention entrance. Everything else was empty. Dead. The fountain that once held protesters and 200 bicycle cops was now completely bare except a few people eating lunch on the benches. Sidewalks were clear. There were places to park. The beautiful new sprawling lawn had some bike kids sleeping in the shade and a few guys tossing a football with a cop. I’m not making that up. It was idyllic. I laid in the sun for a while, until I became aware someone from up the hill behind me was taking pictures of me laying in the sun, and I got uncomfortable and left.
Everyone else was consolidated into the one square outside Tower City, half of which is taken up by a new restaurant you can buy coconut lattes at, and the other half by a Civil War Memorial for fallen soldiers, with all the “political” people in the bare concrete unshaded middle. On one side of the playground, Westboro Baptist held their “Do you have AIDS yet?” signs and screamed, and on the other side the nice ladies of Preterm talked about each of their abortions, and in between, a few crazy protesters in costumes wandered around a veritable ocean of photographers and mic-holders.
“Can I take your picture?”
“Can I ask you a few questions…”
It’s a podcast, no, it’s a radio show, no, it’s for this livestream, no, it’s for a blog/newspaper/media group out of Thailand, no, it’s a short news round up for Swedish art students in this collaborative mixed media online zine…
Cause if we’re being honest, there is NOTHING going on here. All the hype and worry, all the “OMG be safe” of the last week is gone. Nobody came to this thing. Except all the reporters in the entire world. And all the reporters in the entire world can’t be fed with sandwiches and coffee. All the reporters in the entire world must be fed with blood and flesh. All the reporters in the entire world must be fed with tears and cries of pain. When there is no flesh or tears, they start to eat themselves, scale by scale. If tomorrow morning no protesters, no spectators, no one shows up, then there will be 500 photographers staring wild and unfocused at each other, unable to make eye contact for Fear of Missing the Next Shot.
I sat on the concrete steps, and watched the crowd. It was milling about like tourists at a mall. Everyone was meandering, because they had no real direction except to see and be seen, and those who weren’t actively looking for cameras were staring at their phones and bumping into people. I live in a touristy beach town, and in the summertime it is terrible to walk down a city street because all the tourists are walking like sloths, not paying attention, walking into each other. This was exactly like that. It is the walk of someone who is distracted and not aware of their self. It is a selfish walk, because those of us who do have somewhere to go can’t get around you, and you don’t even notice us not being able to get around you.
But this time I was just supposed to watch these people, so I sat down and stayed very still. I pretended I was watching gorillas make breakfast. I watched the square of people like they were a sunset over Canada. I diligently paid attention, watching for how the larger organism moved.
And the pattern of movement became clear quickly. The crowd would mill around, bland, quiet, waiting. Then a small change – a girl writes “Empires will Crumble, Fuck the Police State” in chalk on the ground. Or a man in a wheelchair stops moving and raises his sign up high. No one noticed for a second, but then one person takes out their cellphone to take a picture. The crowd sees that small movement, the phone and the stance and the click, and they all come over to also take a picture. Soon there are five, no six, no ten people taking cellphone pictures, and that’s when the sharks notice and within a blink there are tripods set up and cameras rolling. That lasts for ten minutes, the moment is devoured, and everyone disperses into the pointless, till the next small click. Have you ever watched amoeba eat a paramecia? Imagine the crowd as a large amoeba, and every nut that comes out in costume and a sign is being attacked and absorbed as soon as they hit the body, just surrounded and digested immediately.
The disappointing, and therefore dangerous part, for everyone is that there weren’t that many nuts. Sure, there was Westboro. There is always fucking Westboro. I know how tired I am just from walking around for four days on concrete. These guys have been shouting hate for four days, and aren’t lagging at all. In that respect only, it’s kinda impressive. They probably have really good shoe inserts. And there were a few guys walking around with guns, and signs, and women handing out stickers dressed in leotards, and old ladies, and that was it, but mostly it was college dropout kids trying to be famous with badly scrawled Day-Glo signs that said things like “Capitalism Sucks” and “Make America Vape Again.”
Let’s talk about how the old ladies here are perhaps the most terrifying of demonstrators. 1) They are ruthless in their judgments, and 2) they are desperate to be seen and heard. I read somewhere once about how maybe as you stop being seen as a woman by society, i.e. you are no longer young or pretty, you start trying to find other ways to get attention, just to be seen by people who no longer register you as useful or worth noticing. An old woman holding a sign about a rancher being shot by the FBI sat on the steps next to us, behind a group of young men from Time Warner Cable news. The guys were intently searching the crowd for weird people with signs, but her sign was maybe not weird enough, and she wasn’t wearing a costume.
“Hey! Hey there! Hey, I used to work with you!” the woman said, right behind them. The men didn’t respond or pay attention. So she got up and leaned into them.
“Hey, I used to work with you! I used to do programming for the traffic, for Time Warner, in Duluth!” Her shrunken head was jammed in between their polo-shirted shoulders. Their camera guy had his face glued to his equipment, he refused to see her. Another guy, maybe a producer, had his headphones in. The last guy, who had nothing to turn to or hide in, finally nodded to acknowledge her. Then a guy walked by wearing a “Someone Love Me in Liberia” t-shirt holding a rifle, and the crew sprung into action to interview him, while next to them another crew was interviewing the scrawny, pimply kid walking around with a sign that said “Make Memes Great Again,” and the woman who was obviously actually there for the convention, the actual conservative voter, was left talking to herself on the steps.
So that right there may sum up why the Right hates the Left.
On the other side of me, a very handsome, well-coiffed man in Reporter Casual – which is to say not a suit but something very expensive that makes you look professional on camera- was sitting with his camera crew, watching his producer run through the crowd looking for interviews. A woman walked by the two of us dressed as a mental patient in a hospital robe, carrying a sign that said “USA Has Gone Insane” with a little stuffed elephant hanging from the cardboard in a noose. He shouted at her from the steps – “Hey, can I take your picture?” She stopped and gave her best professional pose– you could tell she had been doing that pose for three days now. He didn’t even get up, just snapped a quick photo from the steps, but that was all it took. The sharks heard the click like a bucket of chum being lowered into a murder pit in a villain’s lair somewhere – within five minutes there were three tripods set up around her, and a small Asian woman was sticking her microphone in her face, and within ten minutes they had found a guy in a gold toga holding a sign that said “Trump Is the Antichrist” to pose next to her, and for the next half hour those two held court, as a parade of reporters cycled around them, chewing souvenirs of skin and hair and tooth to take back to their hotel room caves.
The most uncomfortable part of this whole experience was that somewhere in the middle of the square, a hippie was drumming. It was loud and it was relentless, the same boring hand drum beat over and over and over, no change. It was mind-numbing. It was terrible. It was violence-inducing. So there was Westboro yelling, endless stifling bad drumming, and above all of that, the click click click of content production. I hate you, America. You’re boring and uncomfortable.
There was a comic who was on a show with me the night before. His reporting gig had canceled, so he was bumming around getting some freelance attention, and we had talked about wandering the square together that morning. He kept texting me, telling me he would meet up with me when he was done with this radio thing, or this other thing, and finally he texted me “Hey, what did you want from me again? I don’t remember?”
I was like, dude, I just wanted to hang out for a bit.
“Oh,” he replied. “I thought you wanted to do interviews. I may not actually have time.”
I wanted to reply “Why would I want to interview you?” But that isn’t the point, right? The point is to interview everyone, even if they have no connection or authority or expertise or validation, record it all, take all the photos, keep the feed burning with the righteous laughter. Become content or you’re not being productive. I left the square, and vowed to move to a cabin on a mountain top somewhere.
At another comedy show, I was standing in the hallway, getting my set in order in my head, and people were taking pictures with this guy who’s on TV. He took picture after picture, and when they had all left, he turned and looked at me and smiled, as if just to make sure I didn’t want one either. I didn’t. I don’t. I’m good.
Later that night, my Uber driver, who had come up from Columbus just for this week to work, told me about a reporter he had picked up. The guy was on his way to interview a mayor, on Euclid Avenue right in the heart of the convention entrance, and he was wearing an all black suit, so he insisted the driver get him not just as close as possible, but right there at the door. Anything else was unacceptable, because he was wearing an all black suit, and might be sweaty if he had to walk at all in the summer heat. The driver got him as close as cars are allowed to go, and then the reporter told him to go past the barrier. Just do it, it’ll be fine, the reporter said. So the driver nudged the car past the first barrier. Then there was a second barrier. Do it, the reporter said. But here, the police stopped the car and told him to turn around. The reporter was furious and fuming at the cops. “You wouldn’t treat me this way if I was Dan Rather!” he yelled. But the Uber driver turned around, and had to let the guy out blocks away, heat or no heat.
Oh man, but you are not Dan Rather.