The Grand Old Pregame for the Apocalypse

Convicts
Convicts
Published in
12 min readJul 23, 2016

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Artwork by Sofia Szamosi

“America has three cities: New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. The rest is Cleveland,” -Tennessee Williams

Like the man above says, Cleveland is your classic Everycity, USA. Lebron, sure, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but no one’s moving to Cleveland for the scene. That Cleveland — a rust belt city historically down on its luck — would catch a break with Lebron’s epic return and the Cav’s national championship, only to get fucked through with chaos at the 2016 Republican National Convention; a bit of dark irony that feels all too appropriate for the times. Mobbed with armed street preachers, pro-life mystics, furious activists, pink ladies, ex-military biker gangs called the Gunslingers and some dude with a truck covered in Trump stickers that he called ‘The Protestor Plow,’ the city of Cleveland played host to a corporate sponsored pregame for the apocalypse.

On our way into town, somewhere in western Pennsylvania, a pants-shitter of a thunderstorm catches us on the interstate. A humid dawn follows the lightning and blinding sheets of rain. We stop for eggs and tachycardiac amounts of black coffee at a diner on the outskirts of Cleveland, then roll on toward downtown, navigating concentric rings of Burger Kings and Hampton Inns, strip malls and squat office buildings, crest a woody ridge then drop down into a valley full of falling down warehouses, grain elevators, smokestacks and strange old structures made from rusted out girders that could be either bridges or cranes. In the distance, your standard issue skyscrapers rise above the swampy creeks and little tidewaters of Lake Erie. The half sunken boats and skeletal piers broken reminders that Cleveland is one of America’s river cities.

In my experience, river cities like Louisville, Nashville, Savannah, all feel a bit like outposts of New Orleans: warehouses and music bars by the waterfront, hipsters lurking smoking cigs, the sense that it’s the epicenter of the region, where people go to be momentarily young before moving back to their hometown a few hundred miles away for the rest of their days. But the only thing in Cleveland that could be construed as New Orleans-like in any way are the pre-soccer mom type Republican honeys wearing sundresses and aviators and pearls who, I’m ashamed to admit, continually distract me. Being a Southerner still bruised from my fall off of the pumpkin truck in New York, I’m in the bad habit of missing Southern chicks. The Young Republican types — the sun-dressed girls and their bow-tie and straw boater hat wearing male counterparts — are the only sub-group in Cleveland who don’t seem to be vibrating on an anxious frequency.

Artwork by Sofia Szamosi

Their campaign staffer badges and openly preppy dress, seem weirdly bold in this hard-knock town. The nepotism, their lily-whiteness and duh-privilege, the easy access to the inside that these kids represent, seem to be what the entire rest of the city came to rage against, from both sides of the aisle. With moneyed young confidence, these campaign staffer-types stroll coolly around a city that otherwise feels like the dark inverse of a music festival, a communion of anxiety and fear.

The morning’s Bikers for Trump Rally, for example, feels more like the after-party for extras in a Mad Max movie than a political event. Low slung motorized tricycles, choppers, and hogs rev while beefy old dudes with leather faces stand around talking about ‘Riding hard to stay in front of storms on the high plains,’ in tones almost too cowboy to believe. An old guy with thick glasses and a hard hat walks around with a scoped deer rifle on his back. His buddy has the reins of a horse drawn carriage — the type of thing that probably gives romantic rides through Cleveland when not playing part in a strange cowboy fantasy — and our Hardhat hero steps up onto the shotgun seat, directs the prettiest young lady reporters up into the carriage for a ride. In the background, a line of cops on mountain bikes stands shifting from side to side, definitely chafing from that much time on a bike seat.

When we ask him why he’s carrying his gun, Hardhat goes into a predictable loop of second amendment talk. Bull fucking shit, I want to say. You came here to get in some kind of rootin’ tootin’ race war shoot out and you know it, motherfucker. I keep these thoughts to myself.

A lumbering tall dude, maybe six four with big hamfists, a handlebar mustache and a leathervest with the phrase GUNSLINGERS emblazoned goes running off toward a line of bike cops. We media-folk breathe in, turn our cameras toward the line of police, excited for some violence ourselves, anxious for tasers, pistols, yelling. Juice for the story. But the big dude in the vest just runs up and hugs the cops, starts throwing high fives. Only a few cameras follow the surprising show of warmth. Most reporters are now occupied talking to a guy wearing an I AM TRUMP t shirt, who calls his rig the “Protestor Plow”.

A few engine revs later, we talk to the cop-hugger. What’s your story? we ask. Well, he’s saying, the Gunslingers are a bike club made of ex-military and police, who came here to back up the cops if anything goes wrong.

Do you really think they’ll need your back up?

Yes.

Isn’t that a shame that’s the way things are these days?

Yes, yes it is, he says. I wish they weren’t, but they are.

I leave the scene pensive, having totally expected this dude to wanna crack skulls and fight libs. I couldn’t disagree with him more about his methods, but his genuine concern and levelheadedness about the situation unsettle my liberal certainty.

We head up a grassy knoll toward the America First rally. On the way, we stop a jolly dude in an American flag bandana and a ‘Bikers for Trump’ t-shirt. He’s even more level-headed than the GUNSLINGERS guy as he describes diversity of opinion as the thing that makes America great. He tells me how the Miracle on Ice brought the country together in 1980, and how he just wants a strong outsider to help the country get back to a place where we can move forward.

Huh.

I should know better than to expect all Trump supporters to be a bunch of foaming at the mouth racists. Maybe I’ve lived in New York too long. Once the rally kicks off, however, the earnest calm recedes as a string of campaign speakers with affectatious-sounding country accents talk a bunch of hollow shit about building walls and getting back jobs and making America great again. The crowd catches fire with aggressive nodding and shouting, fist pumps, chants of Trump! Trump! Trump!

Not to say that empty rhetoric isn’t a defining feature of the left and its darlings too, but throughout the speeches from Trump’s diversity chair, the emcee with big blonde hair and a pink dress, the campaign fundraisers, the high-profile Trump supporters fail to mention any concrete goals, or plans or policies. The rally is pure emotional stoking. Perhaps this is a duh thing to say, but in person, watching the crowd flare with excitement at these nothing phrases (Hilary’s a liar! Build the wall! Make America Great Again! Trump re-started a factory and brought back two thousand jobs!) reveals the degree to which people are looking for something to latch their anger onto. Trump is an empty-headed egomaniac with a campaign staff capable of letting straight up plagiarism slip through the cracks. His rhetoric is likely the emptiest and certainly the most ridiculous in modern American political history. His message is just a vessel for conservative anger at a changing world, which, if examined for a handful of seconds, reveals itself as fear curdled and cancerous.

On the way out of the rally, a gang of ladies dressed in pink with signs reading GUNS FOR CHILDREN and TRUMP FOR THE 1% passes us on the street. I known my reality meter’s thrown off when I have to wonder for more than two seconds whether the pink ladies are being ironic, or if they actually mean what they were saying. Further up the street, a kind of apocalypse war wagon rolls slowly past, covered in REPENT NOW signs.

Downtown, there are more cops than I’ve ever seen. Cops in every restaurant, on every corner, in cars, trucks, on motorcycles. California cops, Indiana Highway Patrol, Texas rangers. Every kind of cop in every kind of cop garb you’ve ever seen. Sinister redneck looking Highway patrollers, chubs donut chasers from down at the precinct, young motorcycle cops trying to look hard for the lady activists. Cops in massive bike-mounted squadrons, deploying their bike frames as barricades between competing groups of demonstrators. Nervous.

Near the Civil War Memorial downtown, we come across a group of hate-spewing armed evangelists. To even call them Trump people wouldn’t be totally accurate. These are the fringiest dudes out, a posse of street preachers in FEAR GOD and MUHAMMAD IS IN HELL hats and homemade combat shirts that read things like AMERICAN INFIDEL, and feature an assault rifle stenciled into a cross. When this crowd passes a tarot card readers shop, they stop and scream YOU’RE A WITCH, REPENT NOW SINNER. Around the corner, the megaphone preachers indiscriminately screech REPENT NOW CAR DRIVERS toward a line of motorists stopped, very normally, at a stop light. The group of preachers say they are fully expecting to die today, with a kind of misguided glee. They get awful squirrely, however, when we ask how the infinite love Jesus talked about fits into their ideology. Whether hating gays and minorities was in line with the revolutionary socialist from Bethlehem. But this crew would rather talk about the sinful ways lesbians fuck each other with a strap-on and how their chief response to gays is screaming AIDS ALERT AIDS ALERT, than anything to do with love.

We follow these twisted pieces of shit to the Black Lives Matter protest in a nearby park. Just when I thought this crowd couldn’t get more disgusting, think to myself how the Donald himself really had nothing on these guys, they start in screaming about Whores and black people killing black babies in black abortions, about how cop killers deserve to have their limbs smeared across walls and defiled.

The BLM protestors surge forward and surround an elevated ledge the fire-and-brimstone preachers have set up on. The anti-Trump protesters begin counter-chants of JESUS WAS GAY and I WANNA HAVE SEX WITH YOU. A counter-protestor with a “THIS IS WHAT WHITE PRIVILEGE LOOKS LIKE” sign sneaks up into the midst of the preachers. Mayhem. At the moment’s feverish peak, as the protestors clamor up on the armed preachers, the police move in single file, form a barricade with their bikes between the groups of protestors and stay set until the tension dissipates.

Trucks with digital billboards reading HILLARY FOR PRISON 2016 roll through the streets. Helicopters thump overhead. Further downtown at fourth street, a pedestrian mall full of bars and restaurants is now taken over by the press and political organizations, having warped into the RNC’s congested, roiling epicenter. Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the convention itself, is surrounded by a no-access zone, walled off by barricades and sections of portable fence, with secret servicemen and unmarked sketchy looking dudes in tight black suits and dark shades and ear pieces turning away foot traffic. Silhouettes scan the scene from various rooftops.

Fourth Street feels like a dam, the flow of wild conventioneers running up against a barricade and roiling, doubled over on itself. The street is packed. An NBC booth towers above the milling crowds. A human wearing a cowboy holds up a sign reading KICK MY DOG FOR TRUMP as he leads another human down the alleyway on a leash. A guy in an eerie Hillary mask hands out ‘Hillary’ flyers. A Texan looking group in ten-gallon hats and red white and blue button downs tries to re-group, unsuccessfully, in the crowd. An autistic fellow holds up an autism advocacy sign and manages to tease the slightest good from the situation. Folks, regardless of apparent partisanship, stop to shake his hand. Newt Gingrich, Mike Pence pass down the street, dispassionate expressions across their faces.

At the far end of Fourth Street, two dueling street preachers yell into the crowds. One screams fire and brimstone, sinners and eternal hell. The other — a shaggy hippy — calls out ‘All you need is love,’ and puts sunflowers at the other preacher’s feet.

In a jam-packed barbecue spot, sweaty members of the media lunch with Republican g-men. Together, we hydrate with tallboys when the news comes through on TV that the Colorado delegation has split from the floor, that the GOP’s public implosion is almost complete.

As we take again to the streets, now re-riled from the disruption in the convention center, I’m having dehydrated visions of a bow-tie and straw boater-hat-wearing elephant chomping his last cigar and bubbling bourbon out of a plastic bottle, his gray elephant foot slamming the pedal to the floor of a bright red convertible, readying to smash through the guardrail and run his party’s convertible into Lake Erie, a body of water he once considered but a pond in his Grand American Country club, now too overrun with strange new ideas and frighteningly colored people for his terminally cancerous stomach handle. Instead, the elephant’s on the lam, chased out of town by an ugly, unhinged demagogue reaping what for years the elephant himself sowed.

Though this was no real surprise for a GOP convention, whiteness has been a defining feature of the events Cleveland. There are very few people of color here, and why would they be? In a town seething with cops and heavily armed members of a party now defined by open and aggressive everything-o-phobia? Jesus. I’m the picture of privilege and I feel violence in the air, carrying camera gear and a notebook, with my longhair and hipster togs. I can only imagine what it would be like were I not a white male with a lingering Southern accent. I was scared in Cleveland, both for myself, and for what the situation portends for the future.

Fear was the defining feature here: protesters scared of cops, cops scared of protestors, bile-spewing preachers scared of gays and Muslims, gun people scared of a tyrannical government, liberals scared of Trump, Trump supporters scared of Hilary. The Make America Great Again slogans began translating in my mind to Make Me Less Scared Again.

Sure, there were calm people around, ready to earnestly and sanely talk politics, which was heartening to see.

True, there were folks in Cleveland saying something to the effect of ‘we’re scared for the direction of the country, we need change, the elites have too much power, people are suffering’. There were people advocating for cooperation and conversation and respect for the beauty in difference-the things that would actually make America great again — but they were frighteningly few and far between.

Artwork by Sofia Szamosi

Eating my fourth and final cheeseburger of the day at a McDonald’s out in the west Pennsylvania midnight — tired and pissed at getting duped by one of those fucked exits that take you two miles off the highway into nowhere when you need a detour the least — I see Melania Trump’s perfect bone structure fill the screen to deliver her now infamously plagiarized speech. Eastbound on the I-80, in my meat-sweaty haze, a quote from one of the interminable liberal political articles I’ve been reading of late jumps to mind. In it, some old row Democrat explains that during the chaos of the late sixties, there was a hope for the future that is absent today. We may have cashed in our hope with President Obama, before the chaos really got started.

Words by Cam Higgins, CONVICTS staff writer.

Photos by Thomas Law, CONVICTS photographer.

Illustration by Sofia Szamosi.

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Convicts
Convicts
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