The Flag-Burning Protest in Cleveland: My Minute-by-Minute Diary

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Protestors Rally Outside Republican National Convention In Cleveland
A group tries to burn an American Flag as police move in near the sight of the Republican National Convention in downtown Cleveland.Photo: Spencer Platt

Halfway through the third day of the Republican National Convention, it seemed as if everyone had fully resigned themselves to playing their characters in the theater that was Cleveland. In the Public Square, you had people from the Westboro Baptist Church screaming about the sins of the homos, filmed by hordes of people thrilled to catch the insanity on tape, not far from people in suits calmly eating at food trucks. The area surrounding the Quicken Loans Arena was a stage for documented opinions, not dialogue or tension.

The city had become “1 to 1 to 1,” as someone described it, meaning one cop for every one protester for every one media member. It was like the buddy system: If someone was yelling, someone else would be right there filming it, and not too far away there was a hovering police officer.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

I wasn’t planning on going, because I didn’t know it was happening, but I started walking to the supposed location, in front of the entrance to the arena.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

Per usual for the week — a week less about protests and more about loud opinions — they were greeted by onlookers either filming or being berated. And next to them, a flurry of police.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

3:48 p.m.: The police force has created an inner ring around the protest that is slowly pushing outward, moving people out on three different streets.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

It is tense, but nothing feels dangerous in the slightest. And with every passing minute, people are losing interest and leaving.

4:02 p.m.: I walk back to the Public Square. Apparently the Bikers for Trump are here, but so far I don’t see a biker, or even a bike.

4:08 p.m.: I’m not even all the way into the square when people on all sides begin running back toward the arena. Not running, sprinting. It starts with about ten people, but in mere moments there are hundreds headed back to the original site of the advertised flag-burning. I follow the group.

4:15 p.m.: Apparently the burning of the American flag is back on. Someone had done it, which accounts for the race back to the arena. Making my way there, I end up in a tight, packed corner. This is a very different scene, with a very different energy. Before it was more people versus Westboro with the cops watching; this time, people versus cops.

4:25 p.m.: As the space gets tighter, a woman with a megaphone stands next to me and begins speaking into it. A man named Joey Johnson, whom she refers to positively as the “infamous flag-burner,” has been arrested for burning the American flag, which she says is within his legal rights. And she isn’t lying about him being infamous — he also burned a flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention and became a defendant in the 1989 Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, about flag desecration.

The woman with the megaphone describes herself as part of a group known as the Revolution Club. Their mission: “The problem is the system, and the only solution is a revolution.” She’s wearing a shirt with a picture of Bob Avakian on the front, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. The more she speaks, the more she gains the attention of the police nearby. Also, the more she speaks, the more she is heckled by men behind me, who are shouting, “Burn a fag, not a flag.”

4:28 p.m.: An argument bubbles up between two people in the crowd. Again, it’s difficult to truly describe many people here as “protesters”; it’s mainly just people with cameras and people who want to say things they believe in, in front of cameras.

4:31 p.m.: The police suddenly begin a unified push back of the crowd, with many barking “Move!” every time they march their bicycles forward. They successfully move everyone back significantly, clearing up the street. This appears to be the last breath of the mild unrest.

4:34 p.m.: I see the Revolution Club has found a new home, on the sidewalk farther down the street. And now they have a banner in addition to the megaphone.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

4:36 p.m.: Walking up to the group, I see a commotion. The murmurs suggest a second person just lit a flag on fire. There is someone on the ground, with one arm held by a police officer and another by a man who appears to be a protester. The police officer says, “Let go of her.” The protester looks back and tensely replies, “No, you let go.”

4:37 p.m.: The options of where to move dramatically decline as the police move in. To the left of me, a wall; to the right, a police van; behind me, protesters; and in front, officers, some on horseback.

4:38 p.m.: A horse looks ten times bigger when there’s a cop on top and it’s on the sidewalk and you have very few options of where to go and you begin thinking about how much it would suck to get stepped on by a horse.

4:39 p.m.: I have to squeeze by the open police-van door in order to get out of the way. The officer standing in the door does not appreciate me moving his car door, even with the arrival of the horses, and swings the door back at my body.

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ScreenshotPhoto: Rembert Browne

4:42 p.m.: Back in a more open area of the street, I notice people beginning to run again, or at the very least speed-walk. The woman who attempted to burn the flag is handcuffed, and police are trying to move her. She isn’t going quietly.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

4:43 p.m.: She is escorted out in perhaps the most dramatic way possible, down a long, empty street surrounded by a throng of police, while people chase after her, chanting “Let her out!” and filming her capture.

4:45 p.m.: Upon reaching a barricade at the end of the long road, the police take her around the corner away from the crowd. Some people go around the barricade and are not stopped.

4:46 p.m.: A small crowd forms on this side street where the woman accused of burning a flag is being detained in a police van. Chants begin, some led by the same woman who spoke of the Revolution Club less than an hour earlier. But after a few minutes the police begin to clear out the area.

4:53 p.m.: “You get the two lighters, she had two lighters with her,” one officer says to another, about the woman’s possessions. I have no idea why I am still allowed to be here; the number of non-officers in the area is rapidly shrinking. I attempt to be invisible in plain sight up, leaning against the gate, looking indifferently out in the distance should anyone give me a glance.

4:54 p.m.: The same officer who asked about the lighters is now holding the American flag. As he folds it, I can see that some of it is visibly burned and tattered.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

5:01 p.m.: By five, the area has been vacated of press. A minute later, they bring the handcuffed woman out of the back of the police van.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

5:03 p.m.: They take pictures of her, make her hold a dry-erase board with her name and other information. She doesn’t say anything, just stands there and does as she is told. After three days of hearing the word protester being used to describe everyone shouting in the street, it’s refreshing to see someone perform an act of protest so quietly and with no cameras around.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

After all of that, they put her back in the van and shut the door. It’s over.