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RNC Demonstrators Defy Expectations of Violence

While Republicans spent the RNC attending corporate-sponsored parties and listening to scripted speeches, protesters’ commitment to nonviolence built solidarity beyond the usual suspects.
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Photo by Mooch Cassidy.

The author is an organizer with resistRNC.org.

In the lead-up to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the authorities seemed to expect violence. Our mayor, Democrat Bob Buckhorn, brought in around 3,000 additional police officers from the rest of Florida, bringing the total number of officers to 3,500. These imported police walk the streets in khaki outfits that resemble military uniforms. Along with the 1,700 National Guard members, Coast Guard vessels armed with .50-caliber machine guns patrolling the waterways, and secret service checkpoints, downtown Tampa resembles a war zone.

Just as in wars overseas, these forces didn’t come cheap. The city spent $50 million in federal grant money on security, including $1 million for catering, $2 million for body armor, and $6 million for police radios.

Meanwhile, the city’s RNC Ordinance makes just about every person who enters the "Event Zone" subject to arrest. For instance, if you carry a bottle of water, or have an umbrella with a metal tip,  you risk a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.  Masks covering any portion of the face, a common item at theatrical protests,  are banned as well.

In addition, the city has required people to apply for permits to gather in groups of 50 or more, in violation of First Amendment rights.  An "official" parade route and a "public viewing area"—another term for free speech zone—have been defined.  These two areas are not a problem in and of themselves.  The problems arise when we are told that they are the only places where we may march or exercise First Amendment rights.  

By designating only a certain area for the exercise of free speech and denying it elsewhere, city officials suggest that these rights are privileges.  This is dangerous for democracy because speaking out against the government is imperative to maintaining freedom.  

Keeping Our Cool


The ordinance and police presence alone make it easy to get mad at the RNC. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that these Republicans are speaking about cutting social benefits in a state where one in four children live in poverty, and where two-thirds of African-American children live in low-income families. They will deny the reality of climate change in a state that sees more intense hurricanes each year due to rising sea-surface temperatures, even as Hurricane Isaac nearly forced the cancelation of their convention. They will speak about loosening regulations for offshore oil drilling in a state where only luck saved our beaches from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill.

However angry we may be, it’s essential that we remain nonviolent. Here are three reasons why.

First, violence is bad PR. It turns off the majority of the public to the cause, no matter how justified. Movements that employ violence lose support, and their message gets lost as the focus turns to chaos, destruction, and harm. Without popular support, the movement's growth will be stunted.

Second, there’s the matter of that $50 million for equipping the cops. Here in the United States, law enforcement is so well-funded that they always have the upper hand in a violent confrontation. Furthermore, battles between the police and the people draw attention away from the real threat: the people in power giving the orders and those who influence. The threat is the 1%, the ultra-elite. Law enforcement are part of the 99% who find themselves serving as protectors of the 1%. Violence will never win over their support. And to be successful, the 99% needs law enforcement on their side.

Last and most importantly, nonviolence emerges from what political scientist and nonviolence advocate Gene Sharp claims is a truer analysis of power. In his book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp describes two major camps on this question. One believes that "governments depend on people, that power is pluralistic, and that political power is fragile because it depends on groups for reinforcement of its power sources." The other advocates the view that "people are dependent on governments, that political power is monolithic, that it can really come from a few men."

Sharp writes that nonviolent movements come out of the first camp, which sees the vulnerability of power structures in the face of an organized people’s movement. The power of nonviolence can unravel oppression, and do so in a way that avoids the backlash that comes with violent action. It's more likely to find solutions that have a longevity and stability.

A Surprisingly Nonviolent Protest


During the Republican Convention, I have found that the protesters are maintaining an effective level of nonviolent direct action. In addition, though many have good reason to resent law enforcement, the protesters have heard the call of my organization, resistRNC.org, to avoid confrontation with the police.  

Our dedication to nonviolence resulted in an astonishing development. A member of the Tampa Police Department asked us, unofficially, to counter-protest an anti-gay rally organized by about a half-dozen members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.  

In response, a group of anarchists organized a spontaneous unpermitted march through the streets towards the Westboro’s rally, which was located in the “public viewing area.” Although news reports often portray anarchists as violent, these individuals agreed not confront law enforcement or target corporate property.  

Instead, they surrounded the rally peacefully. Lines of cops in riot gear stood between the two groups as men from the anarchist group kissed one another. And then they left.

That’s not to say that the protests have been entirely free of confrontation. During the first two days of the convention, some police officers tried to breach the perimeter of our encampment and were met by sneers and comments. Some officers responded in kind. However, those of us leading the camp made sure to intervene in these incidents and quickly calmed both sides down.

If the final day of protests follows the same trend as the last three, then I want to publicly give credit to our organizers, the wonderful protesters, and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.

While the Republicans at the convention attended corporate-sponsored parties and applauded scripted speeches, we were building a movement. We chipped away at the division between police and protester. And it was all achieved through the doctrine of nonviolent action.


Amos Miers is an organizer with resistRNC.org. He wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions.


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