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A Tale of Two Conventions

by Alexa Mills

Security officers in downtown Tampa, Florida on August 30, 2012. Source: SrLigYnneck

If some American city built a modern castle complex, accessible only by drawbridge, this city could serve as host to all its nation’s political conventions. Places like Charlotte and Tampa would be useless. Giant barriers made of fences, metal detectors and thousands of law enforcement officers encircled the conventions in those cities. Neither party would bother building these makeshift security islands if they could get the feature they really wanted: a moat. I attended both the Republican and Democratic Nation Conventions as an outsider — someone with no colorful badge and lanyard combination that would have granted me access to the speech halls and media buildings. I went hoping to interview people like me — people on the outskirts of the conventions. These are some of the people I met:

In Tampa, a woman wearing a large gopher head and faux army fatigues stood next to a regular-looking man. She was playing mascot for the West Los Angeles V.A., a property plagued by gophers. The man next to her was a veteran. Their sign said, "PLEASE GIVE THIS BOOK TO MITT." They’d come from Los Angeles with a book that explained the Veteran’s property, which was once a dignified "National Soldiers Home" but has devolved into a short-term hospital for the sickest patients. They want to make it a home again. Terence explains why:

In Charlotte, about ten miles outside the city center, a coach bus painted with butterflies and the words "NO PAPERS NO FEAR" parked outside a Mexican restaurant. The bus riders — about 40 undocumented immigrants living in the United States — were telling stories and offering spoken-word poems at a microphone in one of the restaurant’s special party rooms. They’d been traveling across the country for about three weeks, and had just finished a civil rights tour through the southern U.S. The next day they staged a protest in downtown Charlotte, where the police arrested several of them. Kemi, one of the riders, speaks her poem:

On Wednesday in Charlotte, right outside of the main security checkpoint for the convention complex, I heard a woman singing. Her song caught my ear even though she was much quieter than the men next to her. The woman, Darlene, was selling Obama buttons. The men, whose names I never asked, were announcing through a megaphone that God’s judgement was upon America in the form of two unsuitable candidates, among other things. Darlene sang her answer:

She continued to sing, louder with each bar. Then the man on the megaphone started to sing. When he was done, he packed his signs and left the area. Darlene sang "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."

This is what the strict convention walls stated: "Here, inside this barrier, is the sacred space where we will honor your love for your country. We have room for 15,000 professional journalists who will tell the world what we — you and me — want for America. You are here in this sanctified space because you’re special." The cameras pan to teary-eyed delegates as their leaders tell stories of how they’d lived up to the American Dream, ever since they were small children.

In downtown Tampa a man named Josh gave me some bits of his story. He was holding a sign that said, "Homo Sex is a Threat to National Security." After I interviewed him, he spent a long time asking me about my views on Islam. He asked questions and follow-up questions to learn a different perspective from his own.

Later that week a friend offered me his pass to the RNC hall to see Mitt Romney’s speech. An exuberant crowd greeted Mitt. Early in his speech I saw police kick and carry two dissenters from the forum. The dissenters shouted, "A democracy is not a corporation!" as they were ejected. It seemed like a fair enough claim to me, even if they delivered it on the wrong side of the security barrier. Mitt didn’t falter in his speech for a moment. He may not have even noticed the protestors. He only had to stop speaking when the crowd broke out into a "USA! USA!" chant every so often. To me, everyone shouting "USA" felt like a collective insanity much more threatening than a few people with signs or a song. Obama’s crowd shouted the same thing for him, though I only saw it on TV.

A political convention is considered a National Special Security Event, a designation that the U.S. government assigns to gatherings that have a certain number of dignitaries and pose a potential security threat. The City of Tampa received a $500 million grant for security alone. Yet the space they really created was outside, on the margins of their convention complexes. There were two political conventions in the U.S. in 2012: One was for manicured messages delivered to hallowed Americans and the journalists who would document them. The other was for the rest of us.

Alexa Mills is the founding editor of CoLab Radio

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