They had me at “street theater.” Last week at the GOP convention, the AFL-CIO sponsored a “Mitt Romney’s America” protest. It wasn’t just an ordinary march, though. It was billed as a “parade.” In addition to consciousness raising and “making their voices heard,” the union press release promised there would be “street theater.”
About 250 marchers assembled on Wednesday evening four blocks outside the convention’s secured perimeter. There were members of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the Florida AFL-CIO, and AFSCME, among other assorted labor types. As a group, the protesters gathered at the staging area looked remarkably like the Republican delegates inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum a few hundred yards away.
Sure, there was a weird guy wearing a sand-wich board and a black beret, and a pair of women cradling djembe drums—standard-issue fare for this sort of hootenanny. But the crowd was overwhelmingly white, middle-aged, and middle class, well spoken and friendly. I chatted with a retired air-traffic controller, John Carr, about his 9-year-old triplets. Most of the people around us were similarly engaged in conversations about kids and grandkids. One paunchy, middle-aged protester stood amiably talking with one of the paunchy, middle-aged sheriff’s deputies working security about his children, too. After a few minutes, the two men began flipping through pictures together on a smartphone, occasionally clapping each other on the back in bonhomie. Revolutionary dissent isn’t what it used to be.
What’s interesting about this protest is that the marchers are grownup and bourgeois; and while they have real political disagreements with Mitt Romney and the Republican party, they’re not structural. Yet because they came of age in the 1970s, the only protest vernacular they know is radical. Hence the street theater. The result is cognitive dissonance: theatrical protest against incremental change. Will there be means-testing for Social Security? Will the post office deliver mail on Saturdays? These are the big fights for the marchers.
As soon as the parade begins, the two ladies thump on their drums and the throng starts shouting, lurching from one slogan to another. They try yelling, “We built it!” as a proletarian response to the Romney campaign’s entrepreneurial slogan. That doesn’t quite work so they change gears and chant, “We’re going to take our country back!” That doesn’t make much sense either—after all, their party controls the government these days—so they switch to “Stand up, fight back.” As a rallying cry, it has the benefit of being nonfalsifiable.
The parade snakes its way around the short official parade route which has been sanctioned by the convention’s security forces with a phalanx of bicycle-mounted police fore and aft. Every 10 minutes the proceedings halt so that protesters can put on a little skit portraying what life would be like in a dystopic world where Mitt Romney was president.
The first performance is titled “Full Employment and a Living Wage.” In it, a man dressed in a Romney mask appears carrying a black suitcase overflowing with $100 bills. Fake Mitt is besieged by people wearing sashes and asking for money. One woman, whose sash reads “Unemployed,” is denied Romney’s money, as is a man whose sash says “Blue Collar.” Instead Fake Romney gives his cash to a blonde woman in a black dress who’s wearing a sticker that says “1 percent.” He also doles out money to a woman whose sash reads “Belize.” Go figure.
The next stop features a parable about Romney’s voter suppression. A pretty young black woman is turned away from a polling place. So is a Hispanic man. And so is a white retiree. Finally, a clean-cut, well-dressed, white twentysomething strides up and he—to everyone’s horror—is ushered quickly into the voting booth. The players don’t seem burdened by the demographics of the Democratic coalition—older white voters are going to vote overwhelming for Romney and young, affluent, college-educated voters will go hard for Obama. The syntax of street theater isn’t readily adaptable to such realities.
The third skit concerns union rights. In it, a man in a Darth Vader mask asks the assembled crowd if any of them would like a job. When a fellow steps forward and says yes, Lord Vader puts tape over his mouth in order to, as he explains, “silence your voice.” Even by the standards of street theater, this is a little clichéd.
And on it goes. After the fifth performance, the protest finishes with a reading and signing of a “Second Bill of Rights” (sample: “The right to a quality education”). With the drumming and chanting complete, the marchers revert to their bourgeois selves and mill around taking group photos and making dinner plans.
By that point a handful of young radicals had found their way over to the assembly. Twelve of them, dressed in black and sporting the tattoos and piercings of their class, gawked at the grownups for a while before plopping down and sitting sullenly on a curb, hunched over their iPhones. After a few minutes one of them, a fat, pimply fellow wearing a pin proclaiming “Marx Was Right,” muttered that they ought to go find a real protest.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.