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Monday, December 11, 2017

The revolution might not be televised, as Gil Scott-Heron once rapped, but if the Republican National Convention in Cleveland goes pear-shaped, the cameras will be there to catch every moment.

Given the restive and fractious mood of the party, and the country, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. Party dignitaries have been making a break for the exits even before the delegates begin assembling.

Talk about ducking controversy. Mitt Romney, John McCain and the Bush family are expected to be no-shows. All sorts of incumbent governors and senators and representatives are citing schedule conflicts and other excuses that will keep them away from Cleveland and a safe distance from presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The trouble is who likely will show up. For four days starting July 18, Cleveland will hold its breath.

There will likely be thousands of fervent protesters assembling outside the venue. The ACLU has sued to ensure that people’s right to do so won’t be curtailed, pushing back against a city plan that would have shoved many far away from the convention center and unfairly managing permits.

Unfortunately, not all the protesters will have the emotional maturity, much less the structure and discipline, to make their messages coherent or persuasive.

The worst of America, some of our shallowest selves, are packing up and heading for Cleveland. The overwhelming presence of media will be enough to entice some to claim their 15 minutes of notoriety.

One group threatening to show up is the Traditionalist Worker Party—white nationalists whose recent rally in Sacramento, Calif., turned into knife fights with counter-demonstrators. The party’s purpose in Cleveland, members say, is to protect the Trump supporters from rowdy protesters.

And given the antics of some within the anti-Trump crowd at past rallies in other cities, the racists actually have some cause for concern. It’s a sad day when those who claim to challenge racist hatred wind up screaming slurs between the barricades.

A mishmash of various anarchist groups will be there, including Anonymous. More than a few who will gather regard themselves as modern day civil rights activists fighting the good fight. Some, no doubt, have their hearts in the right place.

I would ask them to take a step back and reflect.

Imagine the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Fred Shuttlesworth (Google him, an amazing man who never received the accolades he deserved) running amok with Guy Fawkes masks covering their faces.

You can’t. In their time, it was the Klan that operated with their faces covered.

The tragedy is that the successes of past protest movements—how they organized, how they developed tactics and strategy—is lost on so many protesters today.

The advent of social media, crowd-sourcing for fundraising and other technological innovations have been a huge boon for those working for social change. Facebook is a great tool for organizing. Twitter is a powerful means of disseminating a message. But what has been lost is any real structure.

The trend of leaderless movements is partly to blame. Many activists are allergic to formalized organizations they see as part of America’s problems. They avoid the glorification of leaders. All voices are emphasized.

Theoretically, that makes some sense. But less so as a method to identify goals, shape messaging, court allies and develop the deep understanding of the systems that block change.

It’s instructive to note that the Black Lives Matter movement is most effective when the marching has settled down in favor of scrutinizing city ordinances, analyzing police hiring, delving into training for officers that involves de-escalation of situations and a host of specific goals.

The real work of reshaping America will always be done away from protest zones.

Change is accomplished slowly and far more systematically at political gatherings far less dominated by who is at the podium, by smaller circles where ideas are tossed and vetted. It’s in voter registration drives and educating people about who is running for office in their area. It’s at community forums where people are allowed to vent but also are asked about tangible changes that would make a difference in crime, in development, housing and job training. It’s in city budget hearings, where the line-by-line accounting must be done, prioritizing where tax dollars are spent.

So let’s hope that people have their right to protest freely in Cleveland, and that they do it safely and without tumult. And then that those who are the most disciplined and dedicated set about the hard work of reforming our laws and institutions.

Photo: Anti-fascist counter-protestors parade through Sacramento after multiple people were stabbed during a clash between neo-Nazis holding a permitted rally and counter-protestors on Sunday at the state capitol in Sacramento, California, United States, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Max Whittaker 

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