Large protests anticipated at political conventions fail to materialize

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was an expectant time for protesters ahead of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, with the Occupy movement not quite one year old and uprisings in the Middle East still reverberating.

In December, Time magazine named "The Protester" its person of the year, and thousands of people were expected to converge on the parties' quadrennial conventions.

But first outside the Republican National Convention in Tampa, then here this week before the Democrats convened, demonstrations fizzled. The largest protest so far, a march through sweltering heat in Charlotte on Sunday, involved perhaps 800 people, officials said.

Participants offered any number of explanations for their tiny number: The threat of Hurricane Isaac in Tampa, the dearth of hotel rooms in Charlotte, the intimidating police presence in both cities or the lack of money to travel.

For the most part, these were challenges delegates, media and other convention-goers overcame, and the protesters' inability to do so suggested a logistical shortcoming. While able to fill city squares and campus commons in their own cities, they have failed to recreate that turnout on the media-rich stages of this year's national conventions.

"Having sort of a structure-less, leaderless organization makes that difficult," said Frank Gilliam Jr., a professor of political science and public policy at University of California, Los Angeles, and dean of the university's Luskin School of Public Affairs. "It's what many of us argued from the beginning, that while we certainly understood sort of the concept of the people as our leaders and flat organizations, we know two things about that: No. 1, they're hard to sustain, and two, they're hard to remobilize."

In Tampa, police reported making only two arrests last week. Events were so peaceful - and so small - that officers shared water and sandwiches with the few protesters they encountered.

In Charlotte, police said they arrested a woman Sunday carrying a knife and a man they accused of disorderly conduct, assault on an officer and resisting arrest. They reported no other arrests as of late Monday afternoon.

The quietness is in contrast to some previous conventions. Hundreds of people were arrested in sometimes-violent clashes with police at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota four years ago.

Tom Hayden, the former California lawmaker and famous activist involved in protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, said Monday that sizable protests in Charlotte may still materialize.

But among activists, he said, "There are differences of opinion about whether to pass on the conventions, or put energy into them."

Most would-be protesters are left-leaning, Hayden said, and many may be reluctant to demonstrate against President Barack Obama in a close election year.

"A lot of people would think it's more relevant to win North Carolina in November," he said, "than to demonstrate in September."

Protesters from Code Pink were among the most active demonstrators, both in Tampa and in Charlotte, protesting the influence of Wall Street and America's involvement in wars abroad, among other causes. They wore vagina suits outside one event and carried signs that said, "Read my lips: End war on women."

Andrea Assaf, a Tampa resident who joined Code Pink at several events, called the costumes "a way to be more visible and create a little spectacle" to get the message out.

The few delegates who came across them didn't seem interested.

"Usually they run away fairly quickly," she said. "They seem to have an aversion to vaginas."

While the announced events were held outside the security perimeter and out of sight of many delegates, the group managed to bring its protests inside the convention hall at the RNC.

Representatives of the group inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum shouted during prime-time remarks by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential pick Paul Ryan, though they were drowned out by the crowd and removed by security.

"This is one of the most sparsely attended and the most heavily militarized I have ever seen" said Ann Wright, who has been protesting at conventions with Code Pink and other groups since 2004. "Tragically, a lot of people are saying, 'You know, it really doesn't matter what we do, the political parties aren't much different from each other and they're not listening really to what the people want ... So a lot of people are very, very discouraged. That's why we've had a not very big turnout."

On the final night, rainy night of the Republican convention, a few hundred people marched through Tampa - among them Larry Miller, a Floridian with a sign on his bicycle that said "altruism is dead." The sign, he said, had been photographed dozens of times by protesters with their cellphone cameras, and he figured the image must be on the Internet.

"Maybe there's so much going on in the Internet that you can kind of protest there, and you don't have to do it in the real world," the retired math and science teacher said.

The Internet may be a useful place to protest during conventions, but there are reasons to appear in person, said Deana Rohlinger, an associate professor of sociology at Florida State University.

Protesters, Rohlinger said, want to "educate the people who are right in front of them on their causes," and conventions afford access to media outlets hungry for colorful photographs and endless copy.

"People are realistic about the extent to which they can get someone to change their minds," Rohlinger said, "but I think there is something important in our process where we can make our presence known and our voices heard."

On Sunday in Charlotte, the protesters' concerns were wide-ranging, including the foreclosure crisis, the environment, war, labor conditions and gay rights.

"Something has to change," said Paul Kinney, who traveled by bus from Michigan to demonstrate. He was holding a sign that said, "Bail out people, not banks."

On a street up a hill from the park, Hazel Heard pulled out a lawn chair to watch the goings-on, and her longtime neighbor, Rhonda Wilson, joined her.

Heard said a group had put a flier in her door asking her to come to the protest, but she wasn't sure what they wanted.

"It didn't make ... sense to me," Heard said, "because I don't know what I'm protesting for."

Instead, she watched, and was grateful no one trampled her lawn.