In the lead-up to the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, there was a lot of fear that the event might become a bloodbath. The city of Cleveland was required to allow protesters to open-carry firearms, and the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church promised to show up and do what they do best: piss people off. Combine that with flag-burning anarchists, Bikers for Trump, and the generally unhinged nature of this election so far, and it makes sense that a lot of people predicted unprecedented levels of stupid.
But in the end, it was all pretty much fine. The few minor dust-ups that did occur didn't lead to anyone being killed, or even bruised up all that badly. A lot of folks deserve credit for keeping the RNC protests peaceful, but in my experience covering all four days, one man stood above the rest: Vermin Supreme.
The hero the convention needs and deserves.
In case you haven't heard of him, Vermin is a perennial presidential candidate who runs on a platform of mandatory tooth-brushing and free ponies for all. He came in fourth in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, and he showed up at the RNC to ostensibly seek the Republican nomination as well. Cracked met up with him at several points throughout the event. And the more I spoke with him, the clearer it became that Vermin Supreme's real goal at the RNC was to keep things from getting all morally crunk up in that bitch.
"... when it gets intense, people start to get scared. And when they get scared, people start to panic ... so by defusing the tension with humor ... it allows people to relax and refocus about what we're doing here on the streets."
I got to see this in action during a march on Monday. As the crowd of anti-Trump protesters hit the main road, two columns of bicycle cops rolled up on either side of them. This is a standard tactic for corralling protest marches -- the police use their bicycles as a sort of mobile barricade to funnel the march in a direction of their choosing. The protesters know this, and the first few moments after the bike-walls form are always a tense time.
Up until that point, Vermin and I had been off to the side of the march, keeping out of the thick of it. But he seemed to have some sort of sixth sense for when things might be about to go pear-shaped, and before I even realized it, he'd sprinted up to the front of the march and started calling out to the police on his bullhorn: "Do it just like we did in rehearsal, OK people? Try not to bump into each other!"
Marking the only successful wall-creation story from any nominee in the near future.
He spent the next several minutes critiquing the officer's bikesmanship, pointing out whenever two cycles bumped into each other and doing his best to start a competition between the left and the right column of officers.
Pop a wheelie, not a protester.
Vermin explained to me that his work is all about "avoiding crowd panic." He feels that "fear is a very potent weapon used by the police against the protesters," and he counteracts it with a "two-pronged approach." The first prong is reading excerpts from police and FBI manuals on crowd control, with the goal of making sure everyone knows how things should go. And "when it gets intense," he trots out the absurdist humor. "When the police start doing a move, [protesters] might overreact, and bad things can happen."
His jokes aren't all at the expense of the police, either. Vermin pointed out that crowd control is miserable work. Cops in riot armor get sweaty and start chafing, and that makes them more likely to overreact. "I remember one [protest] ... it was in New York, at one of the conventions, it was hot and sweaty and we were days into it ... and so I changed one of the chants to, 'Give the cops a raise!' because they were looking for a raise at the time ... and by getting the crowd on their side, it changed the whole thing ... they saw the protesters ... differently. And so sometimes it's just really about changing perceptions, and I use absurdity and humor to sort of do that."
Across four days of protests, whenever things started to get hairy and violent, I knew I'd find Vermin at the thick of it, shouting nonsense and trying to calm everyone down. On Tuesday, when the Westboro Baptist Church showed up and the crowd surged around them, furious, Vermin put himself at the front of the line and bellowed into his megaphone, "Hey, where's Shirley [Phelps]? How come Shirley's not here? You are a cheap impostor, sir! We are here to worship Shirley!"
God hates fakes.
And then, reading one of their signs: "Drunkards and murderers and dope-heads and sodomites, those are my voters!" He got a lot of laughs out of the crowd and the police, who knew him by name and seemed to genuinely enjoy his presence.
On Wednesday, when rumors of a flag-burning and a bunch of Bikers for Trump looking to assault said flag-burners filled Cleveland's Public Square, I caught sight of Vermin again, following two men marching with flags, keeping quiet and to the back of the crowd, waiting until he was needed. Unfortunately, the actual flag-burning went down at a completely different location, and ended with five arrests and two injured cops. I don't know that things would've gone down differently if Vermin had been present -- there's clearly a limit to how much comedy can calm down thousands of furious people. But it's probably worth noting that every single time I saw Cleveland protests turn violent, Vermin Supreme was somewhere else.
For more reasons Republicans are really, really crazy, check out Donald Trump Is Courting 9/11 Truthers: The Weird Reality and The Ridiculous Endgame Of The Trump Nomination.
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