The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Tiny Bubbles
On the final day of the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland’s Public Square, a credentialed news photographer stood toe to toe with a young black activist, screaming in her face.
The activist and perhaps two dozen others, mostly black and Latinx students, ringed the perimeter of the square’s central fountain. As little kids played in the water behind them, they held up signs styled as tweets demanding police accountability in the deaths of Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson, and railing against the economic inequality that has poured millions into downtown Cleveland while neighborhoods outside the spiffed-up city core remain gutted by poverty, abandonment, and blight.
The protestors had been holding teach-ins all week under the name #CLEoverRNC. They were calm, on message, and direct—and the photographer wasn’t having it.
“You’re so lazy you have to source your protest on Twitter! Why aren’t you worried about black on black crime! That’s the real genocide! Do you use birth control? Margaret Sanger wanted to kill black babies! Why don’t you protest that!”
As he ranted, a clutch of media drew close. (He’s audible in the background of this Democracy Now! report.) For a moment his racist tirade had drawn as much attention as the protestors themselves.
“Trump that Bitch”
“If You Can Read This the Bitch Fell Off”
“Monica Sucks; Hillary Swallows”
When I told friends I was heading to Cleveland to cover the RNC for the magazine I edit, the responses were snarky and predictable, and often involved joking references to flak jackets and gas masks. Even the genuinely concerned, like my mother, who for at least a few days was not at all happy about this plan, was focused on my physical safety.
Our magazine’s request for press credentials had been denied—no surprise there. But it hardly mattered that we couldn’t get into the arena, since as a Cleveland-based publication our goal for the week was to cover the effects of the RNC on the host city itself. While it was hot and dirty outside, and the days I was out pounding the pavement left my knees aching at night, my body was never in danger. As we all know by now, the convention was “safe.” The massive police presence in downtown Cleveland saw to that (even if, elsewhere in town, gun violence hit a 2016 high).
Instead, after wading for days through the toxic stew of racism, xenophobia, and breathtaking misogyny that simmered around the convention zone, what I longed for was a flak jacket for the soul.
On the streets outside the Quicken Loans Arena, wannabe Westboro Baptists raged against homosexuality and abortion. A dozen Ohio Minutemen marched with assault rifles, brandishing their Second Amendment rights. College-aged Young Republicans extolled the virtues of the free market, and passed out Bernie-inspired buttons reading “Socialism Sucks.” Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones crashed an anti-Trump rally with a bullhorn, chanting “Hillary For Prison”—a sentiment that echoed downtown and even in the sky, where an Infowars-sponsored plane circled daily, pulling a banner emblazoned with the same message.
Organized dissent was, for the most part, relegated to a route many blocks away. Inside the barricaded event zone, in a scene described by one friend as “’Medium Cool’ meets the beach at Dunkirk in ‘Atonement’,” voices of protest were few and often lonely. On East Fourth St., the block-long restaurant row where MSNBC had set up a blaring remote studio and Twitter had taken over the Greenhouse Tavern, a quiet man held up a sarcastically annotated “All Lives Matter” sign. A white guy in a Black Lives Matter shirt argued gently with a conservatively dressed white woman. A couple of Hare Krishnas sang and passed out Jolly Ranchers next to a woman in a lab coat and toy stethoscope. Her sign: “Our political system is sick.”
Around it all, the media swarmed, drawn to the honey on offer from the loudest and nuttiest in the crowd, amplifying the messages from the streets and setting them to a relentless, percussive beat—Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!—until the lunatic fringe and the establishment voices blasting from inside the Q merged in cacophonous harmony. I mean, even Alex Jones got press credentials.
If I am naive to have been surprised—to have felt, on some level, exhausted and battered by words alone—so be it. I was.
On the third day of the convention, after flinching through Chris Christie’s televised “Lock her up!” lynch mob the night before, I reminded myself that it was important to continue to watch. I was in Cleveland to lean in to American politics as it played out beyond the protective skin of Chicago’s liberal bubble, right? So I took my notebook to a Barnes & Noble near Case Western Reserve University. The bookstore was hosting an author event with conservative provocateur Ann Coulter and “alt-right” antihero Milo Yiannopoulos, who had the night before been banned from Twitter for inciting the online harassment of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. It promised to be a toxic convergence of nastiness.
Outside the store a long line of fans had gathered. Across the street, on a narrow brick median, five women protested, with a sheet emblazoned: “Ann, we’d call you a cunt but you lack the depth and warmth.”
Three men, around the age of sixty and standing near me, were particularly incensed by this, and passed the time alternately hollering crude insults across the street and cracking each other up with crass commentary on the protestors’ looks, politics, and presumed socioeconomic status.
I made the mistake of engaging them, and they turned on me with glee. I was an idiot, a loser, another brainwashed feminist patsy of the liberal media. The loudest waggled his finger in my face with this last.
“Could you please not stick your finger in my face?”
“Oh I’m sorrrrry, am I triggering you?” he sneered.
I wiped his disdain from my shirt and I went across the street to talk to the activists instead.
We talk about bubbles as though they are these impermeable membranes, as though we bounce along in political life in bubbles solid enough to keep the Arizona desert out of Biosphere 2, or germs from young John Travolta. But Biosphere failed, the real-life “bubble boy” died, and, truly, a bubble is a fragile thing, the stuff of champagne and hot baths and happy children.
Bubbles are a gassy magic of nature and simple to conjure from soap and water, an evanescent, shimmering distraction easily popped by a puff of wind or a malicious finger.
That finger-waving Milo fan popped the bubble I’d been floating in until that afternoon—the one that allowed me to drift through the world thinking that I had the right to ask questions of strangers. And I felt shame, for a moment, at my own silent fear. Because he was right. I am triggered by old men who holler at women who stand up for their beliefs.
And just as trigger warnings are easily scorned, bubbles are derided as the refuge of elites who can afford to remain deaf to views and values counter to their own. But as once-marginal hate speech is given a national platform, it’s critical to keep popping the bubble, to step forward and watch the ugliness of the world unspool. It may not lead to understanding, exactly—some of it is simply incomprehensible—but awareness is a virtue in itself.
Plus, I realized, as I wandered around Cleveland, watching, and listening, and covered in soap scum, bubbles are an infinitely renewable resource! You can blow one whenever you need—and you do so every time you mute the voice of a demagogue, or refuse to speak his name. You also do it every time you insist on facts over rhetoric, or walk away from a troll and toward an activist. You do it every time you throw $10 behind a cause, in every small, daily step you take to amplify a more just and compassionate vision of the future. A bubble is a sphere of privilege, but it also provides the calm and safety to mix up more soapy water, and to get better at blowing new bubbles to protect what we hold dear. Even if they’re by nature destined to burst, sometimes, for a while, they contain rainbows.
On the final day of the RNC, before I went downtown one last time, I lay on the floor of the place where I was staying and, like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, gave myself ten minutes to fall apart. Then I dusted myself off and headed out. Downtown the drumbeat continued. On the East Fourth jumbotron, New Hampshire delegate Al Baldasaro explained why he thought Hillary should be shot for treason. Vendors hawked “Trump vs. Tramp” T-shirts for 5o percent off. Nearby a silver-painted street performer harangued a delegate who’d stiffed him. By the time I caught up with #CLEoverRNC a few hours later my nerves were shot. I needed to get out, before I started screaming at someone myself. As the protest continued and the photographer basked in his media spotlight, I walked away, and nearly got poked in the eye by a “Legalize Hemp” banner.
At an Ohio City bar that night we watched Donald Trump accept the Republican nomination for president in numb, dumb horror.
Driving back to Chicago the next day, stuck in traffic on the Indiana toll road, I got a panicky email from the activist I’d interviewed at the Milo/Coulter event. She was in danger of losing her job, she wrote, and was getting harassing emails from Milo’s followers thanks to some YouTube videos posted of her protest. She had initially been happy to go on the record, but now, she asked, could I please take her name out of my piece?
Standard practice would say no. But nothing about any of this is standard any more.
When the congestion eased I pulled off at a rest stop McDonald’s, cut her name and identifying details from the story, and blew a tiny bubble.