The closest Cleveland has come to chaos was Tuesday afternoon, day two of the Republican National Convention. Or as I like to call it: Conservative Coachella. And really it wasn’t close at all. A bunch of groups converged on Public Square, a park about four blocks from the convention hall. Black Lives Matter was there. And Industrial Workers of the World. And the Anti-Muslim contingent. And Alex Jones and Cornel West and a couple militia-looking dudes in baggy khakis carrying semi-automatics.
But there wasn’t more than 500 people, way less than the number of journos climbing over each other to get photos, and the police locked it down real quick. So far, the police here this week have been totally on point. It’s like the 2015 Denver Broncos defense lining up against a Pop Warner team. And it’s not just the Cleveland PD. Based on just the uniform patches I’ve seen there are cops from the the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the California Highway Patrol, the Utah Highway Patrol, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Indiana State Police, and some spooky private security firm called Premiere Protective Services. They all seem very well prepared and rehearsed. They’ve got their plan down. As soon as there was the slightest hint of things popping off at Public Square, they immediately formed a ring around the place and wouldn’t let anyone else through.
Which was a big problem for Robert Smigel.
I first noticed him when I was walking around the square trying to find a seam in the cop line where I could sneak through and see what was going on. Actually I first noticed what was on his hand: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Then I noticed the four or five people with him. One had a camera. The other had a boom mic. One of them—the producer, I figured—was speaking to someone through a lav mic. Like me, they were trying to figure out a way to get past the cops. They were all playing it pretty cool, not trying to draw any attention to themselves. Smigel didn’t have Triumph in people’s faces yet. They were just sort of very patiently walking down the line of cops, scoping it out. They had run into this kind of stuff before—I’d been watching them do it on Conan for nearly twenty years. They were pros. So I just fell in line behind them conga-style.
Eventually the cops directed some of the protesters out of the square. As they did, their defense collapsed and a hole opened up between the right guard and tackle, just big enough for us to scamper through. Turns out there was no point. There wasn’t much to see once you were in there. More cops than protesters, and the protesters were just the usual Times-Square-in-the-eighties assortment of freaks. So I kept following Smigel and his crew, curious to see what they were up to.
They worked their way across the park and over the the southern edge, where there was a stage and a podium and a speaker system for groups who submitted the necessary paperwork and got the proper approval to play town crier. The square had been jammed and the speakers are real shitty—like, high school gymnasium pep-rally shitty—so I hadn’t realized anyone was on the stage. But Smigel and his crew did. And when we got about ten feet away, I realized who their target was: the Westboro Baptist Church.
There were five of them: two women and three men, holding their trademark signs, whose typography is almost as offensive as their message. One of the women, wearing a Dress Barn clearance rack special of red clamdiggers, paisley pink blouse and mutant boat-shoe Crocs, was playing music from her phone into the mic. Songs like “Royals” and “Let It Go.” She was singing along but changing the lyrics. I couldn’t make out to what, exactly—that speaker system is just straight trash—but I wasn’t mad about that.
Smigel and his crew were getting a little frustrated, though. One of their guys was stuck outside the cop line and couldn’t get back in. That’s who the producer had been on her mic with. She was still talking to him. Finally Smigel hopped up onto the little retaining wall and walked through some mulch and over to one of the cops. They talked for a quick second but apparently the guy trapped outside had worked it out, because he came walking through the mulch followed by about fifteen people.
“Are these my extras?” Smigel said to the guy. And for a second I was really fucking bummed. For a second I thought this was a Triumph skit, where he does his dog-on-the-street interviews, and that the people he was going to punk weren’t real people but plants—actors who’d been hired to play rubes and imbeciles. I’d already suffered enough disillusionment during my two days in Cleveland. It was bad enough to have discovered that our presidential nominating process is a sham, a beautifully lit set piece meant to fool the American people into thinking that four days was absolutely necessary for nominating a candidate for president and had nothing at all to do with TV networks raking in several months of advertising revenue in a single week. I couldn’t handle finding out that one of my favorite comedians was equally full of shit.
But I had totally misread the situation. This wasn’t a Triumph skit. The guy who’d been stuck outside was carrying a stack of signs. They were all turned around so you couldn’t see what they said. The guy started passing them out to the extras.
“Who wants to fuck with Westboro?” Smigel shouted to them.
The group whooped.
“Let’s go!” he shouted.
All at once they raised the signs. They were exactly the same colors and fonts as the Westboro ones. And they were just as angry. But at very different things: morning people, bangs, comedians named Kevin, mermen. “God Hates the Lakers’ Off-Season Moves” one read. The extras were really selling it, shouting and shaking their fists. It was hilarious, yes. But it was the most effective protest I’d seen in two days. It wasn’t just some asshole shouting at people through a bullhorn. It was a joke, but not an easy or a condescending one. There was a lot of thought and heart behind it. And more important than showing up the Westboro folks, it showed how humor can undermine hate, how subtlety can beat bombast. I noticed even one of the Westboro guys was chuckling.
Soon their time on the stage was up. Smigel’s group kept their signs up a few minutes longer. When they were done I went up to him and told him how I’d been following them around and how impressed I was they managed to pull it off.
It was hilarious, yes. But it was the most effective protest I’d seen in two days.
“Yeah, there was a kerfuffle here earlier,” he said. “I was told Alex Jones started something with somebody and they had the anti-Muslims over here, the Black Lives Matter over there. So the cops flooded in. Literally 500 to 1,000 cops. We had this plan to have fun with the Westboro protest. We were told they had the space at five o’clock and we only had a half-hour window. And then all this craziness happened. We didn’t think we’d get anywhere near. It took us about fifteen minutes to get the signs, get the people in. But just piece by piece we chiseled away and got there.”
He then made a point of saying how impressed he was with the cops.
“They are very cool here,” Smigel said. “They weren’t aggressive when they were doing their job. I felt completely safe while I was trying to cause our trouble. My mom called me. She heard there was something going on. I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ The cops handled it really well.”
The whole thing was being filmed for Triumph’s Summer Election Special, which Smigel said will premiere on Hulu in early August.
“What was your favorite sign?” I asked him.
“Personally I’m a sports fan so I like the Lakers one,” he said. “I forced that one in. The other writers didn’t even get it.”
I told him I saw one of the Westboro guys chuckling.
“I think some of them have a sense of humor,” he said, “even though I’m at a loss for exactly what they’re doing and why. But I get the sense that there is a sense of humor buried underneath there somewhere.”
I left him and his crew to pack up, and I wandered around the square for a bit more. Out of the sound system now crackled the music that played between scheduled speakers: the sort of New Age stuff you’d hear at a spa. I’m guessing it was meant to relax people but you could barely hear it over the guy on the other side of the square yelling into his bullhorn.
Follow Sean Manning on Twitter: @talkingcovers.