It's Friday afternoon in Public Square, and a young man with homemade orange hair takes the stage. He is surrounded by largely college-age protesters, most with welcoming smiles, some with scarves covering their faces, aping the latest in Gaza Strip dissident fashion.
Ringing the square are refugees from the nearby cubicle farms, kids headed to Tower City, a sprinkling of cops. Orange Hair has himself an audience. But he isn't looking to change minds. He's looking for a fight.
The cops have "turned downtown into a police state," he thunders into a bullhorn. "Are we gonna let these pigs shut us down?"
Never mind that the cops look mildly bored at best. ("I'd just like to go home and have dinner," sighs one, reflecting the sentiments of his colleagues.) Never mind that these are the very people protesters should cultivate -- people who still breed, who still send their sons and daughters to war, who struggle to put them through college on a working stiff's paycheck. They might be inclined to listen when someone says it's not good to get your kid smoked in a land far away. That it might be wiser to spend money on Kent State scholarships than on cruise missiles.
But Orange Hair doesn't understand working stiffs. He does understand that he needs an enemy. The cops are convenient. "We call on the media to report what the police are doing to us here!" he rails on.
Media report: The cops are standing around, looking forward to supper.
It is, of course, the curse of young men to see themselves in romantic terms, their fights gallant, their oppressors mighty. It's so of young women too: One simply rages into the bullhorn. You can't tell what she's saying -- other than she enjoys the word "fucking" a lot. Yet most speakers are less afflicted, and make cases worth hearing out: "Why are little old ladies digging in the garbage for food when we're spending $1.5 million on a bomb?" asks one.
It doesn't matter. Orange Hair has already set the stage. The cubicle farmers and school kids watch with only vague interest, the same way people linger around the cleanup of a fender bender. The chance to nurture new partisans is lost.
These protesters are by no means representative of the left, or even the general realm of protesters. It's a sprawling movement, ranging from retirees to Hollywood starlets, professors to priests. But they do share one important trait: They couldn't win a crowd if they handed out $100 bills and free hotdogs.
It's not just a recent trend spurred by September 11 and the Iraq invasion, as liberals plead. This is a 20-year losing streak on everything from congressional elections to welfare reform to environmental protections to workers' rights. The only difference: It's now turned into a rout.
Human nature dictates that when one is getting pummeled, one find someone to blame, lest one be forced to look inward. Today's villain: the media -- who are, according to one protester's sign, "lying corporate whores."
"Incompetent, pandering whores" might be more accurate. But there's little doubt the media are shifting rightward. Radio consultants urge clients to play patriotic music. Cable stations joust to prove who's more American. Even the liberal bastion of Hollywood is worried about appearing too left. One studio pulled promotions for a new movie starring Nickelodeon's Amanda Bynes. She was wearing an American flag shirt, flashing a peace sign. Couldn't have a child actress making a radical statement like that.
To lefties, this only proves that men with big wallets and thin mustaches are scheming behind the scenes, perpetrating their right-wing tyranny. But they misjudge the nature of the whore. The whore is about business. And right now, it's very good business to ignore the left.
As The Washington Post recently noted, "Covering war protests may be harmful to a station's bottom line." It cited a pre-war survey indicating that, among news topics, protests and peace activities ranked last among viewer interest. That's why the sit-com known as Fox News can taunt protesters on the sign outside its New York studios. Read one: "The Michael Moore Fan Club meets Thursday at a phone booth at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street."
Had the left bothered to cultivate anyone, that sign might well read, "Tonight, Bill O'Reilly investigates the slaughter of Iraqi grandmas and babies." This is TV; it plays to the crowd. But the left hasn't managed to build a crowd. It seems far more interested in talking to itself than connecting with regular people.
As the Public Square rally moved through the downtown streets, bystanders leveled the occasional jeer of "faggot" and "get a job," but most raised the peace sign. These are Clevelanders, after all. They understand that unless you're pro-life, really like guns, or have sexual insecurities you wish to inflict upon others, there's no reason for working stiffs to trust Republicans, a party led by a half-wit daddy's boy and largely devoted to moving wealth from taxpayer to executive suite. As long as the protesters were marching -- and not speaking -- they had support.
But they insisted on blocking streets to "shut this city down." There would be "no business as usual." The idea, presumably, was for the White House to take notice of traffic problems in Cleveland and bring our troops home. For the cubicle farmers trying to flee work, the reality was that some assholes were jamming traffic, and they would be billed for another hour by the day-care center.
By the time the rally returned to Public Square, Orange Hair was screaming once more about the "fucking pigs," who, in full riot gear, had forced protesters from the intersection of Superior and Ontario. It was a stand-off. The growing crowd had to choose between the protesters' raging bullhorn and the working stiffs who just wanted to eat supper.
A truck drove past. The driver gave the protesters the finger. The crowd roared.