The 2016 political season has been the most fractious in living memory. This week, America’s potpourri of turmoil will coalesce in Cleveland as groups from around the country come to support or protest the Republican National Convention. Or more accurately, they’ve come here because of Donald Trump, the demigod of modern American disarray.
‘Political protests have always been dangerous. But now is more dangerous than ever.’
Capturing these confrontations will be the nation’s corps of photo and video journalists. And many of them are packing protective gear—kevlar vests, helmets, gas masks—stuff that usually stays in the closet unless their assignment is a war zone.
“I’m bringing extra gear that I normally wouldn’t, including my bullet proof vest,” says Timothy Fadek, a freelance photographer who works for several German publications, as well as WIRED. “That might sound a little dramatic, but when I started reading about the open carry weapon policy in Ohio I took things more seriously.” The vest is in addition to a ventilator mask to protect against tear gas and a skateboard helmet—just in case people start throwing rocks and bottles. “This rates on the same level as covering the revolution in Cairo,” says Fadek, who covered the Egyptian Arab Spring uprising for Time in 2011.
Other veteran photographers are making similar analogies—and taking similar precautions. “I’ve been doing this job for 20 years, and have covered the wars and conflicts all over the world, so I can be a little cavalier about this stuff and tend to think it won’t be so bad,” says Spencer Platt, staff news photographer for Getty Images. “But I’ve been reading about Cleveland for the past few days and it looks pretty rough.” Platt says he’s bringing his helmet and flack jacket—but leaving the armor plates at home.
Precaution is normal when covering political protests. But Cleveland feels different. Part of that is due to the rising static of political tension humming across America. That hum could become a roar in Cleveland, given the number of opposing groups expected to gather at the RNC. And many of those groups—including the Hells Angels, Black Panthers, and several white nationalist organizations—plan to exercise their right to openly carry firearms. “Political protests have always been dangerous,” says Platt. “But now is more dangerous than ever.”
Becoming a Target
Fadek says he’s also worried about Trump’s antagonistic attitude towards the press—mocking the media in attendance has become a staple act in Trump’s vaudevillian campaign rallies. “I almost expect to get singled out and harassed, considering the violent and negative tone Trump has instilled in his supporters,” he says.
Platt is less concerned. He says it’s all part of the show. “I’ve covered a half-dozen rallies, and I’ve never seen things get out of hand except for the woman from Breitbart who got pulled by the arm,” he says.
And neither wants to wear anything unnecessary. Cleveland’s temperatures will be in the 80s next week, with Lake Erie humidity and Midwestern thunderstorms. Both photographers arrived in the city early so they could feel out the mood. If the vibe is chill, the protective gear stays in the suitcase.
Some photojournalists aren’t even going to bother. “I’m bringing no helmets or gas masks,” says Andrew Lichtenstein, a freelancer. He says armor and helmets create a psychological distance between himself and the people he is covering. And he’s not too worried about mob violence.
“Most of these situations are overblown, where minor property damage done by small groups of anarchists gets blown up by media looking for a story,” he says. Oh and also, Lichtenstein says without gear it will be a lot easier to run if he has to.
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