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‘Greetings From Cleveland: It’s Gonna Be a Riot’

Can Cleveland handle the Republican National Convention?

By Daniel J. McGraw


(Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Once seen as Cleveland’s coming-out party, has the Republican National Convention instead become a burden on the city?

A few weeks ago, writing to the editors of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland native James Jerome Bell weighed in on what he thought of the upcoming Republican convention: “The Republican National Convention will be a circus filled with mayhem,” Bell wrote, “a sojourn of misdeeds and contempt.”

When Cleveland businesses and politicians lobbied to host the RNC a few years ago, the description “a circus filled with mayhem” was probably not what they had in mind. In fact, when the GOP announced in 2014 that Cleveland would host the convention, Mayor Frank Jackson famously said, “It doesn’t matter if they’re sitting in a corporate boardroom or they’re standing in line at a homeless shelter, everyone is talking about this convention and they’re enthusiastic about it.”

That proclamation now feels a lifetime away, and any notion that the convention, which will take place at the Quicken Loans Arena in July, will be a public relations boon to the city grows fainter by the day. Aside from any heated disputes between the delegates themselves, many are weary of, among other things: militia “patriots” marching near those from the Black Lives Matter movement; Planned Parenthood supporters sharing space with the anti-abortion crowd; and Tea Party duking it out with sustainability activists. Add to that mix the inevitably heightened security in the wake of the Brussels bombings and a country that’s generally on edge when it comes to mass gatherings, and it’s clear tensions should be running high.

And then there’s the security itself. The Cleveland Police Department is under supervision from the Department of Justice for its years-long use of excessive force — there were some 600 instances between 2012 and 2013, resulting in more than $8 million in settlement fees. It was here that, just two years ago, the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice sparked outrage over police brutality against young black men.

Last May, after a Cleveland police officer was acquitted for his role in the killing of two unarmed people sitting in a parked car, Reverend Al Sharpton spoke at a church in Cleveland and warned of the impending protests during the RNC. “[The Republicans] think they are going to come in here and have four or five days of convention,” he said. “We are going to have another convention outside. We’re going to be peaceful, but we’re not going to be quiet.”

And then, of course, there is the Donald Trump factor. A few weeks ago, he told the media “there could very well be riots” from his supporters if he were to be denied the nomination. And while he claims to not be in favor of rioting, Trump added, “I have no control over the people … but I will tell you right now, they’re angry people.” His supporters are now planning demonstrations in Cleveland if he isn’t nominated under the #DaysofRage moniker, a reference to the radical anti-war protests in Chicago in 1969.

“There is clearly a potential for all hell to break loose.”

To that end, the City of Cleveland is using $50 million of federal funds to buy 2,000 suits of riot gear armor, three miles of interlocking fences (some eight-feet high sections), surveillance cameras for most of the downtown area, and other various military paraphernalia.

“There is clearly a potential for all hell to break loose,” says Ronnie Dunn, a Cleveland State University urban studies professor. “Cleveland police haven’t had a good record on how they handle crowd control and First Amendment rights. How the authorities handle all this will be interesting and possibly contentious. The world spotlight will be on Cleveland, but it’s not the spotlight the city had intended when they lobbied to get the convention.”

In short, the Cleveland RNC could be utter chaos. Or, as a new T-shirt being sold in select Cleveland stores boldly proffers: “Greetings From Cleveland: It’s Gonna Be a Riot.”

It is important to understand the significance Clevelanders have placed on this convention.

Just this past month, Cleveland was ranked among America’s “most distressed” cities by an economic research group that looked at poverty and employment statistics.

Cleveland has been going through a population and economic loss for more than 50 years now. This perpetuates an endless narrative of “re-birth.” (Since the 1970s, there have been about four “comebacks,” as I count them.)

So when Cleveland, traditionally a Democratic stronghold city, was chosen by the GOP to host its 2016 convention, its citizens broke out into raucous hosannas of celebration. Surely, this meant the city offered real intrigue and promise—why else would the Republican higher-ups select it?

And securing the RNC was a big coup in many respects. Political conventions bring together about 50,000 delegates, members of the media, and other important people for four days. The host city basically provides them with a backdrop to hold their gathering. And while the huge economic expense undertaken by the host city and the economic benefits of hosting so many conventioneers has historically been a wash, the host city still receives invaluable national and worldwide publicity.

There are two major problems for Cleveland right now: where to put all the expected protestors, and how to handle the perception that Cleveland is remains a distressed city.

First, political conventions are considered “National Special Security Events,” meaning they are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, along with input from the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local law enforcement agencies, and the armed forces if necessary. There will also be a total of about 5,000 police officers on the streets, including about 3,000 cops coming from other cities to bolster the Cleveland forces.

Since 1992, political conventions have usually placed protestors into their own “protest zones,” generally fenced-in areas that keep the demonstrators from gumming up the convention, while giving at least some acknowledgement to free speech requirements and helping to maintain order between the protestors and the public. In general, courts have ruled that cities may use the protest zone concept as a substitute for marching in streets or on public property. But there’s one legal stipulation the courts have said must be part of the protest zone placement: The protestors must be within “sight and sound” of the event and the people they are protesting against.

These are generally surface parking lots near the convention arena, as they were in Tampa during the 2012 RNC. But there are no such areas near the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and the city recently acknowledged it would not have protest zones for the convention. This means protestors must apply for city permits , and there are different forms and fees and time deadlines. Even more important to the Cleveland protests regulations: Cleveland’s chief of police can still “impose reasonable restrictions,” should demonstrations interfere with, among other things, the “safe and expeditious movement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic” and “other special events.”

There’s not a ton of transparency in the city’s implementation of it security and protestor limitation plans, and city officials won’t give more specifics until June. Some theorize Cleveland will determine that most everything could necessitate “reasonable restrictions,” and that many of those restrictions won’t be reasonable.

“A lot of circumstances have changed since the idea of having the convention in Cleveland was finalized,” says Freda Levenson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. The problem, Levenson says, is that neither the city nor federal officials have supplied any information on how protests will be handled, citing security concerns. “We just want to have it reasonable for people to express in free speech or assembly. We don’t know how these pieces fit together, and we are concerned they will announce limitations at the last minute that are violations of the First Amendment, but it will be too late to change in court.”

Perhaps more problematic is the notion that what was once a positive event for the city has turned into one that serves only to remind the rest of the United States how far Cleveland still has to come. The New York Times reported last week that many large corporations—ones that contributed large amounts of money as sponsors of Republican conventions in the past—are pulling back their money this year. The major problem, the story points out, is that Trump’s “divisive candidacy has alienated many women, blacks, and Hispanics.”

What this means is not so much a money shortage for Cleveland (though it still needs to raise about $10 million in private funds for the convention), but an image problem. Cleveland officials had hoped the country would focus on its growing downtown area during the convention — and not angry protests in the streets.