Amid recurring violence at political rallies held by presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, many local officials and activists are increasingly worried that this lakeside city is ill-prepared to deal with tens of thousands of protesters and agitators expected to descend on the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
Some worry that police might be overrun or that the city has not stockpiled enough water to hydrate the masses in the summer heat. Others, particularly on the left, oppose new restrictions that will be placed on demonstrators and object to the kind of military-style equipment that law enforcement authorities may use to control the crowds.
There is also unhappiness among groups on both sides over the slow progress the city has made in approving parade and demonstration permits with less than two months to go.
On Wednesday, under the threat of a federal lawsuit by some groups upset over delays, city officials finally unveiled an official parade route and speakers’ platform in a major downtown park. Parades and protests will be allowed, but plans by some groups to bring in trucks, horses and, in one case, a giant bomb-shaped balloon might need to be rethought.
Mayor Frank G. Jackson (D) defended the pace of preparations, saying his office has waited “because we want to do it right. So in doing it right, you have to take your time to do it right.”
Derided as “The Mistake by the Lake” during its nadir, this Rust Belt city has spent much of this century bidding to host a political convention to showcase its economic revival. Local business leaders say the city could reap between $200 million and $250 million in economic activity.
But many locals now fear that the four-day event, which starts July 18, could be marred or even defined by strife – and some accuse Trump of stoking the idea. In March, when the possibility of a contested convention loomed large, Trump warned that “I think you’d have riots” if he didn’t get the nomination. He has not made such comments since clearing the GOP field, but many of his rallies – including events in the past week in California and New Mexico – have been accompanied by violent clashes between protesters and police.
Trump “set the stage for things to be difficult. They don’t need to be,” said Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which is closely monitoring convention preparations.
At least 10 applications are on file for major parades, protests and news conferences beginning the week before the convention, including anti-nuclear groups on the left and a “YUGE victory celebration” for Trump on the right.
Larry Bresler of Organize Ohio submitted applications in March for a demonstration with at least 5,000 participants on the first day of the convention. He has not heard back yet.
“I think that their ideal thing would be for all of us to go away,” Bresler, the executive director of Organize, said of city officials.
Global Zero, an anti-nuclear-weapons group, has filed plans to erect a large, inflatable rocket. The Citizens for Trump group’s declared plans include an “America First Unity Rally” at which as many as 104 trucks and 100 horses could show up.
Tim Selaty Sr., co-founder of the group, did not respond to requests for comment. He tells his followers on the group’s website to anticipate “several thousand of Mr. Trump’s detractors to stage a massive counter protest.”
Other events will push for more AIDS research; the end of federal funding for Planned Parenthood; and more aid for the nation’s poor. There also are reports that members of the band Rage Against the Machine, rapper Chuck D and others might hold a concert here that week.
“We’re going to march with or without permits. It’s our right to do so,” warned Tom Burke, an organizer of the Coalition to Stop Trump and March on the RNC. His group arranged similar protests at the GOP conventions in 2004 and 2008.
Matt Zone, a Democratic member of the Cleveland City Council and chairman of the Public Safety Committee, joined Jackson in defending the city’s deliberate pace, saying that significant security threats required caution.
“We have an obligation and a right to make sure that those who live and work here and those who are visiting are safe,” he said. “Every permit is getting extra scrutiny and review, and we will approve when accordingly.”
Based on the plans released Wednesday, parades will be allowed each day of the convention along a route beginning on the west side of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge – a span that passes within sight of the Quicken Loans Arena, the convention site. Once across the bridge, marchers will be required to head away from the arena toward a street next to Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, a block from the arena. Given the short route, officials expect each march should last about an hour.
Groups seeking to erect signs, art or inflatables can do so only in two parks closer to city hall, officials said. In Public Square, a downtown park undergoing major renovations, anyone can sign up to appear on a stage – but the city is managing the sign-up sheet and microphone system, with speakers limited to 30 minutes.
Protesters immediately dismissed the new rules as “extreme limitations” that are “vague and unacceptable.”
“Confining demonstrators to a short route area for a limited time period in the morning and early afternoon flies in the face of the First Amendment’s right to free speech and the right to assemble,” Bresler and the heads of other groups seeking permits said in a joint statement on Facebook.
City officials plan to begin contacting the groups in the coming days to go over the changes and tweak permit applications. “We hope to act as quickly and expeditiously as we can,” said Richard Horvath, the city’s top lawyer.
With pro- and anti-Trump groups expected in the city, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said Wednesday that there are plans to keep opposing groups apart to avoid any violence.
“We are prepared for this,” he said, declining to share specifics.
Williams said he will take cues from the U.S. Secret Service, which will lead dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies during convention week. Like Philadelphia – which will host the Democratic convention the week after the GOP event – Cleveland is receiving $50 million in federal grant money to spend on security. Roughly $30 million will be used to pay for overtime and accommodations for out-of-town officers sent by other departments to help patrol city streets; $20 million will be spent on police equipment for convention security, including new riot gear.
Some civil liberties groups, noting past examples, worry that local police will be outfitted with military-style hardware that will remain in use long after the convention. City officials dismiss such concerns and said most of the equipment they buy will be sold after the event.
“We’re buying bikes, we’re buying some small little ATVs,” Zone said. “We’re not buying tanks. We’re not buying grenade launchers. We’re not militarizing our police department.”
“The Q,” as locals call their arena, is still decked out in the maroon-and-mustard hues of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are now in the NBA Finals, an event that could further strain the city just weeks before the GOP convention.
Game 1 is Thursday night with a possible Game 7 on the night of June 19 – 30 days from the start of the convention. But Republicans have never assembled their convention site in less than a month, so they have made elaborate contingency arrangements for an accelerated construction schedule.
If the Cavaliers force a six- or seven-game series that concludes in Cleveland, the NBA has agreed to finish the game, award the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to the winning team and vacate the premises within six hours.
By the morning of June 20, moving trucks will be hauling in the staging and lighting. Workers will be stripping seats out of the arena’s lower levels, and images of Lebron James are likely to be replaced by Trump campaign photos. And a security perimeter will begin going up around the arena.
Despite the potentially tight schedule, officials with the Republican National Committee have said that they support the hometown team.
“We are not rooting for the Cavs to lose,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kurkowski said during a tour of the arena. “We are not rooting for the Cavs to lose.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Ed O’Keefe · Photo: Ty Wright – Bloomberg