All's quiet in Cleveland
Republican Party elders probably hoped that the fractious warfare inside the Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention, had been as well or easily managed as the potentially lethal situation on Clevelands streets.
By Friday morning, the expected riotous chaos on the streets had not emerged; Clevelands jails were empty and the emergency rooms quiet; photojournalists packed up their flak jackets and Kevlar and went on to Philadelphia and Donald Trump continued to excoriate Ted Cruz.
A military gag has it that If youre in a fair fight, this shows poor planning on your part. Cleveland got some $50 million to prepare for anticipated protests at the most unusual political event in many decades, and the planning paid off, with trivial arrests, no injuries or property damage, and none of the expected chaos of 1968 Chicago.
Whether Clevelands civic authorities had an adversarial stance to protesters is beside the point; but the application of massive quantities of police presence a shock and awe or Blitzkrieg approach prevented opposing groups of demonstrators from hurting each other or damaging civic infrastructure. The 1,500-strong Cleveland police force was completely mobilized, as were about 2,500-3,000 police of all sorts from at least nine other states; this included SWAT teams, mounted patrols, and state and city patrol officers. The use of bicycle-deployed forces was ubiquitous, and two Cleveland sergeants told this reporter that senior police staff had recently embedded with Seattles force to learn bicycle tactics, and officers practiced on their own time.
The inner perimeter around the Quicken Loans Arena was encased in 10-foot high welded steel screens, and entry was by credential at Secret Service checkpoints. The outer perimeter excluded taxis, Uber vehicles, and some public transit, and possessions such as steel-tipped umbrellas, tennis balls, or squirt-guns were carefully monitored. Curiously, however, heavily armed young men paraded through the outer perimeter carrying loaded assault rifles and automatic pistols, a consequence of Ohios open-carry law.
At least four camps were active: people opposed to Trump or to current electoral politics, including End Poverty groups, Stand Together Against Trump, and a Revolutionary Communist Party USA group, who are followers of Bob Avakian; pro-Trump groups, including Bikers for Trump and armed Minuteman groups, and anti-immigrant groups such as the Stolen Lives Quilt; several groups of street-preachers with immense bullhorns, including the Westboro Baptist Church; and a daily changing menu of performance artists, single-issue activist groups, and sign-carrying individuals.
The mechanism by which police defended infrastructure, the convention, and opposing groups was by applying overwhelming numbers of police, usually bike- or horse-delivered, at the first sign of escalating volume, tension or threat. This most notably occurred when the volume and offensiveness of the ubiquitous street preachers yielded increasing response from the usually politically liberal crowds in Public Square; a column of 20-40 armored officers would push through and between the opposing, screaming parties, then push the crowd farther from the preachers bullhorns; then a second column would insert itself in between the first column and the preachers, creating a no-mans-land of space between warring ideologies. Space or distance is the most valuable currency in street policing, and dividing opposed groups like layers of cake prevented injury or damage.
Wednesday, July 20, was the only exception: nearly 200 demonstrators approached the enclosed space at the Arenas main entrance to burn a flag in protest. The Cleveland police and Fire Bureau waited. Gregory (Joey) Johnson attempted to light a flag; the police chief sprayed Cold Fire flame retardant on the scene, leading some to think of tear gas or pepper spray; and the police found themselves surrounded by angry demonstrators. Protesters had not realized that one of them had lit his own pants on fire, causing the police captain to shout with exasperation Youre on fire, stupid! before extinguishing the problem. Two columns of state troopers forced the crowd (and media) back, with mounted officers and heavily armored riot police as backup. This resulted in approximately 17 (mostly misdemeanor) arrests but no significant injuries.
That an immense convention could unfold so modestly, with thousands of delegates, staff, protesters, media and police all on edge due to a candidate who has encouraged violence in the recent past, in brutally hot weather and in a poor city, is testimony to the power of planning, good luck and studying the lessons of the past. Remembering the mantra of the 1968 Democratic convention The whole world is watching in a world that arguably is watching far more closely, we shall see whether the Philadelphia authorities have learned the lessons of the smaller, poorer, more compact Cleveland.