Cleveland is Preparing for the Absolute Worst During the Republican National Convention — and They Might Get It

Are Republicans facing their own version of the explosive 1968 Democratic National Convention?
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Are Republicans facing their own version of the explosive 1968 Democratic National Convention?

No doubt regretting its status as Republican National Convention host, Cleveland has become a city under siege, and the question on the minds of everyone from Homeland Security to Republican officials to ordinary citizens isn't if violence will erupt, but when. 

To prepare, Cleveland has armed itself, stocked its hospitals, and called in thousands of reinforcements from trauma surgeons to police officers. An assembly of trigger-happy federal officials and cops in the middle of a convention celebrating one of the most baroquely bizarre mainstream candidates ever is pretty much a guarantee that the tinderbox that is the RNC will turn into a disaster. 

Hosting the RNC probably sounded like a good idea at the time, even with the inevitable accompanying logistical nightmares. But two things happened: Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee, and the United States exploded in violence. That's a potentially lethal combination.

Time and time again, we've seen violence break out at Trump rallies, and it seems to be something the candidate himself even enjoys. He offered to pay the legal fees of supporters who "knock the crap out of" protesters, and told Fox News that a Black Lives Matter protester "should have been roughed up." His violent rhetoric cultivates an aggressive mood among his followers, and that mood will be in full force in Cleveland this week. 

That's particularly dangerous for people of color, who make up more than half of Cleveland's population. Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan could just as easily read "Make America White Again," and white nationalists are among the groups who adore him. Some will undoubtedly be present at the "America First Unity Rally."

America itself is also caught up in paroxysms of violence. In addition to the systematic police violence that's sweeping the nation with no end in sight despite pledges for reform and the ferocious lobbying of activist groups, we're seeing mass shooting after mass shooting. Those shootings are coming primarily from angry white men with a history of domestic violence and extreme right-wing views, and that's a pretty accurate descriptor of Trump's followers. 

On the actual floor of the convention, Republicans may be reluctantly handing Trump the nomination after a last-minute attempt at a rules change failed, but the candidate isn't the only thing they're battling over. They also need to develop a platform, and the platform's current incarnation is pretty unpalatable — especially when it comes to the virulently homophobic and transphobic elements, such as endorsements for bathroom bills and conversion therapy. More moderate Republicans have threatened to use a minority report to force a vote on the convention floor, which is a sharp illustration of the discord within the party. 

But at least they can't carry guns inside the convention center, unlike the rest of Cleveland, where an open carry law permits people to carry anything from pistols to assault weapons — even though objects like water guns, tape, and canned food aren't permitted within the "event area." Cleveland's police union even pleaded with Ohio governor and failed presidential candidate John Kasich to request that he issue a temporary executive order suspending open carry rights in the city, but as of press time, the governor had declined — the state has made its legal bed, and now it has to lie in it. Multiple groups have already threatened to come armed, including not just pro-Trump organizations but a few antis as well, along with RNC delegates. If that sounds potentially dangerous to you, you're not alone. 

Cleveland hospitals have been preparing for the convention for 18 months, which isn't unusual — political conventions are major events, around 50,000 people are descending upon the city, and the region will be swarming with Secret Service, FBI, Homeland Security, ATF, and pretty much every other alphabet agency you can imagine. In a good year, some heat exhaustion and alcohol poisoning might be on the menu. When you add inevitable protests, some pepper spray might come up. When you combine a nation brimming with violence and Donald Trump, though, it's time to start thinking about assault victims, gunshot wounds, crush injuries from panicked crowds, and other horrors. 

Hospital officials across the area have run through dozens of potential scenarios from the benign to the mass casualty nightmare. Under advice from the Secret Service, they're preparing for the possibility of an incident in which they might be isolated without any assistance for up to four days. They're bringing in reinforcements, keeping extra personnel on hand, stocking up on food and water, and coordinating with each other so they can quickly move resources where they're needed if a crisis erupts. There's also going to be a medical center on site to triage and handle people with relatively minor issues so they don't clog the hospitals. 

Meanwhile, law enforcement had $50 million to spend on preparations, and they certainly allocated those funds with gusto, purchasing riot gear, night vision technology, body armor, and an assortment of other supplies. That includes remote-controlled robots, like the one used to deliver the bomb that killed the Dallas shooter, along with a Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD). While not confirmed, it's also possible the police will be using stingrays, which act as dupe cell towers to intercept signals and spy on people — something protesters should keep in mind. 

"When in normal dress," reports Fast Company, "the police will be wearing body cameras, but not when they're in their riot gear." I'm sure that will work out well, without any foreseeable problems. 

If protesters don't get violent, it sounds like police are ready to supply the violence themselves. This is, after all, the city where the unarmed Brandon Jones was gunned down by police in 2015, Tamir Rice was shot in 2014, and police killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams after a dangerous car chase in 2012, despite the fact that both suspects were unarmed. 

At very least, this sounds like it could become an ominous repeat of the RNC in 2000, when Philadelphia police were involved in repeated excessive force incidents. More worryingly, it could be the groundwork to turn this into another 1968, when Chicago exploded with violence due to a similar combination of social tensions, overeager law enforcement, and contention within the party — and that was a Democratic convention. 

Cleveland has brought in so much outside law enforcement that they're running out of room to house them, so they appropriated Case Western University's dormitories and ordered the university to cancel a week's worth of classes to accommodate them. "Can we actually presume that asking faculty to reboot one eighth of their entire class," asked a professor, "during week seven of an eight week term and with less than one week of notice, will lead to a positive learning experience for our students?"

The streets of Cleveland are going to be hot, violent, and dangerous. This year might not be a repeat of 1968, as some have forecast, but it's definitely on track to become historic. 

If you're in Cleveland — as a delegate, protester, observer, or innocent bystander, here are some resources you may find helpful. In particular, if you need information and support for arrestees, the National Lawyers Guild will be on the ground (and is looking for attorneys admitted to the Ohio Bar or holding bar reciprocity as volunteers), and Cleveland Movement Law is providing assistance. 

Stay safe, friends. If you spot trouble, look for a legal observer (they're usually wearing brightly colored hats or vests with "legal observer" or "LO" on them). Remember that you have a right to make audio-visual recordings (if police challenge you, here is what to do). There are a number of apps for recording police, including an assortment recommended by Cop Block as well as Hands Up. Even at a "National Security Event," the Constitution still applies — you may find it helpful to print this ACLU information sheet.

Photo: Erik Drost/Creative Commons