Nowhere was this dichotomy more evident than in downtown Cleveland’s Public Square. Any time a small argument occurred between conflicting protesters, a small circle of camera-touting reporters (including City Paper’s) and uniformed officers would instantly form around the shouting match; obscenities would be yelled for a minute or two; and then the crowd would disperse. And this played out over and over again, every afternoon of the convention.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio won a case against the RNC challenging its strict protest rules. But despite this victory, protests during the four days of the convention lacked the fire many anticipated.
On July 20, CP spoke with Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams who said “so far so good” when asked how police were handling the protests. And by the time the convention ended Thursday evening, the most “controversial” public events were a rowdy appearance by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in Public Square and a flag-burning demonstration outside the convention entrance, which resulted in 18 arrests, but no injuries. In fact, Williams told the New York Times the police only intervened in the flag-burning because the flag-burner “lit himself on fire.”
But sheer numbers of police officers and paid-police-officer-watchers (a.k.a. journalists) might not have been the only deterrent to protesters. The convention site was also walled off by more than two miles of 8-foot-high chain-link fence, cutting off access to a square-mile section of downtown Cleveland.
University of Pittsburgh professor David Harris, an expert on policing, says the setup for demonstrators and protesters was not a very fair one. The majority of the protests occurred at Public Square, which was blocks from the convention entrance and easily avoided by delegates.
“You want delegates to see the protests, and not effectively cut off the protests to the people who count the most,” says Harris.
If this sounds familiar to Pittsburghers, it’s because a similar set-up occurred in Pittsburgh in 2009, when the city hosted the G-20 Summit at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Highway exits, bridges and Downtown streets were blocked, police-officer lines kept many protest marches from getting near the convention center, and no international leaders saw any protests.
Similar tactics were used in Cleveland. In addition to Public Square, Cleveland officials did designate another “demonstration site” in the city. But as CP reported, it was more than two miles away and basically silent throughout the week.
Ultimately, it was the best possible outcome for Clevelanders and RNC delegates. Most locals said they knew many neighbors who left town to avoid the commotion of the RNC. And two of CP's most popular RNC-related tweets were the one about how friendly Cleveland’s Chief Williams was, and an innocuous picture of a local artist holding up a sign reminding people that Cleveland Cavaliers star Lebron James is still technically a free agent.
Hopefully, the Democratic National Convention also offers peaceful street scenes, but allows the voices of those protesters to be more easily heard by the people they’re directed toward.
Follow our DNC coverage on www.pghcitypaper.com.