Police stand watch over a protest in downtown Cleveland, Ohio
Police stand watch over a protest in downtown Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland natives have, let’s say, mixed feelings about their city hosting the Republican National Convention. And tensions between police and small groups of protestors are continuing to grow.

The Cleveland Police Department mostly embraced the “soft cops” strategy, averting from the heavily armed police seen at protests since the riots in Ferguson in 2014. Police chief Calvin Williams has adopted a hands-on approach, which he described on Wednesday as “the way we do it here in Cleveland”.

Officers on bicycles are a mainstay of the convention, allowing police to respond quickly, cordon off streets and use them as walls or battering rams in heated moments.

Williams was personally present at both of the major protests on Tuesday and was again present in downtown’s Public Square on Wednesday afternoon.

“Personally, I like to be able to touch, smell, see exactly what’s going on and you can’t do that in our command centre,” he told Crikey. “You see the people coming voicing their first amendment concerns, or their second amendment and going about their business.”

The police presence at other protests around America in the last few years have informed the response in Cleveland. “If people are peaceful and walking there’s no need for police in protective equipment,” Calvin said.

Twenty minutes drive from downtown in Cleveland Heights, the large groups of police, protestors, convention attendees and media are missing. Even this far out, local Brian DeWitt said police asked for access to his hardware store’s rooftop. DeWitt says having the Republicans in town is “great for Cleveland” but he “wouldn’t vote Republican if you paid me”.

“I’m gay. Their anti-gay stances for 40 years, 50 years, they’ve been that way and they’re worse about it now because they have been sliding to the right.”

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Megan See, a server at the local diner Tommy’s, was born and raised in Cleveland. “In some way it’s exciting because it brings in people from all over,” she told Crikey. “It is bringing in a lot of negative things, for instance like the amount of police. Being a native of this area, I don’t find it comforting or safe at all.”

Suzanne Degaetano, owner of Cleveland Heights bookstore Mac’s Backs, says cops are “dying to put their best foot forward and be a responsible police force. We’ve had so many problems with the police in our town.

“I know a lot of people are just going to downtown to kind of witness and look and observe and see all the different points of view. A lot of local activists have put together just incredible programming, so really that’s what we’ve been engaged in.”

Her store hosted author and cartoonist Ted Rall on Tuesday night. Rall has published a series of biographic graphic novella on Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Edward Snowden. Rall, a native from Dayton, Ohio, was downtown on Wednesday afternoon personally selling and signing copies of the novellas.

When Crikey caught up with him he said Ohio could use “any kind of economic stimulus it can get. Even if it does presage the collapse of American democracy.

“It’s sad to come here, because I live in New York, and every time I come back to Ohio I just see more factory closings, more buildings closed, more unemployment, just less; less.”

Where Rall is selling his book, just outside “media lane” close to the convention entrance, the mood is festive as vendors sell souvenirs and buttons. In the surrounding blocks, outdoor furniture for some cafes and restaurants has been removed, with police choppers circling overhead.

Peter Fray

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