Republicans descend on Cleveland under the shadow of Baton Rouge

CLEVELAND – At Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, a cardboard Donald Trump greets the 2,500 arriving Republican National Convention delegates. Banners welcome visitors to the city that will “nominate the next President of the United States.” There is enough red, white, and blue bunting lining the terminal for a Fourth of July parade.

Downtown, though, the wheels seem to fall off the welcome wagon. Tight restrictions have been put in place to make sure that no one without a delegate credential gets anywhere near the Quicken Loans Arena where the convention is meeting. Chain-link fences and columns of heavily armed police cut the downtown core into a confusing maze.

1.7 square miles of the city have been designated the “event zone,” where special rules apply to the use of streets and sidewalks. For the more than 10,000 demonstrators expected to take part in the many events and protests scheduled this week, the closest they will ever get to the GOP confab is beneath a highway overpass several hundred feet away. If convention delegates peer intently into the distance, they may just catch a glimpse of them.

Even these allowances were only won after the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, however, arguing that the security arrangements “severely limited” free expression and assembly. A federal judge agreed and invalidated the original plan, which reserved an “event zone” nearly twice as large and would have placed even stricter rules on the paths and locations for protests and rallies. The route has now been lengthened and permit times have been extended.

In what is already being called a “First Amendment disaster” in the making, however, security officials are gearing up for mass arrests and the possible deployment of force. $50 million has been sent by the federal government for policing expenses in the city this week. Bids were requested from suppliers for 2,000 sets of riot gear, steel batons, 10,000 plastic handcuffs, barricades, and prisoner transport vans.

An extra $10 million of insurance was purchased by the city just to cover costs associated with shipping in and housing the extra law enforcement personnel brought to supplement the Cleveland police force. Local jails have been cleared to accommodate the expected influx of prisoners. Judges, meanwhile, have been told that courts will be in operation 20 hours a day and that they should expect to process as many as 1,000 arrests each day.

Baton Rouge casts a shadow

Though Cleveland’s stepped-up security regime has been in the works for months, the July 17 news of the shooting attack that took the lives of three Baton Rouge police officers made for an even more ominous atmosphere. Many delegates and journalists arriving in the city on the eve of the convention discovered what had happened only after stepping off their planes.

Donald Trump immediately sought to aggravate tensions following the ambush of the Baton Rouge officers, tweeting, “Our country is divided and out of control.” He went on to say President Obama “doesn’t have a clue” when it comes to responding to violence. He called America “a divided crime scene” that “will only get worse.”

While Trump was eager to channel Richard Nixon and promote himself once again as the “law and order” candidate, the people actually responsible for law enforcement in Cleveland issued a plea to Ohio Governor John Kasich to place temporary restrictions on the state’s firearm laws for the duration of the convention.

Within hours of the tragedy in Baton Rouge, the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association requested a suspension of the state’s open carry allowances for the rest of the week. The president of the police union, Steve Loomis, announced:

“[Kasich] could very easily do some kind of executive order or something – I don’t care if it’s constitutional or not at this point… I want him to absolutely outlaw open carry in Cuyahoga County until the RNC is over.”

Loomis’s call for the suspension of open carry only served to further highlight the absurdity of the list of items banned from the security zones around the convention site. Tennis balls, water guns, BB guns, sticks, bats, poles, large backpacks, canned goods, and any item that can launch a projectile are all on the prohibited items list. Real guns that fire bullets, however, are perfectly fine.

Loomis said the officers of his union will be “looking very, very hard” at anyone carrying an AR-15, shotguns, or multiple handguns into the area. “It’s irresponsible to be coming downtown with open carry AR’s,” he told reporters. “I couldn’t care less if it’s legal or not. We love the constitution, support it and defend it, but you can’t go into a crowded theater and scream fire.”

Already on Sunday evening, there were people in the downtown area exercising their legal right to carry guns in the secured zones. 57-year-old Steve Thacker of Westlake, Ohio, stood in Public Square with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. Several police gathered and observed Thacker, but did not intervene.

Governor Kasich, meanwhile, responded through a spokesperson that he has no authority to unilaterally suspend state law.

Resignation rather than excitement

Some Republican delegates seem to have resigned themselves to having Trump as their candidate. For them, there appeared to be very little about the standard-bearer that inspired optimism or excitement.

One delegate from Arkansas, a public official who played a lead role in the Ted Cruz campaign, said that while he would back Trump in the general election, “I’d rather be sticking with Cruz.”

Others said that while Trump was divisive and that the party structure had become dysfunctional in many states during the primaries, he was now all they had left. For some prominent Republican leaders, such as former Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, it has been easier to simply sit this one out.

Whatever dissatisfaction some of the Cleveland delegates may have with Donald Trump, the visceral hatred they feel toward Hillary Clinton still serves as a unifying factor. Sexist buttons and t-shirts full of crude comments concerning breast size and other physical attributes are brisk sellers at street-side kiosks. The word “bitch” appears to be a particularly favorite descriptor for the former Secretary of State.

The elevation of such base rhetoric to the level of acceptable political discourse signals the level to which the internal culture of the GOP has sunk.

Photo: A United States Secret Service agent closes a security fence, as preparations are made for the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland, Ohio, on Saturday, July 16, 2016.   |   Alex Brandon/AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.