CLEVELAND – The skirmishes on Day Two of the Republican National Convention slithered closer to the fearful visions held by the world in the lead-up to RNC 2016. After a tame Day One that saw surprisingly sparse demonstrations at Public Square—the city of Cleveland’s designated free speech zone this week—activity in the hub picked up on the scorching Tuesday, but not until the afternoon. With a reasonable civilians-to-authorities ratio on the premises, there wasn’t much for the blues to do during the day as small fringe groups drew fairly tepid reactions and t-shirt exhibitionism spawned low-key debates. A photographer working for the Associated Press grew restless to the amusement of nearby colleagues. “This is just media watching cops!” he grumbled.
It wasn’t until almost happy hour that the zone saw its first sharp escalation when radio host/paranoia maven Alex Jones came bursting in, schtick-in-megaphone. After screaming the name of George Soros a bunch of times, Jones was attacked by a young white man, although video shows it was closer a gesturing of the fist as a full-hearted punch attempt. The fist didn’t land and no one was arrested, but that’s neither here nor there (if you hear Jones claiming importance due to this incident, don’t believe him; his name was actually on few minds and tongues in the aftermath at the venue). It was an act of physical aggression against a public figure that caused just enough of a hubbub (although the vast majority at Public Square were saying they missed the incident) to transform the group that activity in Public Square is most about: The police.
The dizzying speed in which these cops boosted their numbers and shifted their operation was as objectively impressive as it was annoying for those who were coming to enjoy the vast options of human interaction available to them in the zone. This may not have been the militarization of police in appearance—far from it, in fact, since most of the influx came from bike cops—but the precision was evocative of an elite armored unit, as dozens of men formed long lining walls that thrusted forward in lock-stop with each loudly barked command. They repeated this action every few minutes, created and gradually widening a physical division in the crowd along with a symbolic one. Another line-wall of police soon formed, significantly limiting freedom of movement.
While criticism to the faces of these officers was there to be seen, understandably so for a group of black protestors gathered in the name of Tamir Rice, the more common route among civilians at Public Square was for civilians to talk amongst themselves about the mistrust these movements signified as they stared at the formations stretching across the zone. The clear consensus: This was another example of police overreaction.
“This was a peaceful day until these pieces of shit showed with their horses and their three-foot sticks,” said Ryan Hartman, a 36-year-old editor who traveled up from Lake Worth, Fla. to protest Trump. Hartman, who it should be stated for context is white, also called one particular cop a murderer; asked why, he replied “he put on the uniform.”
The contrast in demeanor between Day One and Day Two was, to these eyes, quite stark for the police that have come in from all over the nation to patrol downtown Cleveland. While still traveling in unusually large groups on virtually every downtown block Monday, cops were often seen nodding to passersby of all races and wearing decidedly normal police attires. After midnight, several police packs were in a celebratory mood, walking the streets with swagger and some even smoking cigarettes on the job in celebration of a day of peace. While nothing cops did at Public Square on Tuesday is an outright affront to the “to protect and to serve” motto which has lost so much value in recent years, a mentality was present that made it easy to see the possibility of more extreme incidents, and more tragic responses.
The challenge in getting through two more days without a major incident in Cleveland goes beyond the institutional problems with police culture and the angry response to it from minorities and empathetic whites. These officers in Cleveland are mere human beings and exist in a psychological pressure-cooker made unbearably hot this week by an unthinkable equation. Unjust police killings of blacks are again fresh in everyone’s minds (along with the astonishing image of militarization and disrespect from the fallout). Combine that with a hugely expanded force working a city most of them don’t know while being observed by media members that have flocked to Cleveland in even greater numbers for work. And just for good measure, the event itself is the nomination of a demagogue whose campaign is based on dog whistles appealing to white supremacy, and who blatantly exploits fear of the very minorities also being expected to keep it together. It’s no mystery why the specter of RNC 2016 will be strong until it’s over. It’s the same reason that getting through just a single day without tragedy or controversy was seen as cause for jubilation.
For most humans, accumulation of pressure is harmful to consciousness, gradually unraveling before we get to experience release. It’s ridiculous to think the tension in Public Square on Day Two had any real roots in some dude throwing a quasi-punch at a doomsayer with a microphone. That pressure continuing to build in Day Three into Day Four…that may well be the natural order of things. The result of further unraveling with stakes this high—even if it’s triggered by the failings of just one white cop or one angry protester—is something they can’t afford, if there’s any prayer of preserving trust.
—The Westboro Baptist Church held a demonstration with microphones at the center of Public Square shortly after the police intervention. It added nothing but unintentional comic relief, as their anti-LGBT rhetoric has hit new lows of acceptance, making it smarter than ever to laugh and not rage. Taking them down another peg, Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog (Robert Smigel) and friends immediately followed them on stage, parodying the church’s slander with statements of random absurdity like “God Hates People Born From C-Sections.” WBC has always been destined to be a loser of history. The contagious laughter in absence of anger was confirmation that this destiny is upon us.