Cleveland Protests Begin on Peaceful Note

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)

Participants of the "Circle the City with Love" protest on a mile-long bridge in Cleveland, numbered in the thousands, spanning the entire mile-long bridge.

Even before the Republican National Convention came to town, and before a string of racially charged shootings in Baton Rouge and around the country, the majority-African American city of Cleveland was grappling with the issue of police violence against black men.

The Cleveland Police Department is currently under a consent decree from the Justice Department, after a federal investigation found that its officers had a history of “unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force.” The investigation followed the November 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park, among other incidents.

Cleveland residents voice mixed feelings about whether widespread fears of convention violence are overblown, but the police department isn’t taking any chances. The city has supplemented its regular force with thousands more police officers from around the country, and has used a $50 million federal grant for convention security to purchase 2,000 sets of riot gear and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and vehicles, much to the dismay of many civil-rights activists.

The fatal shooting Sunday of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has fed apprehension that the convention in Cleveland will see its own share of strife in the coming days. The president of the Cleveland police union asked Governor John Kasich (who won’t be attending the convention) to suspend, for the duration of the event, the law that permits people to openly carry firearms (Kasich refused).

On Sunday afternoon, the day before the convention began, one Cleveland resident sitting at a bus stop started eyeing the badge of a police officer standing nearby. The officer noticed, and came around and introduced himself, telling the resident that he came from California and thanking the man for having him in his city.

When the man was asked whether any other police officers had introduced themselves yet that weekend, he laughed and said no, adding that when it came to the police, for the people in Cleveland it had long been a “siege mentality.”

But even as news outlets reported on alarming pledges by opposing groups like the New Black Panther Party and Bikers for Trump to take full advantage of Ohio’s open-carry gun laws, thousands of Northeast Ohioans gathered on the city’s west side in a display of peace. Across the mile-long art deco Hope Memorial Bridge, which spans the old industrial banks of the Cuyahoga River and links the west side to downtown, they stood Sunday afternoon in silence, hand in hand, in a meditation for peace dubbed “Circle the City with Love.” The demonstration was conceived several months ago by Sister Rita Petruziello of the nearby Congregation of St. Joseph.

Many of the participants said they discovered the event through social media. Some, like Caroline Kovac, who was carrying a sign that said “Love Trumps Hate,” had come in from the surrounding suburbs, despite warnings from law enforcement to avoid downtown.

“I wanted to do something,” she says. “It just seems like the world is so full of bad things—violence, guns, affliction.” She interrupts herself to enthusiastically read a passerby’s sign—“‘No hate in our state,’ that’s right!”—and turns back. “One of the things I love is that people can come together in our country.”

A small group of musicians (members of the Local 4’s Dixie Band, named for Local 4 of the Cleveland Federation of Musicians) accompanied the marchers across the bridge, playing songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” As the participants slowly spread out and formed a mile-long oblong circle, everyone linked hands before getting a signal to begin the planned 30 minutes of silence.

For half an hour, the only sound was the occasional buzzing of a plane overhead (towing an anti-Hillary Clinton banner from Infowars.com), and the distant hum of traffic on another nearby bridge. A couple police officers joined the circle, as other Cleveland officers on bicycles stood by. When a bullhorn signaled the end of the silence, people cheered and hugged.

One of the volunteers, Julie Graham, says she felt that the fear of violence in the city was overblown, and points to last month’s victory parade for the newly minted NBA champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers, which drew more than a million fans downtown with minimal arrests. “It’s not Cleveland,” she says.

Other large, peaceful protests took place throughout the city Sunday as delegates, members of the news media, and activists streamed into town for the four-day convention. As a Black Lives Matter protest made its way through downtown that afternoon, momentarily snagging up bus lines and traffic, a concert event that featured The Roots and civil-rights leader Cornel West kicked off at nearby Cleveland State University. An accompanying march led by the Reverend Al Sharpton had been canceled after the police shootings in Dallas.

The “Keep the Promise” concert and rally, organized by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and hosted by Soledad O’Brien, conveyed a greater sense of urgency than the bridge gathering. Speakers included Diane Guerrero, an immigration activist and a star of Orange Is the New Black, and Cornel West, who expressed his support for Green Party candidate Jill Stein at a press conference prior to the concert. West called presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump a “neo-fascist catastrophe” and labeled presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton a “neoliberal disaster.” Artists like Raheem DeVaughn, Mary Mary, and B.O.B. also took the stage for the free show.

The concert was just the beginning of a week’s worth of demonstrations that will include both anti-Trump counter-protests and pro-Trump rallies. Groups including Code Pink, the New Black Panthers, and Bikers for Trump are planning protests, and a march calling for economic justice and a rally to “stop Trump” are scheduled for Monday afternoon, right as the convention kicks off.

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