Cleveland, Ohio, has spent $50 million preparing for next week’s Republican convention, earning the city a lawsuit and much criticism in the process. But as the fraught relationship between police and black communities was thrust back into the national spotlight last week after police killings in Louisiana and Minnesota, the ensuing protests, and the sniper attack in Dallas, many fear the convention could descend into chaos.
Police officials, who for months have said they are confident they have the best possible security plans in place, said they were adjusting them following the Dallas attack, though they have declined to elaborate. “We have got to make some changes without a doubt,” Ed Tomba, the city’s deputy police chief and head of convention security, told Reuters. “We will have plenty of people watching over different locations. We are beefing up the intelligence component, too. They are going to be very, very active.”
Cleveland’s press office, which is handling all convention-related media requests, including to the police, did not respond to requests for comment, but Jay McDonald, the president of Ohio’s Fraternal Order of Police, who’s not directly involved in convention security, told The Intercept that the city has been preparing to handle all protests “professionally.”
“I certainly think that there’s a sense of uneasiness — I would feel unease — but they’re going to do their jobs,” he said. “The day after the murders in Dallas, officers all across the country got up and went to work and served their communities just like they did the day before, because they’re professionals and they do their jobs, and they’ll do their jobs in Cleveland as well.”
But official reassurances have not dissipated fears of violent attacks against police like the one in Dallas, particularly after three people were arrested Tuesday in an alleged plot to shoot officers in Louisiana — or concerns that anxious police officers might respond violently to peaceful protesters as they did in Baton Rouge.
At least one event, a march led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton, was called off following last week’s unrest. “In the current uncertain environment nationwide, we are concerned for police officers who would be charged with protecting our marchers and advocates as well as for the safety and well-being of our march participants,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said in a statement.
With some exceptions, the Cleveland Division of Police has generally responded to past protests with restraint, but it has nonetheless come under scrutiny for its discriminatory practices and excessive use of force in everyday policing, and is perhaps most infamous for the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. In December 2014, the Department of Justice issued a damning report on Cleveland’s policing. And last year, as part of a settlement with the DOJ, city officials formed the Cleveland Community Police Commission, made up mostly of civilians, to develop plans for comprehensive police reform in the city. Mario Clopton, co-chair of the committee, told The Intercept that the city has promised a “community policing” approach to the convention, with officers on bikes and in regular uniforms greeting people and helping visitors out. Riot gear, police told the commission, would be deployed only “if a situation requires it to be used.”
“I don’t fault police officers for having that on their mindset. In my day job I’m an educator and every time a school shooting happens I’m more alert,” he said, referring to the possible impact of the Dallas attack on officers policing the convention. “Officers are human too so there’s a risk of just having an emotional response to the incident last week. However that is where the training is supposed to come in.”
But police reassurances that they are ready for the convention have done little to appease activists and civil rights advocates who accused the city of being badly prepared for the influx of visitors and protesters, and who said surveillance tactics deployed in the weeks preceding the convention — including law enforcement showing up unannounced at local activists’ homes — have already crossed a line.
In the aftermath of the Dallas attack, police departments nationwide called for more military equipment and training, including robots capable of delivering lethal force such as the one used against the Dallas shooter. As images and videos emerged last week of protesters in Baton Rouge meeting a disproportionately equipped police force, demands for the demilitarization of police departments were renewed.
In Cleveland, officials are estimated to have spent at least $20 million in federal funds on equipment ranging from bicycles and steel barriers to 2,000 sets of riot gear, 2,000 retractable steel batons, body armor, surveillance equipment, 10,000 sets of plastic flex cuffs, and 16 laser aiming systems, which a technology retailer describes as being used for “night direct-fire aiming and illumination.” And while the city has not fully disclosed all the equipment it has acquired for the convention, Ohio’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which has been monitoring the preparations, raised concerns that police might be planning to deploy Stingray devices, used to monitor and track cellphones, as well as a Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a sonic crowd-control weapon that emits painfully loud sounds.
Activists and organizations who have been pushing for police reform criticized the push to militarize police departments. “Dallas was a horrible tragedy, but we’re talking about one guy with a gun and some body armor. It’s unfortunate some are taking that as an opportunity to push back against the demands of the movement,” said Scott Roberts, a campaign director for Color of Change, a racial justice group that this week launched a campaign to defund abusive police departments. “If you look at the images coming out of Baton Rouge, you see that police departments are overly prepared for these types of incidents, I don’t think that’s a solution frankly.”
“My biggest concern about what’s happening in Cleveland and the $50 million the federal government has given them for public safety is what happens afterwards,” Roberts said. “We’re concerned about Cleveland law enforcement being more heavily militarized in the future when there are protests, and cameras from around the world are not there. All the equipment just stays in place, and you end up with a whole different degree of militarized law enforcement and surveillance long after the convention leaves.”
Dozens of groups from across the political spectrum have applied for permits to protest at the Republican convention — and many others are expected to do so without asking for permission. The groups range from Trump supporters to anti-war activists and Occupy Wall Street veterans. Some local groups calling for police accountability and racial justice are also expected to show up, but at least until last week, organizers under the coordinated but diverse movement for black lives were focusing most of their energy on the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, where representatives are planning to introduce a policy platform to a party they believe will be more receptive to it. Some, wary of the possibility of violence, have decided to skip Cleveland altogether.
“I have heard from some activists, What is the value of going to the RNC? Put yourself and your people in danger when it’s clear that those folks are not interested in engaging with us?” Roberts told The Intercept. “I know people are looking to Black Lives Matter and the movement for black lives to be out protesting, confronting the police, but really in the last year we’ve spent a ton of time being into the solutions we want, and strategy.”
The nationwide protests sparked last week by the killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota were in many ways reminiscent of similar actions that spontaneously erupted in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore and other cities in 2014 and 2015. But the more recent protests are now relying on a network of local and national groups that have grown increasingly connected, coordinated, and strategic. “Two years ago, when Ferguson happened, I was immediately on the phone with so many people saying, What do we want? What are we going to do? We have all this energy,” said Roberts. “Now we’ve been preparing, not necessarily expecting a moment like this, but trying to intervene in dialogue and pushing forward a vision. We’re just in a different place, we have a lot more clarity about what we want to say right now.”
According to the ACLU of Ohio, which sued Cleveland and won a settlement easing restrictions on protests, the convention should offer an opportunity for the pain manifested last week to be discussed publicly and safely. “The way that policing and racial tensions have been highlighted lately underscores the need to have this space where people can have the freedom to speak and express themselves,” said Steve David, a spokesperson for the group. “These are conversations that are touching people all across the country and it’s really important, when all eyes are going to be focused on Cleveland, that folks have a space where they can speak up and be heard.”
Clopton, of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, hopes local law enforcement will allow that space. “The United States was kind of turned upside down last week. There is anger and frustration on all points, and that’s all valid. We need to use that anger and frustration and funnel it into progressive change,” he said. “The idea is not to go back into our individual corners and stare each other down. It’s our job as citizens to exercise our rights, and it’s the job of the police to make sure that everyone is safe while doing that.”