Cleveland’s security plans for the Republican National Convention include the deployment of more than 3,000 police officers, but security experts and those expecting to attend fear that a compact space for demonstrations combined with turbulent crowds may be a recipe for explosive clashes.
One of the key complaints by groups who support and oppose presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is the limited space demonstrators will be allowed to occupy during the convention, which runs from July 18 through July 21 and is estimated to bring 50,000 visitors to Cleveland.
Two parks will serve as demonstration areas, but demonstrators alternately will share a single parade route and a “speaker’s platform” with amplified sound that individuals can reserve for 30-minute increments — placing opposing groups in close proximity during focal points of their rallies.
“They’re inviting a bloodbath with the way they are setting it up,” said Ralph King, the local organizer heading up plans for a Citizens for Trump demonstration. “Instead of separating and just giving the permits out to where people wanted to have different marches and parades, now you have a fishbowl.”
Wary of putting supporters in the line of fire of anti-Trump activists, Citizens for Trump has asked to hold its rally the day before the convention starts at a separate park, where it will hire its own security team.
“We are still planning on trying to do something, but security is paramount,” said Mr. King, whose group estimated in permit applications that between 5,000 and 10,000 people will attend.
Bryan Hambley, founder of Stand Together Against Trump, which has filed protest plans for Cleveland, said he hopes through meetings scheduled with city leaders this week that he and other group leaders will be able to persuade the city to re-evaluate the protest and parade sites.
“I think the most important thing in terms of safety and overall planning is having defined large areas downtown that are available for free speech,” Mr. Hambley said. “Right now with the approach of having one very small parade route and two very small parks with limited usage, I’m concerned it’s not enough room or enough hours to accommodate both the Trump supporters and Trump opponents.”
Mr. Hambley said his group will offer conflict resolution training ahead of and during the convention to teach protesters how to diffuse situations both with law enforcement and any counterprotesters.
Violence at Trump rallies has been a concern at events across the country in recent weeks, with demonstrators on both sides accused of initiating attacks.
Polarizing proposals voiced by Mr. Trump, ranging from a vow to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to a ban on Muslim visitors to the U.S., have drawn ire from protesters. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has revved up his own supporters in the past with disparaging remarks about dissenters and talk of punching protesters.
In the last week, images of Trump supporters pepper-spraying protesters emerged at a rally in San Diego. Videos from the aftermath of a Trump rally in San Jose captured supporters of the Republican candidate being sucker-punched or egged by protesters after they left the rally.
“This appears to be headed toward being a potentially ugly convention because of the rhetoric and the intolerance and the provocation from both Donald Trump’s camp, including Donald Trump, and from some elements of the protests against Mr. Trump,” said crowd control expert Paul Wertheimer, who heads Los Angeles-based Crowd Management Strategies. “Cleveland police and fire and are not in an enviable position.”
‘The same playbook’
Dan Williams, spokesman for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, voiced support for the parade routes and multiple demonstration areas the city selected, noting that there will be gaps in between parade demonstrations to allow for opposing groups to clear the area before other groups start.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Police Department has worked to solidify security plans well in advance of the GOP convention. Among the plans police discussed in a briefing last week, officials said they have contracted with nearby agencies for extra jail beds and have video teams prepared to document interactions between police and protesters in the case officers have to put on riot gear — which officials said would block their body-worn cameras.
“We are not going to stand for any lawlessness. If someone breaks a law, we are going to take swift, appropriate and constitutional action to mitigate that,” said Cleveland Deputy Chief Edward Tomba. “Anyone who wants to come into the city and let their voice be heard in a lawful manner, we are here to assist them. But anybody who goes sideways and is not following the law — there are going to be consequences.”
But just as police will keep a watchful eye on protesters, federal monitors and civil rights groups will be watching the officers.
The police department is implementing reforms to address excessive use-of-force issues highlighted by the U.S. Justice Department. The independent federal monitoring team appointed to oversee the reforms said last week that team members will be on the ground the week of the convention to witness how officers interact with the public.
Meanwhile, civil rights groups, which have concerns over the constitutionality of limitations placed on demonstrators at the convention, also plan to be on hand.
“Unfortunately, we see the same playbook again and again. Officials start looking at public spaces and start designating free speech zones or no-free speech zones,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a legal nonprofit that specializes in free speech cases. “There is no excuse to say that because the RNC is in town, the First Amendment needs to be sacrificed in the name of the convention.”
Police officials said they are confident Cleveland will be ready in time for the convention and that measures they have taken — including the decision to eschew riot gear unless absolutely necessary — to promote community engagement will help keep the peace.
But the event may likely be a difficult scenario to keep a handle on, even if security plans go off without a hitch. Some protesters may be coming to Cleveland to protest not just Mr. Trump, but to highlight concerns surrounding police brutality as well, and may inherently regard police as the enemy, Mr. Wertheimer said.
Beyond the emphasis police are putting on the de-escalation techniques, the crowd-control expert suggests that Mr. Trump’s own attitude could play a key role in preventing violence during the convention.
“If he tones it down and tells his legions of supporters what is acceptable, it could change a lot of things overnight,” Mr. Wertheimer said. “If he were to tell his followers he wanted a peaceful convention, it would be one of the greatest public safety tools — more effective than the police tools.”