Erick Trickey has been in Cleveland all week covering the Republican National Convention for Cincinnati Magazine. This is his sixth and final post of the week. Read all of them here.
Outside the convention, fear melted away. As Republicans gathered in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena to hear Donald Trump depict an America in peril, hundreds of people in the city’s Public Square answered the Republican National Convention with chants, signs, and conversation.
All week, protesters and the curious have mingled in Cleveland’s sprawling 10-acre central square, shouting, watching, arguing, debating, staging street theater, handing out bottled water, doing yoga for peace, dressing like clowns and superheroes, and declaiming into bullhorns. The violence and mass arrests forecasted for Cleveland this week never came. Instead, Public Square, Cleveland’s free-speech forum for 140 years, welcomed those angry at Trump and those who’ve joined him in anger.
“Build bridges! Not walls! America is for us all!” chanted about 90 protesters, most of them in yellow “Love Trumps Hate” T-shirts, in the square’s northeast corner last night. They were sitting on a hill, resting after yesterday afternoon’s 1,000-person “Stand Together Against Trump” march, organized by several young local doctors.
“It’s almost been like a picnic in the park,” said Jana Hambley, 31, a surgeon from Cleveland. The group planned to keep up their protest into the night, in response to Trump’s speech three blocks south. The GOP nominee’s speech had already leaked to news outlets, and like his previous campaign speeches, it denounced illegal immigrants committing violent crimes and Hillary Clinton’s intention to admit more war refugees from Syria. I asked Hambley about it.
“If you look at [people] in Syria right now, or in countries south of our border, there is a lot of violent crime going on, there are wars going on,” said Hambley. “What these families are doing by trying to emigrate is trying to protect their loved ones. The right thing to do is to try to help them.”
Public Square absorbed hundreds and probably thousands of protesters this RNC week. Tensions there peaked late Tuesday afternoon, when a Black Lives Matter-style group, gun-rights enthusiasts, the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, Alex Jones of the conspiracy-theory web-radio show InfoWars, and speakers from the Westboro Baptist Church hate group all packed the square at once. Dozens of police formed human barriers between the groups, and Jones got into a scuffle with some IWW guys right in front of Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams, who helped break it up.
By last night, the square had mellowed. A pair of Stand Together Against Trump protesters chatted politely with two guys wearing camouflage Make America Great Again ballcaps and carrying long rifles over their shoulders (thanks to Ohio’s open-carry law). About 20 Trump supporters lounged on the square’s other hill, west of the anti-Trump doctors.
On the 10-acre park’s south end, water welled up from fountains in a new splash zone and lapped at the shoes and sandals of about 15 college-aged protesters. Their signs protested injustices in Cleveland, from high black unemployment to the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Nearby, a long line of Georgia state troopers stood watch.
T-shirt and button sellers lined the sidewalks on Euclid Avenue and East Fourth Street, between Public Square and the convention. Many sold “Hillary for Prison 2016” shirts and “Ted Cruz Sucks” shirts rushed into production after the Texas senator’s Wednesday night defiance. East Fourth, Cleveland’s restaurant row, was densely packed with delegates, police, diners, and random strollers. A line of 10 Cleveland police officers walked up the narrow pedestrian-only street, single file, as outdoor diners at Pickwick & Frolic and the House of Blues applauded them.
It seemed like as many state police delegations came to Cleveland as Republican delegations. Massachusetts troopers and California highway patrolmen stood next to Cleveland mounted police on Prospect Avenue last night, near the main convention perimeter gate at East Fourth. The police were deployed to prevent a repeat of Tuesday night, when communist demonstrators burned a U.S. flag near the gate, blocking delegates from reaching the arena.
Inside, on the convention floor, pro-Trump state delegations were celebrating. Right in front of the stage, New York delegates danced to the convention’s classic-rock band. The back rows, filled with delegations whose states didn’t vote for Trump, were quiet.
Kathy Rogers, 57, a delegate from Friendswood, Texas, said she hoped Trump would offer a “positive, compelling” message. “I don’t want to see any more attacks on people who may not have endorsed him, or opponents,” she said. “Republicans have a positive, beneficial message. We should absolutely stand on that.”
Rogers had one more wish. “I hope he doesn’t quote the Bible badly,” she said. She recalled how Trump struggled to name a favorite Bible verse and awkwardly pronounced 2 Corinthians as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.”
Trump took the stage about 10:20 p.m., and delivered one of the darkest acceptance speeches of a modern presidential candidate. Delegates cheered his angry nationalism and his depiction of America as endangered by crime and in need of a strong dose of law and order.
“Build the wall!” delegates chanted after Trump recounted murders committed by illegal immigrants. “Lock her up!” many shouted after Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton, until he waved them off and replied, “Let’s defeat her in November.” Trump’s unprecedented stoking of his strongman personality cult—“I alone can fix it”—attracted moderate applause. His promise to protect the LGBTQ community from Islamic terrorism was followed by a quiet pause, then cheers. His climactic response to Clinton’s “I’m with her” slogan—“I’m with you, the American people”—rallied the crowd.
After Trump’s foreboding, fear-stoking speech came the festive drop of thousands of red, white, and blue balloons. They covered the floor like a happy, colorful blizzard. Delegates took a few final photos and pulled their state banners from the poles. Then they headed for the exits, popping balloons with their footsteps.
Erick Trickey is a Cincinnati Magazine contributor, and has written for POLITICO, Smithsonian Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @ErickTrickey.