Democracy Dies in Darkness

Arts and Entertainment

We were promised a riot. In Cleveland, we got a block party instead.

By Dan Zak

July 21, 2016 at 7:02 PM

Officers pose for photos with Cleveland residents George Fossett and saxophonist Brittany Atterberry outside the Quicken Loans Arena on the last day of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

CLEVELAND — Brittany Atterberry was walking down East Fourth Street in her hometown when she encountered a visiting Trump supporter on his guitar. So she unsheathed her soprano sax, fixed a microphone on its bell, and jumped into the blues with him. Then Atterberry's brother George Fossett, who was holding an END RACISM sign, started dancing with a bare-chested Biker for Trump.

It was a tableau of can't-we-all-just-get-along, mere blocks from the site of the fractious Republican National Convention, where each night politicians have done their best to make Americans afraid of each other.

Said the guitarist, Kraig Moss, 57, of his fellow musician: "The Lord sent her right down here."

Said Atterberry, 25, a professional saxophonist who describes herself as anti-war: "Music is something that you feel. You can't overthink it, like with voting."

Said Daryl Rembowski, the Biker for Trump: "The silent majority is showing you we can [get along]. We've seen it all week."

Said Fossett, his dance partner and fellow Cleveland resident: "Stop all the white against black, black against white. It's all about love. This is what Cleveland is about. This is what the world should be about."

What happened to the tear gas? The cars on fire? The cops digging their knees into people's necks? Wasn't Cleveland supposed to explode right alongside the GOP and its volatile nominee?

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As Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters gathered in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, both looked for answers on whether the country is safe or not. (Alice Li, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

[The most baffling (but eye-catching!) Trump protest we've seen this week]

Instead this week, Cleveland trolleys feature a digital readout that says "SMILE AND RIDE FREE." Instead, conventioneers have been taking photos with the cops they run into from their own hometowns. Instead, activists are giving out free burritos, and professional cuddlers are giving free hugs.

"We just keeping hearing 'you're a breath of fresh air,'" said Brigid Hopkins of the groups Love on Legs and Cleveland Cuddlers, which is exactly what it sounds like. She wore a pink T-shirt that says FREE HUGS in the crowded pedestrian corridor of East Fourth Street, where conservatives and progressives are forced into intimate proximity. "Excuse me," said a shaggy drug-policy activist to a manicured woman in sequined cowboy boots who responds, "You're fine, honey."

Brigid Hopkins of Love on Legs, right, who was offering free hugs for passersby, paused to pet a hedgehog as protesters walked by near Public Square during the Republican National Convention on Wednesday in Cleveland. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The city was edgy with anticipation earlier this week, and some people are spoiling for a fight. But if you avoid the small spectacles of religious extremists and combative revolutionaries — which draw all the cameras and onlookers — you'll see general comity. It might be because the feds urged protesters not to come, or because Cleveland is basically a police state this week (a fact muddled by the good weather and handsome architecture of downtown).

[Capitalism vs. communism on the streets of Cleveland]

Or it might just be because of the city itself, with its Midwest homey-ness, its Rust-Belt fortitude, the soothing breeze off Lake Erie.

"We've been downtrodden for so long that we're happy for someone to notice us," said Cleveland native Roseanne Maloney, a staunch liberal Democrat who's nevertheless volunteering for the city's RNC host committee. "We are not without strife [but] I'm proud of my city and wanted to be a part of this."

In the past two years, Cleveland has ridden high and sunk low. The city is still buzzed from the Cavaliers' NBA championship last month. But look closely at some political T-shirts here, and you'll see — in campaign-style font — not TRUMP but TAMIR, in tribute to the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was killed by police in 2014.

[Cleveland police chief is ready to roll and keeping his cool]

This week, the police have been unflinching in their niceness, at least from this reporter's observations. When they walk in groups down East Fourth Street, sidewalk diners stand and applaud. Florida highway patrolmen joke with residents about how the Miami Heat remains superior to the Cavs. On the edge of Public Square, mounted police officers from Texas smiled pleasantly as a protester tried to goad them with a sign that said LICK MY TAINT, FASCIST PIGS.

Police play a game of Ping-Pong near where groups are demonstrating near the Republican National Convention on the last day of the convention in Cleveland. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

"It's been calm — it's been nice, actually," said a policeman in gray from Worcester, Mass. "If it stays like this, it's going to be a fun week." There were 23 convention-related arrests by Thursday evening, compared with just two at the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa (according to Cleveland.com), but nearly all were for the rather demure infraction "failure to disperse."

Zarrea Ecols, 4, of Cleveland waves to police as she walks up E. Fourth Street with her grandfather Dontez Lofton, near Quicken Loans Arena during the final day of the Republican National Convention on Thursday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Everyone has a right to be on edge: cops after Dallas, street revelers after Nice, minorities after yet another shooting of an unarmed black man, on Monday, this time in North Miami. But as the convention approached its climax Thursday, everyone seemed to be reveling in the good vibes, and also knocking on wood.

Ben Terris contributed to this report.


Dan Zak is a reporter for The Washington Post.

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