But there are reasons besides Trump that have some preparing for serious upheaval in Cleveland — reasons that have more to do with the city itself and its recent history. And now, the ACLU is getting involved. The civil liberties organization is trying to make sure protesters can be heard and fighting back against what it sees as unreasonable restrictions imposed by the city.
Given the fact that every city receives a $50 million federal grant to buy equipment and establish rules, barriers and protocols for convention protesters, the acts typically involved in protesting and where those protests can happen are not what one would call organic. And Cleveland certainly hasn't diverged from the norm by establishing these types of rules.
But the issue that prompted the ACLU to file a lawsuit Wednesday is Cleveland's mandate for what can happen inside of the so-called event zone (official protest area).
- There are a list of things that one cannot possess inside the 3.3-square mile "event zone" around the convention space. It includes tennis balls, soapboxes (something to stand on, elevate you above a crowd when you make your impassioned public speech on behalf of your chosen cause), tape, string, rope, coolers, large backpacks and tents. For homeless people, some of their essential belongings will temporarily become contraband.
- Guns will be allowed in the zone if the person in possession of it has a permit to carry it. They will not be allowed inside a subsection of the event zone known as the "secure perimeter" which includes the convention hall.
- There will be a single large stage positioned in a spot far enough away from the convention that demonstrators on it will be neither seen nor heard and it's unlikely that delegates will hear or see the protesters. To speak on stage, a group must make a formal request for a five-minute slot. This is the official soapbox. But groups with five members of protesters on-site and those with 5,000 (anticipated for a planned Poor People's March) are going to receive the same five minutes of time. And it's not clear who will decide who gets to speak and when.
- There will also be an official "parade route," where people who have completed another permit process will be granted 50-minute windows to hold a protest march. The hours in which these protests can occur are limited. So there are only 18 slots over the four-day stretch of the convention.
When The Fix reached out to Cleveland officials to explain the purpose of some of the rules or inquire about their legality and fairness, we got an expected answer.
"The city does not comment about ongoing litigation," said Dan Williams, a spokesman for the City of Cleveland. That is, indeed, standard practice for many large entities facing litigation. However, Williams did share information about the path of the "parade route" where the scheduled protest marches will be held and provided footage of two news conferences where city officials said that these measures are necessary to keep people safe.
That is pretty much what law enforcement agencies and government officials always say since Sept. 11, 2001, said Christine Link, executive director for the ACLU of Ohio. There is, in these circles, an embrace of a trade-off between freedom and safety. But somehow, Link noted, the First Amendment always becomes more dangerous than the Second. It is true, after all, that guns are allowed inside the event zone.
The event zone does include the convention site (which will have a narrower security perimeter controlled by the Secret Service and its own distinct rules and permits). It also includes a college campus — Cleveland State University — which is typically active in the summer and a place with dorms in-use, a homeless encampment, a trio of homeless shelters, a working-class neighborhood where, of course, people conduct their full lives, and so many offices that some companies are asking employees to telecommute or take vacation during the convention. And of course, it includes a lot of streets, parks and sidewalks. The event zone is so large that it is going to terribly inconvenience a lot of people, interfere with their basic rights inside their own homes and, the ACLU claims, in part because Cleveland officials wanted to keep the convention-goers and the protesters separated by an unusual distance.
The ACLU filed its lawsuit Wednesday, after trying to negotiate better terms and conditions for protesters and residents of the "event zone" for a little more than a year. But why did it take a year?
Well, Cleveland does not have a clean slate when it comes to ordinary policing and crowd control. Cleveland's police department is operating under a Justice Department consent decree — a series of rules handed down to the federal government because of incidents like this.
Cleveland was the site of a December 2012 car chase involving 50 police officers, some of whom fired 137 bullets into a car only to discover that neither of the people inside were armed. Some of those bullets were fired by an officer standing on the hood of the car. In May 2015, a judge found that officer not guilty of two counts of felony voluntary manslaughter.
In November 2014, police officers responded to the report of a boy in a park with a gun. The caller told the 911 operator that it may have been a toy, but the boy was shot and killed within minutes of the officers' arrival at the park. The gun was a toy, and the boy was 12-year-old Tamir Rice. In December 2015, after the county's prosecutor all but argued formally in the officers' defense that Tamir was unusually large for his age (implying that this rendered the shooting justified), a grand jury declined to indict the officers involved. Later, the city sued Tamir's family for his ambulance bill, the one incurred after Cleveland police officers inflicted the wounds that killed him. The lawsuit for the unpaid bill was later dropped. It is not clear if the operator passed along critical information about the fact that the gun was a toy.
Then, over the Memorial Day weekend in 2015, a series of protests were held related to concerns about police conduct. The Cleveland police used a tactic called "kettling" during those protests. Kettling works like this: Police approach a crowd and then herd that crowd into some kind of confined space such as an alley. The officers then issue an ultimatum for all to disperse or face arrest. But since officers have the small space surrounded, few can leave. Then, the officers sweep in and make mass arrests.
In Cleveland, this practice led to a number of reporters and attorneys acting as legal observers of the protests being arrested, along with protesters. Then the protesters who were arrested were put on buses and driven around the area for four hours because, as a police officer explained in a public meeting, the police weren't satisfied with their options. For most protesters, they can be issued a ticket and then let go, giving them, as the officer said at that meeting, the ability to go "right back out and protest."
"But you can't [legally] do that. That is suppression of free speech," Link said. "This is what we do in a free country; we express ourselves."
Oh, yeah, and there is this: The city released about 50 of the 70 people detained in those 2015 protests, but came down hard on those who had criminal records — felonies to be exact. All of this led the ACLU to start up the negotiations for protesters expected at the 2016 Republican convention. The organization did agree to some changes in the protest permitting process but the city has since stopped using that process. But the negotiated rules about how police must order protesters to disperse — three verbal warnings audible to officers dispersed about the protest pace, a set amount of time to disperse and a few other rules — stand. As do the instructions that the ACLU has started giving to groups that want to protest at the convention in July.
Most experienced protesters or the groups behind them advise anyone who is in poor health or needs certain medications daily to stay alive, anyone who has a felony record or other reasons that it would not be wise for them to possibly be arrested or jailed to consider staying home, following any rules laid down by the city precisely or supporting their cause in other ways. Now, that's what the ACLU is telling people, too.
"In every highly organized protest, there are people — the people participating, on the ground — who have to be prepared to face arrest, willing to go to jail for two or three days," Link said. "Then there are the people who can stand prepared to bail them out. But unfortunately, we have seen cases where people somehow get lost in the system and end up spending five days in jail. You can imagine why this is not a good idea for someone who is medically fragile."
Also of concern to the ACLU and several other groups is the limited slots for marches and protest speeches in the "event zone." There are 18 available slots, and at least 25 groups have applied for one of those 50-minute protest march slots. Also, the organizations and protesters gathering in the "event zone" where these marches will be conducted hold widely divergent views. Link expects 40 to 45 groups to request a protest therapy "hour" before the convention begins. That, to Link, sounds like a recipe for ferocious competition — groups may flout the rules, and there may be tension and violence.