The Rev. Thomas Chulak had this idea come over him as he was driving down to Cleveland from a Sleep Inn 50 miles away for the second day of the Republican convention: There was all this talk about what lives matter, but the reality is that we are all now black and blue.
Cops shooting and being shot. Violence in the land. Barricades. Some guys toting guns. Legions of officers from California to Texas to Florida roaming city streets. Evocations of law and order reminiscent of the 1960s. Fear of something more. It was not about the false choice of blue lives matter or black lives matter. We are all black and blue because we are all bruised, he thought.
Chulak is a Unitarian minister who lives in the town of Ghent, N.Y., about two hours north of New York City. He drove all day Sunday to get close to the action in Cleveland, compelled in part by his desire to exercise his First Amendment rights to protest Donald Trump, but more than that to offer himself as an “instrument of peace” — to see what he could do about all those black and blue bruises. He was out of uniform, no white collar, but brought with him a multicolored stole that reflected his sensibility, made for him by a parishioner from the fabric of neckties once worn by Roy Wilkins, a legendary civil rights leader.
As he parked his car in a lot on the edge of downtown, Chulak encountered his first police officer of the day and asked him the key to maintaining peace. “Keep calm,” the officer said. “Talk quietly.”
When he reached the Public Square, he shook hands with Sgt. T.J. Jones of the Cleveland Transit Police. “How’s it going?” he asked.
“Wonderful,” Jones said, with what seemed like the practiced lines of a Chamber of Commerce official. Fifty thousand people? No big deal. Nothing compared to the 1.5 million who came out to celebrate the Cavs. A man with a rifle slung across his back? No big deal. Open carry is fine. Any trouble with protesters? Someone called him a pig. He heard a shout of fascist. But everything was peaceful. And delegates kept coming up to him and saying thanks. Even reporters and demonstrators were saying thanks.
The reverend asked the sergeant whether he was in any way afraid of what might happen to him in Cleveland that week. Part of the job, according to Jones, who came to work in the city after growing up on a farm in Mallet Creek. It so happened that he had just been elected vice president of the Police Memorial Society in Cleveland, an institution that honors fallen officers in the region and tries to help their families. He said 186 Cleveland officers had died in the line of duty since the early 1800s, the last death occurring four years ago.
Black and blue wounds of present and past. A memorial of a different sort helped Chulak make sense of the many contradictions and crosscurrents of this week in Cleveland. The dominant structure in the Public Square is a Civil War memorial with a 125-foot-high granite shaft and various sculpture reliefs inside depicting Abraham Lincoln emancipating the slaves and conferring with his generals. From Lincoln to Trump seemed to him a long way, as great a distance as between the killing fields of the Civil War and those of the America of today. But, still, in many ways it came back to race.
Lincoln was in Cleveland only twice. The first time was on the train in February 1861 that took him to his inauguration in Washington. The second time was also on a train, the funeral train that stopped here on April 28, 1865, as it carried his body back to Illinois after his assassination. His casket was placed in an open space in the Public Square under a pagoda. An inscription in the memorial notes that there were “no walls, no major obstructions, to hide him from view.”
From the memorial, Chulak walked across the square to the Old Stone Church, also known as First Presbyterian, where the widow Mary Lincoln found brief respite during that Cleveland stop. Now, 151 years later, the Unitarian minister took solace there, too, and opened the psalm book to find that song 563 was “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — also known as the black national anthem.
The day before, Chulak had walked about seven miles participating in various peace and anti-Trump demonstrations, carrying that stole from Roy Wilkins. The officers were friendly wherever he went, most of them either smiling or offering unsolicited hellos. One of the marches took him past a battalion of Cleveland officers on bicycles who had formed a wall of wheels and spokes at the corner of St. Clair and 9th that directed the demonstrators down toward the lake instead of up toward the Q, the convention arena.
It seemed somehow like a scene out of the Civil War, even though these cops were on bikes, not horses, and were wearing black shorts and black shirts and pointy bicycle helmets. It was the way they held firmly in place as their commanders rode behind them, up and down the line, bucking them up with shouts of “Good job! Good job” and re-arming them not with bullets but with nourishment to combat the afternoon heat and humidity. “Water. Water. Water.”
When the marchers had moved down the street another block, a bicycle commander gave the orders to move. P-2, double! P-4, double, against the curb, and the Cleveland officers, black and white, men and women, formed double lines, one in the street, one near the curb, and headed out. The reverend eventually began the long drive back to his motel 50 miles away, and started thinking about the meaning of black and blue and the healing of bruises. He had a song looping through his head, one that he had heard earlier in the day when he slipped over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for half an hour. Not long after he walked in, the plaintive plea of Marvin Gaye washed over him, the words from a different era that never seemed more appropriate. “Brother, brother, brother. There’s too many of you dying.”