Kirtland Park is a long, sub-optimally situated city park on Cleveland's east side. From a lonely swing set there, if one were so inclined, one could watch the east-west traffic on the Shoreway and the sunset over Lake Erie beyond. Kirtland Park is relevant these days because it's the site where, at the last minute, city officials agreed to let out-of-towners set up tents and sleep during the RNC. Hordes were anticipated, but as of Monday, only about 25 had arrived.
"It's small now," said the camper, a scraggily bearded Johnny-Appleseed type with an actual fiddle and floppy cap, (and who's name, in fact, was John).
"But just wait."
It was 10 p.m. and the scene was calm. Small groups sat chatting near their tents or on the stone stage of the park's amphitheater. A volunteer from Rustbelt Medics
named Mark had recently arrived to distribute information. A few cross-legged dudes chugged cans of cheap domestics in the grass. Overhead, in the parking lot atop the park's central hill, two police cruisers presided. Much farther overhead, a full moon cast its halogen glow.
The night before, the vibes had been similar, yet even more subdued. A solo traveler from Philly had been setting up a tent. He was asked why he made the trek to Cleveland.
"I'm just here to say my piece," he said. The fight for racial justice, and in particular the persuasive message of the Black Lives Matter movement, had inspired him to take three days off of work and travel by car to Cleveland. He said he'd been disappointed by the lack of information for protesters downtown.
"I think the permitting process discouraged a lot of people," he said. "That and the angry police shit going on and the overabundance of military down there. I spent most of my day trying to find a march to march in."
Another camper, Coulter Loeb, who drove up from Cincinnati with two friends, had been affiliated with #Occupy in Cincinnati. A yellow Occupy Wall Street banner was pinned to his tent. For the Cleveland trip, he had printed zines with instructions for "Occupying the RNC" — "Our Principals [sic
]: Autonomy. Solidarity. Democracy." — which zines included a detailed downtown map and an extensive contact list. Loeb was eager to promote a sewing circle the following day and also advised that big crowds were sure to be arriving later in the week.
"And not necessarily sympathetic crowds," he warned. "Remember. This is the only park in the city where we're allowed to be."
Tuesday afternoon, the number of campers at Kirtland wasn't indicative of the total size: only a few remained while others had ventured downtown for what was quickly becoming the biggest and tensest demonstration yet. It was the first time that protesters had abandoned the script, so to speak, by forsaking their prescribed routes. A skirmish at Public Square, between Infowars' Alex Jones and a few vocal opponents, caused some at Kirtland to assume that arrests had been made, but information flowed unevenly there. One man announced that there had been five arrests. (This was an accurate number for the Convention to that point, but not for the afternoon.) Cleveland Police announced later that there were no arrests after all, though they'd threatened to begin arresting if crowds did not disperse.
The police presence in the preceding days at Kirtland had been sporadic, Coulter Loeb said, and a bike unit stopped by Monday and stayed in the parking lot for a while.
"Like 60 of them," he said. "But they were just relaxing. They brought Gatorade down to us. I was getting nervous, thinking they were coming down here with tear gas." (Loeb said again that the Kirtland's current numbers, which he pegged at "a couple dozen" were expected to double Tuesday night, when "completely insane""legendary activist"
John Penley and his gang arrived.)
David Guthrie is a cheerful, if bedraggled, activist. He'd hitchhiked from South Bend, Indiana to Vermont, then caught a ride to Manhattan and taken a bus to Cleveland from there. He said he was planning on sharing a ride to Philly for the DNC next week.
Was he here with Occupy?
"I mean, that's kind of a silly question," Guthrie said. "Who am I with?
I am myself. But I am a believer in the Occupy movement."
Guthrie, sitting in a lawn chair, packing a bowl, and greeting new arrivals as they descended the stone steps from the parking lot, explained that the camp was planning to host a "General Assembly" that evening, tentatively scheduled for 7. He said an agenda would be created — the agenda's expected top items: ordering pizza and getting to Philadelphia —
"And then the facilitator can take a temperature check on the agenda items. If everyone goes like this" — Guthrie raised his hands, wiggling his fingers — "we can have a discussion on it. But if everyone goes like this" — Guthrie put his hands in front of him, almost as if he were requesting that Scene
examine his nails, and wiggled his fingers again — "then the temperature's not hot enough and it doesn't go on the agenda.
"I believe that Robert's Rules of Order are just really old tech," he apologized, "and really just need to be sunset. It's just not as efficient and effective as the Consensus method."
Later, the Kirtland crew tried their best to follow the downtown protest proceedings on social media, though with no electric power, many of their devices' batteries had died. In fact, that was one of two central complaints among the campers — the other being Kirtland Park's remoteness — and without regular access to electricity, they felt muted and disconnected. Some murmured that if Bikers for Trump arrived and started causing trouble, they sure hoped there was enough juice in someone's
phone to call for emergency help.
Still, a decent live stream was discovered and promptly hooked up to a speaker. Coulter, who couldn't believe that the Free Speech Zone has been shut down (and who's own phone had died) asked more than once if someone could please figure out what the fuck was going on down there. He suggested reaching out to the protesters via the #RNCinCLE hashtag and inviting them out to Kirtland for the General Assembly. It looked like protesters were scattering from police.
Thornton Albertz and his younger brother, who drove here from Fond du Lac, Wisc., lamented that they weren't down at Public Square, part of the action.
"That's where we should be,"
Albertz' brother said, "potentially."
"No, there's too many fucking cops," counseled Albertz.
"We can't get arrested. I'm not even sure if—"
"If there are too many people, they'll start arresting. I heard they have warehouses rented out to process people quicker."
Albertz, hair cleanly buzzed and forehead red with sun, later said he was a student in the UW system and that he drove the 10 hours to Cleveland "because of Donald Trump and what he represents."
The General Assembly was delayed for a bit while the camp waited for protesters, and for John Penley, who was rumored to be on his way. In the meantime, Coulter distributed ear plugs — "good for blocking out snoring and LRADs,
" he said — and gave a brief demonstration on how to use a gas mask.
When John Penley arrived, he magnetized the campers immediately, regaling them with tales of his afternoon, hoarse voice be damned. He was part of the lawsuit that secured Kirtland Park for campers, and he's been protesting ever since he fought to protect his first amendment rights in Vietnam, he said.
"Alex Jones barged in with six bodyguards, pulled out his bullhorn and started using the most divisive, incendiary, inflammatory rhetoric that he could possibly use," Penley said, recounting the kerfuffle on Public Square. "All the media went over there and it got pretty heated. Jones shoved his way out of the park, but next thing you know, police used that to invade the park [Public Square], forcibly shoving people around. I got my toes run over by a bike. They told me to leave, but I said, 'If you want me out of this park, you're gonna have to push me the fuck out." He chuckled. "So then they pushed me the fuck out."
Later, Penley was was asked how he felt about the turnout at Kirtland. Hadn't there been rumors of much more people camping?
"I honestly thought there'd be massive numbers of protesters coming in," Penley said.
"But I told my friends not to come here. I was worried that Bikers for Trump would come out here and make this their headquarters."
In fact, there were only three Trump supporters at Kirtland Park Tuesday night, which represented an increase of one from Monday. They were setting up tarps far off from the primary Kirtland crew as the sun set, and they balked when asked if they resented sharing the space with the anti-Trump types.
"I think perhaps you have a misconception of Trump supporters," said Sean Witte, of Los Angeles. "The thing is, while they might have a different perspective on Trump, we all care about this country. We're all concerned about the future. Some believe Bernie is the savior. Some believe Trump is the savior. I myself am leaning towards Trump because Hillary is a fucking vampire."
Henrik Larsson, also from L.A., flew in Tuesday — he didn't make the 36-hour drive with Witte — and said that, believe it or not, he'd been part of the Occupy movement. He spoke with a Nordic lilt.
"I'm Swedish," he said, when asked about his accent. "But about the immigration stuff: I did it legally, so I feel I am entitled to have an opinion on it."
Back at the camp, Coulter Loeb was facilitating the General Assembly, which had begun after several fits and starts. Penley's crew turned out to have been just Penley and a couple of long-haired artists, pure hippie types. Presidential candidate Vermin Supreme had also arrived, and he lay with arms outstretched in the grass alongside a dreadlocked handler or pal.
Coulter admitted that his facilitation skills were rusty, but he walked the campers through the preferred hand signals and then tried to summon consensus on the agenda's first item: the pizza.
One ardent partisan stumped, improbably, for "pineapples, jalapenos and onions," while a hat was passed around for contributions. True to the Consensus Method, Coulter tried to determine if anyone was so opposed to the motion (i.e. the toppings) that they'd leave the park if passed.
"We should probably get something a little tamer," one man softly opined.
Vermin Supreme's companion stood up and started screaming "beans and rice! beans and rice!" repeatedly, while doing a little jig. Coulter was unclear if he intended these items as toppings or what, exactly.
"Mushrooms?" Someone ventured.
"Would anyone be offended by mushrooms?" Coulter asked.
"Mushrooms and olives?" Another said.
"Mushrooms and olives?" Coulter asked, and then, muttering to himself. "I'm definitely getting cheese."
On Monday evening, a camper at Kirtland Park swore that protest groups of serious size and energy would be arriving soon. If not later that night, then certainly Tuesday. And if not Tuesday, then definitely later in the week.