The GOP is Coming to Town in July. Protestors Are Too. Is Cleveland Ready for What Comes With the RNC?

The GOP is Coming to Town in July. Protestors Are Too. Is Cleveland Ready for What Comes With the RNC?
Sam Allard

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"That's why the protests here over the Rice and Brelo decisions haven't been as big as place like Baltimore and Ferguson," Dunn says. "So it will be interesting to see how these outside groups coming here are treated by the local community groups. If the local and national groups join up, it could escalate things up even further."

Robert Bullard, a 69-year-old urban studies professor at Texas Southern University who is called the "father of environmental justice," thinks the protests in Cleveland will be "quite large, but not as violent as they were in Chicago. It was a different time, and the assassinations put everyone on edge," he says.

"But Cleveland will be a focus for a large number of millennials and civil rights activists who will be protesting the Republican Party's message that we have to go back in time," he continues. "Women and minorities and gays and other groups don't want to go back in time. It wasn't that great for many of us. So it would be surprising to me if these younger Americans don't see Cleveland as a place to come this summer to make their voice heard, because the Republican Party is who they want to hear their message.

"I expect the protestors will be peaceful for the most part," Bullard says. "But I also expect the streets of Cleveland to be very crowded during the convention as well."

And there is another factor of this likely future mess in Cleveland that could add fuel to the fire. Namely, what to do with the protestors once they get here?

Since the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, where more than 40,000 protestors of economic globalization gathered and chained themselves together to block intersections (with rocks and bottles and teargas filling the air), special events organizers have tried to put such agitators in "protest zones." Freedom of speech advocates have fought such areas being designated as the only place to protest, but courts have ruled they are legal if they are within "sight and sound" of the event.

What that means is that the event participants — in this case, the Republican National Convention delegates — must be able to see and hear the protestors when moving to and from Quicken Loans Arena. To put it another way, a protest zone at Edgewater Park would likely not withstand a court challenge, but a protest zone in the plaza between the Q and Progressive Field would. One other point: The protest zones are not required by the city, but are required if the city severely limits marching in the streets.

At the 2012 RNC in Tampa, the city set up a half dozen protest zones in parks and in parking lots within a few blocks of Tampa Bay Times Forum. Because there were few buildings around that arena, the zones met the "sight and sound" criteria (most were unused because of the hurricane that tore through the west coast of Florida before the convention).

The situation in Cleveland is vastly different. To the west of the Q is Ontario Street, and directly west of the street is the hillside of the Cuyahoga River Valley. To the south of the arena are the I-77, I-71, I-90 freeway combinations, and to the east and north are older buildings that abut sports facilities. The only large piece of land that might qualify under the "sight and sound" criteria is the Erie Street Cemetery, but it is doubtful the courts would uphold protestors being confined to protest from the graves of Meskwaki tribe chief, Joc-O-Sot (1810-1844), and Cleveland's first white settler, Lorenzo Carter (1767–1814).

The city has not indicated where the protest zones will be or if they will have them at all, and no timeline has been discussed as to when those plans will be made public.

"What is troubling right now is the slowness of the city to share its plans," says Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU Ohio. "They have accepted $50 million from the federal government to be used for security, and they should have their plans in place. But the pattern in other cities has shown that some have not disclosed their plans until it is too late for challenges."

That happened in Boston for the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where the city set up a protest zone across from the Fleet Center that was under a bridge and surrounded by razor wire. The judge called the protest zone "an affront to free expression" and "like a concentration camp," but still ruled the protest zone acceptable because there was no alternative so late in the process. The same judge did, however, rule that protestors could march on streets in front of the Fleet Center, which the city of Boston had previously denied.

Adding to this tempest will be possible federal security rules set up by United States Department of Homeland Security. Political conventions are now designated as "National Special Security Events," where the feds (including the FBI and Secret Service) perform counter terrorism and counter intelligence planning. There has always been an attempt to keep balance between the right of free speech and security from terrorism at these events, but the recent terrorism acts in Paris and San Bernadino, California, may throw some of that attempt at balance out the window.

Some say the logical solution is to shut down the entire downtown Cleveland area and let the protesters march where they want with permits under close police supervision that would protect the arena events. It would satisfy the First Amendment issues, and may be the only way to handle things if 50,000 protestors show up.

"Law enforcement always portrays these people as bomb-throwing anarchists and violent groups that want to break every store window in the downtown area, but the police always over exaggerate the problems they think they will bring," says Kris Hermes, a free speech activist from the San Francisco Bay area, who works with the National Lawyers Guild on First Amendment issues and is author of 2015's Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lesson of the RNC 2000.

Hermes' book is about the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, where the local police used invasive surveillance and infiltration, and were later accused of repressive policing methods resulting in more than 400 arrests. "The police always need a boogieman to get the extra power they desire at these events, and they always tell the locals it will be these evil outside agitators," he says. "But most [of the protesters] just want to come and express their viewpoint — which is everyone's right — and cities have found that being less antagonistic leads to fewer problems."

What road Cleveland takes is anyone's guess. But officials may have tipped their hand in how they handled the recent Tamir Rice protests. This summer, Cleveland City Council passed new laws which redefined the city's permitting requirements to limit protestors' rights of free speech and assembly. Any group wanting to march in the street must get a permit four days in advance. "Impromptu demonstrations" require eight hours' notice, and those would be on or in parks and plazas but not on closed streets.

But the tricky part of the ordinance comes on how to deal with demonstrations on sidewalks. No permit is needed to demonstrate on sidewalks, providing the protests "do not impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic." Whether the protests impede or not will be left to the judgment of the police chief. The problem with this ordinance, the ACLU has said, is that any sidewalk demonstration could be determined to impede pedestrian traffic.

"We find the eight-hour rule puzzling for impromptu demonstrations," the ACLU's Levenson says. "Then there is the uncertainty on how the sidewalk demonstration criteria that people are being impeded by it will be applied."

How the Rice protests fall into this is that the city did not enforce any of the permit rules during the protests in recent weeks after the police officers involved in the shooting of the 12-year-old with a toy gun were not indicted. In effect, the city had just passed strict rules but said they did not apply. One of the reasons some think the city did not enforce the rules was they did not want a court challenge to these demonstrations ordinances prior to the convention.

"Courts usually don't rule on free speech ordinances until you can show an actual example of free speech being violated," says an attorney who specializes in free speech issues but didn't want his name used. "If the protestors had been denied marching in the streets on the day the [Rice case] was announced because they hadn't given four-days' notice, a court might strike down the ordinance. Or parts of it.

"But if you only start enforcing the letter of the law when the convention starts, the courts aren't going to hear the complaints until after the convention is over and it doesn't matter anymore," the attorney says. "So you could deny permits for street marches based on security, and then say protests on the sidewalk are impeding pedestrians. Cleveland would worry about the consequences of that enforcement later."

City of Cleveland spokesman Daniel Ball said the supposition that the city did not enforce its new protest laws on marchers after no indictment in the Tamir Rice case to prevent court challenges to the ordinances prior to the RNC is "unfounded." The city did not respond to requests as to where Cleveland might put protests zones, or when those decisions might be made.

Levenson doesn't know if that's what the city was thinking, and refused to speculate if they were. But she does say the city's stalling on announcing their plans for security and free speech issues is bad policy for the entire city.

"[The city of Cleveland has] to work with us on this, because the area we are talking about is very landlocked and geographically compact, and we need right now to anticipate problems and deal with them in advance," Levenson says. "We should be worried about disruptions of the lives of working people as they are passing through the street and on public transportation to get to work, and not just what the downtown business leaders and the Republican Party wants.

"We know the number of protestors is going to be much higher than people had thought even six months ago," Levenson continues. "And to pretend that this is going to just be a big TV commercial for Cleveland is being disingenuous to the people of this area."

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