To be from Cleveland is to have unease in your veins. There’s plenty to be concerned about: It’s an impoverished, emptying city, and, like most of America, there is a wide disparity when we talk about who has and who hasn’t recovered from the Bush-era real estate crisis. Lead poisoning is at twice the level of Flint, Michigan. Even we natives joke about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, among other assorted municipal misfortunes (the city’s police department is even more of a tragic punch line). Not even our beleaguered sports teams bring us much relief, having gone without a championship for 52 years and counting.
But because we still love Cleveland for our own good reasons, we worry. So when I heard that an online petition to allow the open carry of firearms at the Republican National Convention, to be staged this July at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, had rapidly gained more than 45,000 signatures, I got a little worked up.
The petition, posted on Change.org last week, works as both pitch-perfect satire and as a legitimate continuation of the arguments against “gun-free zones” that we hear whenever there is a mass shooting. “Cleveland, Ohio is consistently ranked as one of the top ten most dangerous cities in America,” it reads. “By forcing attendees to leave their firearms at home, the [Republican National Committee] and Quicken Loans Arena are putting tens of thousands of people at risk both inside and outside of the convention site.” (As we were reminded after the fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice, Ohio is an open-carry state.)
The Secret Service has ruled out guns inside the arena. But what the petition really got me thinking about was the folks who will be outside the convention arena, at the corner of Huron and Ontario, and angry at something: the GOP, the cops, their circumstances.
There has been considerable concern, already, about the possibility of violence in Cleveland that weekend, which could see the most protested nominating convention since the ones Democrats staged in Chicago in 1968. Donald Trump himself has made an outright prediction of “riots” in the event of a contested convention, a potent threat given the well-documented violent tendencies of his followers. The city has $50 million in security funding, and when The Plain Dealer reported on March 18 that Cleveland is seeking to buy 2,000 riot-control suits and collapsible batons for the convention, images of an over-militarized Ferguson and a burning Baltimore immediately came to mind.
“It’s the outside [of the convention site] I’m worried about,” Christine Link told MTV News. Link is the executive director of the Cleveland-based ACLU of Ohio, which raised concerns with the city about the riot gear purchase. “There will be all different kinds of people, with all different points of view, and you introduce people with weapons and it could become very dangerous.”
She’s not just talking about Cleveland police officers becoming more militarized while their department is still under a federal mandate to stop abusive, unconstitutional practices. Whether Trump’s coronation goes through or a brokered convention breaks out, this will be a rare RNC when both liberals and conservatives will be pissed off at the GOP. It’ll also be July in Cleveland; though the Cuyahoga River is across the street from the arena, I doubt there will be any cooling breeze coming off it that could cut through the humidity, or the tension. People will be angry. And some of them will have guns.
Cleveland, after all, is a petri dish for Trumpism. As Link noted, there are a lot of low-income white residents who lack college educations or even high school diplomas, living in an economically depressed city populated mostly by black folks. And given that there will never be more cameras trained on the city than during that four-day stretch in July, you’ll probably see a mixture of citizens seeking to draw attention to concerns ranging from jobs to housing to black lives mattering.
In a city that witnessed the Hough race riots in 1966, a lot of folks are on edge already. “I’m really concerned all hell is going to break loose,” local NAACP vice-president James L. Hardiman told the Los Angeles Times. Hardiman also pondered what will happen to Clevelanders should there be any violence. “The people who actually live here – what are we going to be left with at the end of the day?”
There are the immediate threats following the convention that Hardiman and other locals fear -- the "indiscriminate arrests," and possibly worse. But Hardiman’s last question is worth asking again in a different context: What about the Cleveland that the Republicans will leave in their wake, given the structural racism they ignore and the unemployment and poverty that their policies have exacerbated?
For her part, Link is trying to stay positive. “It’s very hard when the prominent figure is a preacher of violence; we need to do the opposite,” she said. “We need to take every precaution, but I think we ought to set the bar high … We need everybody to try to stay calm.” But in a town as anxious as Cleveland, that’s a difficult proposition.
Less than a year after the Tamir Rice case and the acquittal of a killer cop ripped new holes in my hometown’s spiritual fabric, I find myself once again fearing for my city. So much talk is being circulated about the damage Trump could do to the GOP in Cleveland that the damage that the party has done to Cleveland is virtually ignored. And their visit, with all the violence it promises, may only make things worse.