Republican convention: Cleveland on edge

Above: A TV grab showing an armed man walking down a street near the convention site.
Cleveland police officers patrolling the perimeter of the Republican National Convention site on Saturday. Security has been heightened in a "Hard Zone" surrounding the site, with a variety of items such as tennis balls and fake guns disallowed. Real guns and rifles, however, are permitted.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Cleveland police officers patrolling the perimeter of the Republican National Convention site on Saturday. Security has been heightened in a "Hard Zone" surrounding the site, with a variety of items such as tennis balls and fake guns disallowed. Real
A TV grab showing an armed man walking down a street near the convention site.ST PHOTO: PAUL ZACH

Euphoria tainted by anxiety as city prepares for Republican National Convention today

The video clip looked like it had been filmed in a Middle-Eastern war zone. A man is seen walking down a street, cellphone in one hand - and an AR-15 assault rifle slung over his left shoulder.

The local reporter then shocks viewers by revealing that "a while ago, Channel 3 TV spotted this man walking down St Clair Avenue with his rifle". The street is just blocks from Quicken Loans arena, or The Q for short, the site of the Republican National Convention (RNC) which gets underway here today.

When confronted by the TV crew, the man with dark rings under his eyes delivered a disturbing message: "Any attempt to confiscate the weapons of the American people will be met with violence."

The massacre of policemen in Dallas earlier this month, Thursday's truck attack in Nice, France, and sights such as that armed man have turned the mood in Cleveland from one of euphoria about hosting the event to one of nervous anticipation, if not anxiety.

Mr Carl Wendorff, a warehouse manager, summed up the feelings of many residents for the Washington Post in six words: "It's going to be a zoo." The other word residents use to describe the RNC is "circus". Both are apt given the party's traditional mascot - an elephant.

The mixed emotions were heightened last week as some main streets were turned into a fortress of sorts that the US Secret Service has dubbed the "Hard Zone", taking some of the glitter off rows of banners and animated neon signs put up earlier to welcome delegates and visitors.

The reason for the elation when the Republican Party chose Cleveland over Denver and Dallas two years ago to host the four-day convention is obvious. More than 50,000 visitors, including 4,500 delegates and 15,000 credentialled media, have already packed 5,000 hotel rooms in downtown Cleveland, 16,000 more hotel rooms as far as 50km from the city, as well as many a condo and home put up for rent.They are expected to spend some US$200 million (S$270 million), according to estimates by the Cleveland 2016 Host City.

Mr Mike Smith, chief operating officer of locally-owned Marigold Catering, predicted he will do "25 per cent of his annual business" during the four days leading up to the moment that Republicans crown their candidate for president on Thursday night.

And therein lies the rub. That candidate is expected to be the controversial billionaire Donald Trump.

 
 

Not surprisingly, the main security concerns thus far are demonstrations planned by as many as 60 groups with domestic agendas ranging from abortion and gay rights to gun control, and recent police killings of African-Americans.

One group that has applied for a rally permit is Bikers For Trump. Co-organiser Bill Daher told Politico website that if there was violence, he felt it would involve race.

Another group announced in an e-mail a novel plan to express its opposition to Mr Trump's plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico to stop illegal immigration.

Mijente, a social-networking site that targets the Hispanic community, noted that "Trump's wall is an emblem of his xenophobic drive to Make America Hate Again", so it is bringing in artists, parents, children, and veterans to build a protest wall that "will be a line of defence for the future of the country".

Mr Trump's reputation has even prompted one of Cleveland's biggest names to ban the candidate from his nationally-famed Lola restaurant. Celebrity chef Michael Symon, who co-hosts the nationally-televised food show, The Chew, said last month: "There's not a chance I'd let him into one of my restaurants. I've been fortunate or unfortunate enough to meet him through the years. I'm not going to lie, he creeps me out a little bit."

Another magnet for visitors that will remain open is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, housed in an iconic I.M. Pei-designed building on the banks of Lake Erie.

Outside, there will be concerts, food stands and a marina for boaters who want to sail up to its doors. Inside, visitors will find a special exhibit: Louder Than Words: Rock, Power And Politics.

While Cleveland's primary concern is violence ignited by domestic groups, the attacks by radicalised Muslims in Orlando and San Bernadino - and now in Nice, France - have again heightened worries that such extremists might take aim at the RNC. After all, Mr Trump's most notorious campaign pledge was to ban Muslims from entering the US.

While Cleveland's police are not giving specific numbers, reports say some 3,000 officers have been recruited from departments around the US for the RNC.

Many will be in riot gear that includes handcuffs, night-vision devices, body armour, steel batons and tear gas, among other things. Doctors and nurses at at least one of the city's largest hospitals have been told to "sleep with their pagers" and be on call 24/7 all four days.

As of Wednesday, an intelligence assessment issued by the RNC 2016 reported "no known specific, credible threats", adding that the primary threat is "likely to be civil unrest, with tens of thousands of protesters expected... and those numbers rising daily".

But it raises alarms about a move pushed through the state's legislature by Republicans themselves.

"Ohio's open-carry laws, permitting individuals to bring guns into the event zone, will likely complicate the police response to any unexpected violent incident," the RNC assessment noted.

Indeed, umbrellas, pepper spray, swords, fake guns, even tennis balls are among the "dangerous" items barred inside the "Hard Zone". Yet guns and assault rifles, are allowed.

Ironically, Mr Trump and the Republicans who push for "open-carry laws" across the US are not taking any chances themselves: Guns will not be allowed in The Q.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Cleveland on edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe