Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Cleveland police may be prepared for the Republican National Convention, but the state’s permissive gun laws add a potentially dangerous layer.
No, Bikers for Trump will not be drawing 500,000 people to Cleveland next week. That would be a figure greater than the population of the city.
Though the group listed 100 to 500 thousand participants on its permit-registration form for the Republican National Convention, that number is a major overestimate according to William Daher, the Cleveland resident who submitted the application. He says he doesn’t know how many people to expect, from his own group or otherwise.
But he says he does worry that outside agitators bringing weapons to Cleveland could give the city a bad reputation—as bad as Chicago’s after the Democratic National Convention in 1968, when the world watched as police and protesters battled in stunning displays of violence.
“Maybe the next civil war’s going to start here,” Daher says. “I don’t want to see that here. We applied for a peaceful-assembly permit.”
Dozens of groups will bring thousands of demonstrators to Cleveland next week, when Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump and friends will assemble for the party’s four-day-long convention. On paper, the numbers of demonstrators are nothing that other host cities haven’t seen before. Both local law enforcement and the Secret Service say that Cleveland is prepared to host a safe and secure convention. (A Cleveland Police Department official declined to answer questions about police assignments and allocations during the RNC.)
But Cleveland faces unique challenges as a host for the 2016 convention. Ohio’s permissive open-carry laws introduce quite an X-factor into the proceedings. So does the Cleveland Police Department’s 2015 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which remains unresolved. Then there is the fact that the RNC is a national and global event on a scale that Cleveland has never seen. (Certainly not in 1936, the last time the city hosted the RNC.)
“In light of the events of the past week or so, obviously, tensions are very high. There’s a lot of apprehension on all sides,” says Ronnie Dunn, professor of urban studies at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. “The police are clearly going to be on a heightened state of alert and readiness. The community, as well, has concerns.”
Within a small secure-zone perimeter at the convention site, including the convention floor, guns will be banned. Otherwise, Ohio state law allows gun owners to carry rifles, shotguns, and other long guns, including assault rifles, openly throughout the city—even within the broader security zone around the convention center, where toy guns, knives, and other items will be prohibited. In light of the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota—one of whom was allegedly licensed to carry—and the subsequent murder of five police officers in Dallas, Cleveland Police Department Chief Calvin Williams has asked people not to bring firearms to the convention. But he has acknowledged their constitutional right to do so.
Open-carry demonstrations can contribute to chaos during scenes of unrest. In Dallas, after a shooter opened fire on police officers from a parking garage, at least one open-carry protester was incorrectly identified publicly by the Dallas Police Department as an active suspect. Should violence break out during protests in Cleveland, open-carry activists bearing long-gun rifles may distract officers, frighten demonstrators, or inadvertently endanger themselves.
On Wednesday, the FBI tweeted a hotline number for the event in Cleveland, asking attendees to report suspicious activities. (What could be more suspicious than a person openly carrying a gun?) This might seem to be a reasonable federal precaution in other circumstances. But it could be a special problem for Cleveland, where convention fundraisers have struggled to overcome fears that the RNC will be a magnet for negativity or hate. (This is one reason why the championship parade for the Cleveland Cavaliers was no preview for the RNC, as the former drew celebratory revelers, while the latter will be framed by civic contention.)
“Contributors are pulling out given the highly controversial nature of the presumptive nominee and the very biased, misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant rhetoric that he’s been espousing,” Dunn says. “I don’t think this is the convention the city initially envisioned when they were competing to host the convention.”
In one way, the convention is setting Cleveland police back. In 2015, the city entered into a consent decree with the DOJ outlining reforms to ensure that policing in the city is constitutional. Planning for the convention has slowed down the Cleveland Police Department’s implementation of these reforms, according to the first semi-annual report from the Cleveland Police Monitor, which was released last month. While the department has shown improvement in its use of force, officer training, and crisis-intervention requirements, room for improvement remains, according to the report; the department is still not in compliance with standards for police review of civilian complaints.
As protesters, police, and politicos converge in Cleveland, the RNC looms as a test for the city—perhaps a larger one than the city could have foreseen from the outset. If it all goes off without significant chaos, than the city stands to gain in public exposure and convention spending. That’s a pretty big “if.”