By Peter Sullivan and Jesse Byrnes
July 21, 2016
Ahead of the Republican convention in Cleveland this week, the question lingered: Would turmoil in the streets outside the arena overshadow what happened inside?
But after three days, the scene has stayed mostly calm, with only a few moments of tension. Small groups of protesters have gathered in the city’s Public Square and occasionally marched through the streets, but demonstrations have at most numbered in the low hundreds, not thousands.
At times in the Public Square, there seem to be as many reporters looking for people to interview as there are protesters looking to make a statement.
Police have mostly kept back and allowed peaceful protests to occur, with few arrests. When protests have escalated, they have moved to insert themselves in crowds and used their bicycles to create makeshift barricades.
There have been a handful of tense situations, most prominently a physical altercation outside the convention arena entrance Wednesday afternoon where officers arrested 18 people, two for felony assault on a police officer. It was a gathering of revolutionary communists who burned an American flag.
It’s a far cry from the fears of unrest before the event in Cleveland, with many speculating that protesters would be tear-gassed.
“On the whole, I'm really underwhelmed by the turnout,” said Tom Moore, 24, of Marion, Mass., who joined a range of anti-Trump protests through the week. “I was expecting thousands or tens of thousands, frankly.”
One of the most high profile peaceful protests, though still relatively small, came Wednesday, when about 100 immigration activists and others from a number of states joined to hold a mock “wall” in front of the entrance to the convention arena that read “Wall off Trump.”
They chanted phrases like “Undocumented, unafraid,” and “There is no debate. Trump equals hate.”
“Honestly we had no idea how many people to expect,” said Tania Unzueta, an organizer of the protest from the activist group Mijente. “I think a lot of folks have been staying away from the area mostly because of both the potential violence and the high level of security.”
“But I mean I think it was successful, everything was peaceful, we were able to symbolically have the wall in front of the Republican National Convention,” she added.
Ben Carson, a former GOP presidential candidate and current adviser to presidential nominee Donald Trump, told The Hill that the protests have been “considerably calmer” than expected.
“There was a little bit of a ruckus on Monday and a lot of people tried to make that into a big deal, but that was probably people who haven't been to conventions before," he said with a laugh. "They probably don't know what's happened in the past so they think that's a big deal."
Police have taken a relatively hands-off approach. Officers are roaming in groups seemingly everywhere in downtown Cleveland, bolstered by reinforcements from more than a dozen departments across the country, including as far away as the California Highway Patrol.
While the visible presence has been strong, officers have generally allowed protests to go on unimpeded.
“We’ve given people space to do what they need to do in a peaceful manner in line with the Constitution, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said.
Police have relied heavily on about 300 officers on bicycles, operating in shifts of 150, to follow alongside protests and keep an eye out.
“We don’t bring horses in unless things start to get out of hand or unless the crowd is just too thick, but bicycle officers are able to do that a lot faster a lot more efficient,” Williams said.
Officers linked their bicycles to divide different protest groups in one of the other tenser moments of the convention so far, on Tuesday, when there were verbal altercations among competing protest groups in Public Square, including a group protesting police shootings and about a dozen people with "stop being a sinner" and "Allah is Satan" signs.
Stuart Muszynski, co-founder of the suburban Cleveland-based Purple America, a group focused on public civility, applauded police for managing protests “in a responsible way.”
Cleveland Police have received intense scrutiny after the 2014 shooting death of a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice.
“They had lots of preparation last year with the police racial issues and the consent decree,” he said, referring to an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform the department following a finding of a pattern of “excessive force.”
However, those tensions have not been on prominent display this week.
The small scale of the protests is disappointing to some protesters, including Moore.
“I've been in mourning for American protest culture all week,” he said.
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