America is overloaded on heartache, suffering and confusion – a boiling cauldron of emotions that is certain to seep into, and likely to heat up, the political conventions this month in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Long before the events of the last several days – the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, followed by a sniper attack against law enforcement during a demonstration in Dallas – both cities were bracing. Thousands of protesters were already expected to rally outside both conventions. Officials and observers in both cities were already expecting a potentially combustible convergence of political, social, religious and even hate groups.
“This is like truly a wildcard, because nobody knows what to expect,” said Mickey Osterreicher, a Buffalo-based attorney who is general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. In that role, he was on hand for the 2012 presidential conventions, the NATO Summit in Chicago that same year, and the 2014 protests against police and unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
“We’ve never seen a political campaign like this,” he said. “So who knows?”
Osterreicher said those words in June during a panel discussion he hosted at Cleveland State University. One of his panelists, Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, piped in: “Unfortunately, I think it’s ripe for a lot of conflict.”
Leslie was referring to the willingness of members from certain movements – he cited Black Lives Matter specifically – to block streets or even be arrested. He was also talking about the large contingent of “disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters” likely to be in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, which begins July 25.
He was also referencing some of Donald Trump’s supporters who’ll be converging in Cleveland for the July 18-21 Republican National Convention.
“Even though their candidate is going to be nominated,” he said, “they’ll find something to be angry about.”
On the same day as Osterreicher and Leslie were crystal-balling the convention from Cleveland, a workshop was being held for reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Shane Bell of Global Journalist Security was tutoring reporters on how to safely cover the conventions, especially on the outside of the arenas. Among his tips: Buy a helmet, and know which way the wind is blowing so you can avoid tear gas and Molotov cocktails.
“Pretty much outside the convention on the first day, I believe there will be confrontations” between pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters, he said of the Cleveland convention.
This is worth repeating: All those warnings came before the tragedies of the past week. Tragedies that could turn an already-tense convention into one that’s highly combustible.
Hearing the other side
Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux knows it. Several days ago, Martin-Bordeaux was in the midst of making plans to head to Cleveland with members of the group she founded, Young Black Democrats of Western New York. Their intention isn’t to protest. They’re not even planning to bring signs. They simply want to talk. In an effort to hear the other side and start a dialogue, Martin-Bordeaux plans to approach Trump supporters to listen to their opinions and understand their perspective.
“I’m interested in their issues,” she said. “I think we can all come together basically as a people and as a country, period, to help all sides and all people alleviate any heartache, any suffering, any inequities, injustices. My message to them will be that we’re all in this together.”
That wasn’t how Martin-Bordeaux felt in April, when she rallied against Trump outside his campaign appearance at First Niagara Center. Nor has her opinion of the billionaire changed.
“I think he’s a xenophobe. I think he’s a racist. I think he’s a sexist,” she said.
But if you choose to support Trump, she won’t call you “an idiot, like I probably would have a couple of months ago,” said Martin-Bordeaux, a Sanders supporter.
Why the change?
It stems from her frustration with some of her fellow Sanders backers. After Hillary Clinton’s New York primary win in April, Martin-Bordeaux was unnerved by some Sanders supporters saying they’d rather back Trump than vote for Clinton.
“It kind of scared me a little bit,” said Martin-Bordeaux.
That recognition of what she calls some “immaturity” in the movement made her realize that activists on both sides need to be more open-minded.
“I empathize with people who feel like they don’t have a voice and they’re not heard,” she said.
Martin-Bordeaux said those words before the July 7 shooting in Dallas, where five police officers were killed and seven wounded in an ambush following a peaceful protest. She still believes the message; she still wants to connect with her political opposition. But she’s not sure doing it in Cleveland, in the midst of what could be a raucous scene on the streets, is safe for her group.
Speaking to The News on Saturday, one day after leading a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Martin Luther King Park in response to the Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas shootings, Martin-Bordeaux said she’s reconsidering.
“I’m not so much worried about myself, but I do have a responsibility and an obligation to be logical, and to protect others,” she said. “I don’t know if this particular crowd or group would necessarily be as receptive with the turn of events that we couldn’t foresee.”
‘Defend our rights’
Even before the Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas shootings, the temperature in both Cleveland and Philadelphia was likely to be raised by more than political “Dump Trump” and “Bernie or Bust” campaigns.
Take, for example, the Buffalo chapter of the International Action Center, which is planning to send a group of people, either a van or a few carloads, to Cleveland. The local chapter’s Facebook page for its “Caravan to Cleveland” describes its plans, which include a Shut Down Trump March that is “linking the role of the Cleveland Police Department’s racist murders” – an apparent reference to the 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice – “that have been a focus of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the planned restrictions of civil rights of protesters during the convention and the reactionary national climate.”
The national IAC is also part of Philadelphia protest called “SHUT DOWN the DNC! Build the Movement to Smash Capitalism & Racism.” The Facebook page for that event calls out “fake ‘democracy,’” high poverty, “criminally underfunded” public schools and “racist cops (who) run wild.”
In a telephone interview with The News before last week’s shootings, Ellie Dorritie, who heads the IAC’s Buffalo chapter, was asked whether the group heading to Cleveland is taking safety precautions.
She paused. She took a long breath. Fifteen seconds later, she answered.
“We’re going to exercise our rights,” Dorritie said, then stopped. “We’re going to DEFEND our rights,” she clarified. “We should not need safety precautions.”
Shouldn’t need them, or won’t need them?
After 13 stark seconds of silence, Dorritie answered: “I don’t think I’m in a position to guess about that.”
Lydia Bayoneta, a retired nurse from Rochester, is one of the drivers to Cleveland.
“You’d be silly not to think about those things, that people will pick fights, but we just have to make sure that we keep strong and have our signs and our banners flying, and I think we’ll be OK,” Bayoneta said. “We’re not going to pick a fight with anybody. But we will be there to show our resolve about our beliefs and basically, that’s it. Our solidarity hopefully will be in our banner and our signs and our resolve is very, very strong.”
Victoria Ross is the executive director of the Western New York Peace Center, which in essence makes her a professional protester. She organizes rallies, speak-outs and demonstrations by securing permits, writing press releases, inviting public officials, and gathering bullhorns, microphones, amplifiers, signage and props.
She also leads training sessions for potential demonstrators. Before Trump’s April appearance at First Niagara Center, Ross led three training sessions to get activists ready to protest outside the arena. The training sessions include practice in deep breathing as a way to “de-escalate” — a term Ross uses frequently – when temperatures run high. They also include information on how to handle exposure to tear gas: Carry a paper towel soaked in lemon juice inside a plastic baggie, and breathe through it until you reach higher ground.
Ross isn’t going to the conventions; the Peace Center’s Camp Peaceprints for kids overlaps the dates. But she knows people, like Martin-Bordeaux, who are going, or considering it. And she realizes the risk.
“It is dangerous,” Ross said earlier in the month, before the events leading to the Dallas ambush. “It’s a potential (for) real problems there. The people who will go may be upset enough, angry enough, to really be very reactive.”
She’s also concerned that law enforcement may take the approach of “tear gas first and ask questions later or something.”
“Maintain order at all costs,” interjected the Rev. Pierre Albrecht-Carrié, the Peace Center’s treasurer, who was sitting with Ross in the organization’s Delaware Avenue office.
“Exactly,” Ross said. “Who’s going to be there on hand to bridge that gap, or help calm people down?”
Martin-Bordeaux’s intention is – depending on whether she goes – to be one of those peacemakers.
“I will try to make quick relationships on the ground, if I were to go, and get the group to focus on a clear message, rather than violence,” she said in a separate interview. “I think anybody should be prepared for any situation of what may happen, but I don’t think it has to be a violent protest or rally or situation.”
Anger itself – before it morphs into violence – can be a useful tool.
“Anger is one of the ways you mobilize people,” said Albrecht-Carrié, pastor of the Kenmore United Church of Christ.
He’s a self-proclaimed “child of the ’60s” who spent a lot of time as a younger man demonstrating in Washington and was involved in the 1968 Vietnam War- and civil rights-related protests at Columbia University.
“You get the energy,” Albrecht-Carrié said. “You get them to start doing things they haven’t done, even get organized. But also starting to look at things in new ways.”
Albrecht-Carrié offers an example of an unexpected alliance created by protests: Tough, leather-jacketed biker groups versus the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group whose website is godhatesfags.com (and which is expected to have a presence outside the conventions). As Westboro Baptist demonstrators picket funerals of military members and shooting victims, large groups of bikers have taken to blocking their path or drowning out their shouts with revved-up engines.
“This produces unlikely allies,” Albrecht-Carrié said. “Who would have thought 30 years ago that bikers would be working against the Westboro Baptist people?”
In an admittedly different sense, the likely convention protests could produce its own set of unlikely alliances. It’s a daunting goal, but that’s what Martin-Bordeaux is – or was, or will be – hoping to accomplish, even in a small way.
If she goes.
“I know that our hearts are solid, that our message would be the same, but I don’t necessarily know what the rest of the country is thinking and what their response would be to us on the ground, no signs, trying to shake hands, trying to speak to people, and just meet on common ground,” Martin-Bordeaux said. “I don’t necessarily know if this is the best thing to do right now.”
In a shaken-up state, America needs those handshakes more than ever. But, it seems, common ground is becoming dangerous ground.
News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this story.