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GOP convention protest security: tennis balls are out, but guns are allowed

Don’t bring tennis balls, metal-tipped umbrellas or water guns into the area where protesters will gather at next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

But it’s OK to bring an AK.

That’s because Ohio is an “open carry” state where it is fully legal to walk down the street with a semiautomatic AK-47 or any other legally owned firearm. So the city of Cleveland was able to ban a host of items – such as big pieces of wood, long pieces of string and glass bottles – from the protest zone, but it could not ban guns.

That being the case, the Oath Keepers – a right-wing group that vows to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” – plan to patrol the protest zone bearing arms. And the leader of the New Black Panther Party has said his group might arrive armed at a protest of police brutality.

Cleveland officials don’t appear thrilled at these possibilities, given that the convention is coming at a time of heightened political and racial tensions, and less than two weeks after a sniper mowed down five Dallas police officers in retaliation for the shooting of two black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota.

Yet Cleveland officials say there is not much they can do but enforce the Ohio statute – similar to those in a vast majority of states – that allows people to carry their weapons openly.

“Our intent is to follow the law,” Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson said at a news conference this week. “And if the law says you can have open carry, that’s what it says. Whether I agree with it or not is another issue.”

Ohio’s open-carry law is just one of countless comingled elements in what is expected to be an especially intense protest scene in downtown Cleveland.

The protests won’t take place right out in front of Quicken Loans Arena, the convention site. The arena, Progressive Field and the city’s convention center are all part of a “secure zone,” where the Secret Service will tightly control access.

Guns will not be allowed in the secure zone, but they will be perfectly fine in the larger, 1.7 square mile “event zone” in the heart of downtown Cleveland, where Donald Trump supporters, Black Lives Matter activists, members of the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church and the inevitable black-clad anarchists are all expected to gather to have their say.

Local authorities are preparing for the worst. They’ve spent a $50 million federal grant to buy enough riot gear and steel batons for 2,000 officers, along with 24 sets of bulletproof vests and helmets and 10,000 sets of plastic handcuffs, said the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive group that says it will be on the lookout for civil rights violations during the convention.

Meanwhile, about 2,500 police officers from cities around the country, including Rochester and Pittsburgh, will be on hand to help the Cleveland police during convention week.

Neither the city of Buffalo nor the Erie County Sheriff’s Department will be sending officers, though. Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said liability questions precluded the city’s officers from taking part.

For their part, Cleveland police talk as if they’re worried about what might happen in the streets of their city.

“The last thing in the world we need is anybody walking around here with AR-15s strapped to their back,” Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, told The New York Times. “And the absolute tragedy in Dallas is proof positive that we just cannot allow that to happen. I would really just beg these folks, just leave your guns at home. Come, say whatever it is that you want to say, make whatever point it is that you want to make. But it’s going to be very, very difficult to deal with the RNC as it is.”

That may be the case, but top Republicans from Buffalo said they are putting their faith in law enforcement.

Told about Ohio’s open-carry law, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said: “Would I have some concerns? Sure I would. But I trust that security is going to be able to handle the situation.”

Similarly, Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy seemed unconcerned that protests could get out of hand.

“I think this will be one of the safest places to be in America,” Langworthy said of the convention zone. “Security will be very tight.”

Travis McNamara, a member of the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition, will be traveling to Cleveland to protest Trump’s nomination, calling him “a manifestation of all the worst aspects of this country.”

But like Collins and Langworthy, McNamara doesn’t seem too worried about security in the streets.

“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a mini police state,” said McNamara, 39.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com