CLEVELAND – I’m told there are 15,000 journalists here in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Which means there are approximately 15,000 people (or more, if you include the delegates, staff and everyone else working here) who can likely tell you this:
The most frequent statement I’ve heard from people in the last couple weeks, after they learned I would be here for the GOP’s nomination of Donald Trump, is simply this: “Be safe.”
And the most frequent question I’ve heard since arriving here Saturday is this: “Are you scared?”
To address both (and I’m pretty sure most people here would say the same): I feel safe. And while I’m careful in a crowd, I’m not scared.
How any of us feel, though, is less important than why we feel that way. Here’s a look at what it’s like to be on the ground in Cleveland:
The convention itself is heavily guarded. Quicken Loans Arena – or the “Q,” as it’s known here – is gated off and guarded by the Secret Service. To get in, you need multiple passes. For media, that includes a perimeter access pass (which gets you through the gates), a daily pass (one for each of the four days of the convention) and Secret Service-produced photo ID (so the guards know you’re supposed to be in possession of the aforementioned passes).
As one of my colleagues put it, that arena may be “the safest place in the world.”
Outside the convention, of course, is a lot looser. People can move relatively freely, but the entire downtown area that is home to RNC-related venues and hotels is guarded by thousands of police officers who came from as far away as Florida and California. The safety of this city is largely in their hands – and not just in their ability to protect the populace if violence were to happen.
It’s in their ability to possess an impenetrable calmness.
The emotional temperature here amongst some protesters is blazing hot. I’ve spent the past two days embedding myself in those demonstrations and marches as a close observer, with the goal of discerning their issues and studying how they fight for them. I’ll save the whole of what I’m learning for another story, but here’s a glimpse that will surprise no one who pays attention to headlines: Police are a hot target for many protesters, and some of them will go to great lengths to bait the officers.
On Sunday, for example, about two dozen members of the California Highway Patrol were standing in formation – hands at their sides – at the end of a protest march. One man, a bulky guy with a camera around his neck and a bullhorn of a mouth, moved down the line, standing just a few feet from each officer, screaming obscenities.
Not a single member of the CHP uttered a word. Not a single member lifted a hand. They resembled – in demeanor only – the Queen’s Guard. They were unmovable; they made the guy seem as if he was invisible.
When he left after about five minutes of trash talk, one of the officers looked at the rest and said, very quietly, “Good job, guys.”
There were a few nods. None smiled. They just kept on scanning the crowd.
The protesters, too, are by and large a passionate group of people who, despite whatever anger they hold, want to peacefully demonstrate. Peacefully doesn’t necessarily mean quietly; many can be loud. And their issues aren’t always ones that are embraced by the populace. Which makes sense, because if all their issues indeed represented commonly held beliefs, they’d have little reason to protest.
With rare exceptions, they don’t come across as threatening people. Quite the opposite, actually.
All of this is intended to give you a sense of what it’s like to be here. None of it is to predict a peaceful Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It would take only one incident, and the domino effect could be dangerous.
Though security sources tell me all is calm, and so is the outlook, these things usually aren’t predictable. But here’s a scene from Monday evening: A group of four men and one woman dressed in black pants, black “revolution” shirts and face-covering bandanas walked by me outside. By all appearances, they’re anarchists – the ones likely to hurl more than insults in an effort to disrupt the status quo.
All I can tell you is they walked by a group of cops, and one of them had a short but pleasant, smiling conversation with an officer.
Take that observation for what it’s worth. In Cleveland, we hope it’s worth a lot.