CLEVELAND – Ranan Steiger works for a catering service in the neighborhood near the Republican National Convention. It was 2 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. The lunch rush was over, so Ranan, who’s 16, asked his boss if he could go outside for a while.
He’d done the same thing Monday and ended up helping a Jewish group with handouts in Public Square.
Tuesday wouldn’t be so peaceful.
For months, political observers have speculated that the Republican National Convention could become something of a hockey game, with cheers and jeers, slap shots and the occasional gloves-off fight.
But the real show is happening outside on sidewalks, the streets and especially downtown’s Public Square. That’s where you’ll find the free-speech circus of America’s political and moral extreme. I’ve seen it since Sunday, when I hovered alongside a march that included people advocating for the abolishment of capitalism and law enforcement. Radical ideas, but ones that were largely shared with a sense of peace. Sunday and Monday brought minimal confrontation among the protestors in Cleveland.
That changed Tuesday, as Ranan found out when he took his after-lunch work break.
As Public Square filled up at around 4 p.m., Ranan was still there. A man had given him a hand-scrawled white posterboard sign that said “Just say NO! to White Supremacy.” Someone else had given him a red kippah printed with the website WeedOutHate.org, and Ranan put it on, signifying his Jewish faith.
Meanwhile, police formed a perimeter around the square to manage the density of the crowd as protesters started taking the stage for scheduled speaking times.
At 5 o’clock, five members of the Westboro Baptish Church – a small and well-known hate group – took the stage. During their half-hour time slot, Ranan said, one of the Westboro speakers saw his kippah and said, “You’re going to hell. You’re a Jew. You’re going to hell!”
Ranan then took the hand of a Muslim woman and they together raised their arms into the air.
“We said, ‘There’s bad people everywhere. There’s bad Jews. There’s bad blacks. There’s bad Muslims. There’s bad Asians. There’s bad everybody,’ ” Ranan said. “There’s bad people in every single religion, every single ethnicity. There are some people that are bad. But you have to look at the positive. That’s all I want. I want peace.”
A half-hour later, Westboro’s time was up. But behind the stage, there was another small group of men carrying signs with similarly hateful messages. The leader of the group, a man of about 40 with a salt-and-pepper buzz and beard, was speaking into a headset microphone attached to a speaker wrapped in camouflage.
As Ranan heard the words, he walked up to the man and started staring him down. He held up the sign, and as the man kept talking – including comments on Judaism – Ranan started yelling back: “I don’t care. Go away! Lose your voice! Lose your voice!”
And later: “Go back to your mother’s basement!”
Ranan was loud, but his voice isn’t deep or gravely. He sounds and looks slightly younger than his 16 years. A pair of young women approached Ranan, almost protectively. One of them asked, “Can you come here for a second?”
He shook his head. “I have to do this.”
Minutes later, a man and woman passed by behind the protesters Ranan was facing. The couple held signs that read “No bigotry. No racism. No sexism. No Trump” and “Trump is a Egomaniacal Opportunist Who Does Not Deserve to Be President.”
Ranan’s eyes widened and he beckoned the couple. “Over here!” he said. “Come teach them a lesson.”
It wasn’t working, so he repeated himself: “Teach them a lesson. Teach them a lesson!”
The man finally walked over and told Ranan, “Ignore them!”
Ranan wasn’t having it. “They’re idiots, though!” he said.
The man told him again: Walk away.
Ranan stayed. “Somebody has to do it!” he said.
And so he did. And will again. Afterward Ranan told me, “Tomorrow, I’ll 100 percent be back.”