Surprise, Cleveland! All the talk about getting Public Square ready in time for the Republican National Convention? It wasn’t just a can-do civic deadline. No, when the city fathers said they were remaking Public Square for the Republicans, they literally meant for the Republicans.
No one noticed it or debated it, but in July 2014, City Council unanimously offered up Public Square — our free-speech forum since the 1870s — for “convention-related activities.” The downtown malls, Voinovich Bicentennial Park and “the public areas of City Hall” are part of the deal too.
Handing over the town square to one political party for four days — during an event that attracts protesters from throughout the country — was a terrible idea. And it’s even worse now that Cleveland will host the Republican coronation of Donald Trump, a blustering strongman hostile to protest.
Clevelanders were so ecstatic two summers ago when the Republicans chose us. It wasn’t just because millions of GOP dollars might flow into our hotels, restaurants and attractions. The victory over Dallas, Denver and Kansas City, Missouri, felt like a giant validation for Cleveland’s ever-fragile self-esteem.
That made us too eager, too deferential. Days after Cleveland was chosen as the convention’s host, Mayor Frank Jackson asked City Council to rush-approve the terms for the mega-event. The ordinance, which council passed unanimously on a single reading, threatens to make free speech and assembly during the convention a distant priority. It gives over our great public spaces to the Republican Party and the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee “as needed.”
What does that mean, now that the convention will be controlled by Trump, who ejects protesters from his rallies on the grounds that the events are private and goads his audiences into assaulting dissenters?
Trump’s intolerance has raised the convention’s stakes. His casual prediction of riots if he were denied the nomination has made the whole country anxious about Cleveland’s week at the center of history.
But fear can cause a city to sell out its own values. So can the desire to be liked. Cleveland must be careful not to become Trump’s enforcer, privatizing public spaces and cracking down on protests there. It can’t shove protest out of sight to please its Republican guests. Instead, it’s time for Cleveland to stand up for its tradition as a free-speech city.
When Public Square reopens this month, the statue of Tom L. Johnson, Cleveland’s greatest mayor, will sit at the north end. On its pedestal is a promise: Johnson marks “the spot he dedicated to the freedom of speech.” Johnson famously allowed any speaker, from socialists to the renowned anarchist Emma Goldman, to use the square without a permit. The square’s redesign honors that tradition. Johnson’s statue faces an open green, perfect for a crowd. A speaker’s terrace is built into the concrete on the square’s south end.
Cleveland should declare, loudly, that it will protect the right to protest with more vigilance than any convention city before it. It can start by declaring Public Square open to everyone during the convention — just as it has been for more than a century. It should guarantee that people who go there to speak their mind will be kept safe.
Political convention cities always draw activists from throughout the country, eager to object to the party’s leaders and platform. But the host city’s desire for security can easily become an excuse for violating free speech.
“At almost every political convention historically, there have been massive civil rights violations: mass arrests, increased surveillance and infiltration,” says Jocelyn Rosnick, a coordinator for the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild.
Doing better this July will be a severe challenge for the Cleveland police. We’re the first city to host a Republican or Democratic convention while its police department is under a Justice Department consent decree to curb its use of excessive force.
Antiracism activists, who’ll come to town to protest Trump’s targeting of Muslims and Mexicans, will also have the police killing of Tamir Rice on their minds. So any police overreaction — even to the anarchists who always turn out for political conventions — could quickly become a focus of protest itself.
The Cleveland police didn’t show proper restraint after the verdict of policeman Michael Brelo — cornering demonstrators in an alley and arresting them for failure to disperse. This July, greater restraint will be very important, from the chief down to officers.
At past conventions, one frequent violation of free speech came cloaked as a compromise. Courts have ruled that protests must be allowed within “sight and sound” of a political event, so host cities have created designated “free speech zones” that act as pens to keep protesters hemmed in.
In Boston in 2004, outside the Democratic National Convention, demonstrators were herded into an enclosure marked by metal fencing topped with razor wire.
So far, the city has said the right things about protecting and defending free speech.
“We don’t have designated protest zones,” says deputy police chief Edward Tomba, who is managing the city’s convention security planning. “The whole country’s a free speech zone.” If opposing groups demonstrate downtown at the same time, “our job is to protect both sides,” Tomba adds.
Still, if downtown’s public spaces are claimed as convention venues for four days, where will the protesters go? The threat of terrorism means large Secret Service-enforced security zones around Quicken Loans Arena and the convention center, and probably a bigger zone where cars and trucks will be subject to search. Public Square won’t be in the Secret Service’s security zone, according to Tomba. And although he says the square is likely to be open to the public during the convention week, he adds that the Host Committee is planning a festival there.
But whether such an event would require tickets, close off the entire square, and for how long, has yet to be made official.
“Public Square [is] currently reserved for convention-related activities,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Host Committee, in a mid-April statement. “Any announcement of programming or activation of Public Square during the convention is not expected in the coming weeks.”
The city refused to release the Host Committee agreement, calling it a “trade secret.”
Cleveland must find a compromise that leaves plenty of public space open to the general public. Otherwise, the desire for security and the desire to be a good host could easily create hostility toward protest.
Johnson would have no problem with the Republicans pitching their tent in Public Square. But he never would’ve allowed one political party to cordon off the town square for four days, leaving dissenters excluded. Johnson welcomed heckling, because he felt politicians should publicly defend their arguments. He would’ve had contempt for Trump and his security regime. He would’ve greeted his arrival by making it clear that in Cleveland, tolerance and freedom rule.
Will today’s civic leaders do the same?