The 10 women wore pink Statue-of-Liberty tiaras and big prom dresses – most of them pink, many of them sparkly. The pink banner they held up read, “Miss America Pageant.” Behind them, on Public Square’s new speakers’ platform this morning, a woman wearing a giant papier-mache Donald Trump head waved two moneybags.
Dozens of journalists climbed to the platform’s edge and pointed their cameras. The faux Trump launched into a decent, growling spoof of the Republican presidential nominee and longtime beauty-pageant impresario.
“I’m looking forward to see these ladies do what they do best, which is being beautiful!” shouted the faux Trump, who was wearing a suit decorated with images of dollar bills.
Public Square is living up to its long history as Cleveland’s free-speech forum this week. Protesters are flooding into the square’s south end to oppose and support the Republican National Convention three blocks south.
The thoughtful and the furious, the quiet witnesses and attention-seekers, debate peace and guns, borders and refugees, socialism and capitalism, Christianity and Islam, love and hate. Every angry voice attracts credentialed reporters – five, 10, 15 – the world’s press looking for action and finding it. State police from Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina and other states patrol the square, poker-faced. Cleveland police on bicycles pedal into the crowd, slipping their tires between adversaries when an argument gets too hot.
On the edge of the bedlam stands the speakers’ platform, which attracted new attention today. The concrete stage is built into the square’s new landscape, and city officials have set up a mic and sound system there for the week, available to speakers who signed up in advance.
One by one this morning, each pink-dressed protester took the mic to explain why she should be named Miss America for her belief in peace and tolerance. “I miss kindness and understanding,” one said. “I want to bring our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq,” said another. Others declared their opposition to endless war, their respect for immigrants, their desire to see police prosecuted for killing black men. Behind them, other Code Pink women held signs: “Refugees Welcome” “Trump Is A Racist.”
Public Square’s free speech tradition dates back to 1872, when the city set up a speakers’ platform in its northwest quadrant. Tom L. Johnson, Cleveland’s mayor from 1901 to 1909, defended the right of anyone to protest there. When a statue of Johnson was installed there in 1915, the inscription noted that it was “located on the spot he dedicated to the freedom of speech.”
Another protest brewed on the square as Code Pink’s ended. About 20 demonstrators had donned huge canvas cloaks with a red-brick pattern painted on them. “Wall off Trump,” each read.
“We are here today to combat Trump’s violent rhetoric,” said Benjamin Schrader of Colorado, one part of the wall, “calling Mexicans violent rapists and murderers. And then his rhetoric around foreign policy: advocating war crimes, killing innocent civilians, advocating torture.”
Others defended Trump. “Why do you put locks on your door?” shouted a man wearing a red Trump hat. More than a dozen journalists surrounded him, pointing TV and still cameras, boom mikes and smartphones. “So you don’t allow just anyone to come to your home!”
Julian Raven stood nearby, holding up his enormous painting of Trump’s face, an American flag, the Earth in space, and a very badass-looking eagle. “Donald Trump is a consummate executive, trained in the school of hard knocks,” said Raven, an alternate RNC delegate from Elmira, New York.
A young guy with unruly hair, dressed in black, walked up to Raven and pointed at Trump’s pale face. “Isn’t he orange?” the guy asked.
“This is a print,” Raven replied. “He is more orange in my original painting.” The guy moved on. “That’s the type of thing I love, this positive interaction,” Raven said.
This is the first presidential election in which Raven can vote. An immigrant from Britain, he became an American citizen last year and has been campaigning for Trump since. “He’s a wrecking ball, in that he’s going to destroy a lot of the encrusted establishment ideas and mannerisms and leadership and restart a lot of things.”
Back at the speakers’ platform, a member of Cleveland Peace Action held a paper Ronald Reagan mask to his face and talked about “freedom fighters in Afghanistan” – how rebels funded by the U.S. in 1980s became part of Taliban. A few dozen people watched, while dozens of others milled about the square. A big guy in pink, with a James Earl Jones-like deep voice, introduced George W. Bush, or rather, a guy in a rubber Bush mask who delivered a mostly incomprehensible speech in a thick Texas drawl. “God bless America! God bless cheap gas!” he declared.
Then came a guy dressed as Trump, including a bright orange wig. “I’m good at war! I’ve had a lot of wars of my own! I’m really good at war! I love war!” he shouted with a Trumpian snarl. His shtick wasn’t a parody, exactly: He was quoting Trump verbatim.
“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me!” he declared. “I know Russia well! I had a major event in Russia two or three years ago – a Miss Universe contest – which was big. Big, big. Incredible!”
Across Superior Avenue, on the square’s north end, Tom Johnson’s statue sat alone, a few dozen yards east of his old perch. The square’s new design has drawn the free-speech action south, leaving only a few people on the north end’s giant lawn.
Johnson gazed south. A Wrap It Up food truck blocked his view of the new speakers’ platform. But his face had an attentive, curious expression. He looked satisfied — and even a little amused.