WASHINGTON — One anti-Trump group is teaching demonstrators how to stay calm and safe on the streets of Cleveland. A Tea Party activist who supports the Republican nominee is joining his opponents to produce a video preaching a message of tolerance.
And civil rights groups have been enlisted to provide bail assistance and legal representation to activists arrested during next week’s Republican National Convention.
Protesters are preparing for Donald Trump’s nominating party under heightened tensions in an already volatile political climate. Anxiety has been building for months, stoked by an angry electorate that fueled Trump’s rise and by the candidate himself, who once warned of riots if he did not secure the nomination.
Add to that the recent shooting deaths of black men by police and subsequent Dallas sniper attack that killed five police officers during a protest, and it’s a combustible scenario.
“We hope to decrease the amount of time we are face to face with Trump supporters,” said Dr. Bryan Hambley, an ICU doctor who cofounded Stand Together Against Trump and who has spent the last two weeks meeting with law enforcement and city officials about the group’s plans.
“We think the more hate, vitriol, and violence there is, the more Trump wins,” Hambley said. “He’s good at driving the narrative when there’s passionate dislike for people.”
Stand Together Against Trump will take part in marches Monday and Thursday to protest Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, and women. Some members of Black Lives Matter, founded to protest police killings of African-Americans including 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, said they would join the marches instead of holding their own event, in part due to safety concerns.
Hundreds of protesters will undergo training to help ensure their safety. Some will don neon green caps and be tasked with documenting — with video — the use of force by police or attacks by other groups.
Activists are being trained to make sure their hands are always exposed, so it’s evident they are not holding weapons, and to clearly articulate if approached by police that they are “complying, not resisting.”
“We want to make it very clear that we are being cooperative,” said the Rev. Waltrina Middleton, founder of Movement for Black Lives and Cleveland Action. In addition to safety, she has also led trainings to educate organizers on their rights. She said many local activists are already on edge following home visits by the FBI and other law enforcement inquiring about their plans during the convention. (The FBI has characterized the visits as “community outreach” aimed at keeping the convention safe.)
City officials are going to great lengths to defuse the tension and ward off violence by scheduling marches and rallies by groups holding opposing views at different times or in separate locations.
White supremacist groups have vowed to come to Cleveland to protect Trump supporters. Leaders of the controversial New Black Panther Party, which is accused of being a racist hate group, have said they would come armed to defend themselves.
Neither has secured official permits to demonstrate, but city officials said any group could congregate and express its opinions in public areas outside of the official event zone.
“We’re going to have that. This is America,” said Michael McGrath, Cleveland’s director of public safety and former police chief.
Police, outfitted with new riot-control gear and body cameras, insist they are prepared to keep the peace with ramped-up security plans. Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said he expects around 3,100 uniformed officers to be on duty, including police coming from out of state, in addition to an undisclosed number of undercover officers.
“We’re training for the worst-case scenario. Just over the last few weeks we’ve really gotten aggressive about it,” Loomis said. “We are going to have two very passionate groups of people here on opposite ends of the ideological universe. We are not going to tolerate rocks being thrown, citizens being injured, property being damaged because of a handful of knuckleheads.”
Officials extended the hours of the municipal court during the convention until 1 a.m. and cleared 1,000 spaces in area jails in anticipation of handling an influx of arrested protesters.
Adding to the volatility is the Ohio state law allowing people to carry guns in the open without a permit. (Firearms will not be allowed inside the Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention is being held, or in the security zone immediately surrounding the arena that is controlled by the Secret Service.)
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams discouraged demonstrators from bringing guns but said this week he was bound to uphold the law; those who do carry guns will be monitored closely, he said.
Ralph King, cofounder of the Cleveland Tea Party, who is organizing Monday’s America First Unity Rally at a riverside park, said he is advising Trump supporters to leave their guns at home.
“I have guns. I used to be a licensed dealer. But this is not a Second Amendment rally,” King said. “It’s not duck season.”
King this week met with a local anti-Trump leader and a wage equality activist to make an antiviolence video that focuses on welcoming diverse perspectives.
“We agree that if there’s any violence, as much as I may support Donald Trump and other individuals do not, we lose our message,” King said.
His group, Citizens for Trump, recently dropped a white nationalist website, Eternal Sentry, as a cosponsor of the rally because of the site’s racist and anti-Semitic material. Eternal Sentry, though, continues to promote the Cleveland rally on its website.
“I’m hearing of other white fascists coming into town to protect us,” King said. “They are not part of us. We reject that message and all of that nonsense. There will be no place for it at our event.”
Alana Belle, a community organizer for Common Good Ohio and member of Black Lives Matter who plans to march on Monday, said she worries about disparate treatment by police.
“I’m really concerned about the police protecting the hate groups and policing us,” Belle said. “The white supremacists have been very vocal about their support for gun activity and lack of value they place on black and brown people.”
Other Black Lives Matter activists around the country who had planned on demonstrating in Cleveland now plan to sit the convention out.
“Especially after the Dallas shootings, there’s a perception about Black Lives Matter, about us being terrorists. It’s produced an environment of fear and paranoia,” said Kamau West, a Howard University senior from Denver.
Instead, West will travel to Baton Rouge to protest the police killing of Alton Sterling.