The inside of the 2016 Republican National Convention is a tightly guarded, finely tuned assembly line, filtering out those lacking credentials and sucking in 2,472 delegates, 2,302 alternate delegates, and 15,000 credentialed media members with brightly colored placards hung around their necks. The placards are inspected by RNC officials, by state highway patrolmen, by Secret Service officers, and civilian volunteers—all told, six or seven pairs of peering, prying eyes. The assembly line guides visitors to their seats, speakers to the podium, and bouncers, bodyguards, and police snipers to their assigned vigils. Four thousand security personnel from federal, state, and local agencies keep watch outside, guns within reach. Cameras flash, teleprompters roll, and the audience roars, like clockwork. Everything in this story is planned, and everyone seeing the story up close is already approved. But for the intermittent pinprick of intra-party dissent, everything is controlled.
Former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani addresses the crowd on the first night of the RNC. Giuliani’s speech heavily emphasized his view of the need to halt Islamic terrorism. (Alastair Pearson)
But outside there is a different story: more chaotic, more impulsive, more authentic. While one audience sits rapt around the stage at Quicken Loans Arena, another crowd waxes and wanes a few minutes away in Cleveland’s Public Square. Protesters yell, chant, and push; flags go up in flames and officers make arrests. Further away, cop and EMS sirens keen, but response times can stretch into hours, while the night swallows a suburb whole in the shadow of the convention. The story of what happens unorchestrated outside as the convention consumes the city is all the more interesting for its brutal authenticity.
This report is about a moment in time: July 18 to 21, 2016, when the Republican National Convention came to northeast Ohio. One month has passed since then, a geologic era in campaign time, but it’s a span that rewards some reflection on the enduring significance of what happened around the four days of political theater.
While the RNC has no direct bearing on the Columbia bubble, we are subject to the thunderclouds rumbling from forgotten side streets in a forgotten nowhere adjoining the five-time All-America City, USA. At Columbia, we live more or less comfortably in a bastion of the liberal elite, but eventually students return to the real world and confront the discontent and despair that characterizes the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in neglected parts of the country, and the politics of anger produced by stagnation.
Northeast Ohio, where I was born and raised, is a conundrum. Its jewel, Cleveland, is a Rust Belt city with projects plagued by gang violence, drug addiction, and poverty. The weather is miserably cold and overcast, it rains 133 days a year, the roads are perpetually under assault by interminable winters, and the trains are rickety. Two vivid Cleveland memories: the time I fell asleep on the RTA train home and woke up, panicked, at a station where a relative who works for the Cleveland police force usually enters with guns drawn; and the melt-in-your-mouth Hungarian bakery down the street from my high school, whose proprietor knew the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and thought he made a better Napoleon, which he does.
These memories help explain that Cleveland is cosmopolitan, but also insular, wary of outsiders and resistant to change—like some aspects of the American national character. The RNC put a spotlight on my city for the nation to see, but that exposure also reflected back something about those watching. The convention told a story about what politics mean in parts of America, like East Cleveland, that nobody likes to remember.
In the recesses of East Cleveland, far from the din of the RNC, a charred apartment block on Page Avenue sits stripped and decaying, open to the wind. What the political scientist Michael Harrington once called “the other America” in his seminal work on poverty by the same name lies tucked away miles from the convention site.
In this America, in East Cleveland and elsewhere, lived political voicelessness belies the tumult outside the convention hall, itself a meticulously orchestrated drama in a cordoned cocoon. To understand the RNC, a truth inextricable from Cleveland, we need to look at why what Harrington saw persists: an America where the dispossessed “are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen.”
What does this convention say about why our politics fail and who it fails?
Framing the convention
Evaluating the truth of the narratives on stage and screen is up to the electorate, 34.9 million of whom watched Trump’s acceptance speech. The polished product people got back home was compiled by countless editors, production assistants, news anchors, and interns flown in for the week, in the kind of incestuous media environment where 25 year olds in Brooks Brothers shirts talk to each other in whispered tones about getting “out of the industry” before print media finally dies. The sort of rarefied air where a balding Eurovision anchor smirks at his cameraman while doing a little jig as Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” plays on the arena speakers, as if to say: Country-fried Americans really get this excited about politics?
But there was a more palpably true narrative on the Cleveland streets where Americans encountered their political opposites, and talked to them.
What happened in Cleveland was a microcosm of the conversation about political identity, civil discourse, and inequality that dominated the convention, in turn reflecting national trends. Many Americans describe their political life as a broken and polarized process. We are having this same conversation at Columbia all the time in seemingly endless variations. But a campus where 96 percent of students at one college vote to divest from fossil fuels is not representative of overall American opinion, whereas Cleveland is, and that makes it a powerful example.
David Perry, an urban affairs professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago, describes Cleveland in the historical survey text Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader as “representative of much, if not all, of America and the nation’s history of urban change.” A city once among the country’s industrial powerhouses was born in a mad rush of land speculation in 1796. Cleveland ebbed and flowed—but mostly flowed—with nation-making wars in 1861, 1914, and 1941, and drew in crowds of enterprising immigrants and freedmen seeking a new life in the North. The Forest Hills pool where I learned to swim neighbors the former estates of John D. Rockefeller, from when Cleveland was awash in oil money in the 1880s. And World War II, like wars before it, expedited growth in Cleveland: The population peaked at 914,808 in 1950.
As the city mirrored America’s rise, so it mirrored the fall of its industrial cities. The Hough riots in 1966 laid bare racial divides, the Cuyahoga River flowing through the city’s historic port ignited in 1969, and the city defaulted in 1978. The 2010s saw painstaking, stressful recovery, mainly downtown. The suburban population swelled during white flight, while housing projects succumbed to endemic poverty and crime.
Cleveland’s stratified social contract nearly unraveled entirely in 2014, with citywide protests over the killing of Tamir Rice, two years after two black Cleveland residents died after they were shot at 137 times following a car chase. Tense race relations were magnified by deaths of black men like Eric Garner and Freddie Gray at the hands of police elsewhere in the country.
The RNC was described by several Cleveland city councilmen as a transaction that could restore its reputation as a destination city and a stable American metropolis. Secret Service funding injected a local stimulus, while hotel stays, merchandising, and restaurants would boost tax receipts. Perhaps the RNC could erase Cleveland’s toxic nickname as the “Mistake on the Lake,” a phrase that encapsulates the sense of defeatism that clings to Cleveland identity.
In the days leading up to the convention, Councilman Zack Reed of Ward 2 says that he hopes for the success of the RNC, regardless of his view that Republicans are responsible for the dysfunctional political status quo. The opportunity to change perceptions by showing off growth was precious.
“We are not that Mistake on the Lake, probably never were that Mistake on the Lake,” Reed says. “I hope this gives us the opportunity to show people the things we have been able to accomplish in the past, and the things we are accomplishing right now.”
Admittedly, the economic boon was not egalitarian. Several councilmen concede that new infrastructure was distributed inequitably between downtown and the rest of the city, but it was needed.
“From a political perspective, there’s $50 million from the Secret Service. There’s huge infrastructural investments, particularly in terms of communications improvements to the city,” Brian Cummins, councilman for Cleveland’s Ward 14, says. He is conscious of the realistically short-term economic impact of the RNC, but insists its legacy will endure. “There’s been large, large investments that will stay in Cleveland post-convention.”
Reed says the RNC offers a more philosophical opportunity for Clevelanders to display their will to overcome sustained adversity like the city’s recent 12-year recession. The NBA Championship won by the Cleveland Cavaliers in June was the city’s first major title in 52 years.
“I’m hoping that people see that through the good times we were tough. Through the bad times we were tough. And we never gave up. What they saw in our Cleveland Cavaliers, they’re going to see it this week,” Reed says.
The presidential election is often described as a “battle for the soul of America,” while for Reed the RNC seems part of a battle for the soul of Cleveland. He describes a collective responsibility to invest in infrastructure outside of downtown to make renewal egalitarian.
“Are we now going to take what the city looks like downtown and in certain destination neighborhoods, and are we going to take those uptown into other neighborhoods?” Reed asks. “Because now we clearly know what the city should look like. I don’t think the city has ever been this clean in my whole lifetime.”
If Perry is right about Cleveland’s ability to represent what is happening around the country, that it is in some sense an all-American city whose fight to recover symbolizes trends beyond city limits, then the RNC’s significance transcends tax receipts.
At the RNC, an activist class, a presidential candidate, and a city were making a case to the nation. For the protesters at Public Square, the RNC was a chance for them to write their own competing drafts of a national identity. For Cleveland, and for Trump, the RNC was a chance to redeem a tattered ideal—a municipality’s self-respect, and a nation’s integrity.
If the RNC tells a story about U.S. democracy, it begins with the discourse it fosters. The political class indoors focuses on a self-satisfied argot between itself and the cameras. But outside, in a square that sees open carry assault rifles and table tennis, civil discourse is treated with sacrosanct respect by authorities and even most radical protesters.
Despite the intensity of feeling coursing through Klan members, Black Lives Matter supporters, militant evangelicals, and Infowars followers on Tuesday, July 19, the police ring-fenced groups with bicycles and allowed protests to continue. In the commercial thoroughfare on East 4th, Florida highway patrolmen in khaki fatigues watched over thronging crowds with AR-15s as a man sold Trump condoms near the MSNBC booth.
Peace didn’t mean people listened to each other.
Ideological polarization, the urban-rural divide, and racial tensions were arrestingly obvious at the RNC. Only at a convention do topless women demand an end to war, while a few streets over one man wears an “Allah is Satan” shirt and another does the rounds with a life-sized crucifix.
The polarization on the streets at times reflected the combative national politics decried by figures from liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof to lifelong conservative Bob Gates. At Columbia, the politics of anger sparks reactions from pro-discourse concern to the “Disorientation Guide,” which asserted power is built by rejecting forums set up by the Columbia administration.
Michael Blackmore, 34, traveled from his home in Oakland, California, to Cleveland to participate in the protests. He was motivated by the shooting of Tamir Rice in November 2014.
Michael Blackmore, 34, stands with a sign casting responsibility for the shooting death of Tamir Rice on police, institutional racism, political parties, the gun lobby, media, and corporations. The Oakland, California activist and artist traveled to Cleveland for the convention. (Alastair Pearson)
Rice, a 12-year-old resident of the Cudell neighborhood in Cleveland, which has a history of gang violence, was killed by a Cleveland police officer while holding a toy firearm in a videotaped two-second confrontation that inspired national protests. Blackmore’s sign assigns responsibility for Rice’s death to the police, institutional racism, the political establishment, and “Corporate AmeriKKKa.” But despite his strident messaging, Blackmore claims he is against reductive politics.
“Ten-second bites aren’t going to help anybody’s critical thinking,” he says.
Blackmore is confronted in Public Square by an elderly man in a Cleveland Indians cap who tells him that he disagrees with the sign and asserts that the law had been upheld during the legal proceedings that cleared the officer who shot Rice.
Their conversation, soon interrupted by a HispanTV reporter and camera crew, exemplifies some of the cross-cutting divides outside the RNC. Blackmore expresses irritation that the man mispronounced Rice’s first name as “Tamar” instead of “Tamir.” The man seems to think Blackmore misunderstood the facts. And in turn, the HispanTV presenter repeatedly queries the elderly man with emotionally charged questions that set him on the defensive—“Do you have a son?”
The implication is clear: If he had a son, he might have felt differently. That maybe he should feel differently. Most Cleveland residents do seem to feel differently about the Rice case; the county prosecutor who refused to appoint a special prosecutor for the inquiry into the shooter’s conduct was ousted overwhelmingly in the Democratic primary.
But that fleeting conversation in Public Square represents a trend. Trump supporters outside the RNC describe feeling embattled—provoked, like the man who saw Blackmore’s sign, into a conversation from which others wanted to shut them out.
Trump supporters I talk to say dialogue with political opponents, and sometimes their own allies, is hampered because of resentment toward the GOP nominee or conservative stances on issues like police reform. For them, the national discourse is broken in that openly expressing their views invokes personal criticism. For two Clevelander Trump supporters, it means that political discussion in the Democratic city provokes acute backlash.
Chris Johnson, 42, owns Committed Courier Co., a delivery service in the St. Clair neighborhood where he lives. He says he’s “unfortunately” a Trump supporter and is sympathetic to some goals of Black Lives Matter. But he listens to the police blotter, and he empathizes with cops because “They hear shots fired, they have to go there.”
Johnson, who is white, says that in his experience, the discourse around race and policing is limited because his perspective is not valued.
“I find that when you begin these conversations you’re almost always shouted down. I’ve literally been told that I don’t have a right to have an opinion on this subject. As if the color, because of the melanin component of my skin,” he says. He gestures to his head, and he sounds pained. “That’s ridiculous. This thing works up here, really good. And all our blood is red. We basically have the same problems.”
Some Trump supporters, like Chieme Ndekwe, 24, a middle-market liquidations broker from San Jose, California, flaunt their political affiliation as if to invite confrontation.
Ndekwe, who is black, became embroiled in an argument on the fringes of a Code Pink event while women in bras militated against war. He said that a woman had rejected his contention that increased policing in black communities was related to high crime levels. “I said if we could bring down black on black crime, violent crime, we wouldn’t be perceived as such a threat,” Ndekwe recalls.
“She just said, ‘No, no, no, that’s just the racist cops, or whatever. I bet you whenever you go into an elevator women snatch their purses because they’re afraid of you,’” he quotes her saying.
Ndekwe doesn’t think she was being realistic. “They’re not going to toss away racial profiling regardless, regardless of what you do.”
As the afternoon fades away, Ndekwe drifts toward Cleveland’s Public Square, where demonstrators rail against police discrimination. (“Back up, back up. We want freedom, freedom. Tell these racist-ass cops we don’t need em, need em!”)
As we talk, his characterization of race relations is challenged by a black MTV News reporter: “You were saying that they’re afraid of us because of the music, or the crime rate, or all that stuff. But if you go back hundreds of years, why were they afraid of us back then?”
Ndekwe asserts that the South has never feared black people. He admits that he could not explain discrimination against black people, but he claims they had never been lynched in large numbers.
The MTV News reporter tells Ndekwe that he was generalizing and that “they’ve been scared of us for three hundred years,” and Ndekwe agrees.
The encounter concludes when the reporter explains to Ndekwe, with bike police scattered throughout the square to fence off demonstrators, how he thinks the Trump supporter could see racial disparities firsthand. “Look at this. Look at how many cops are there right now. Go to East Cleveland, see how many cops are there right now.”
The reporter seems genuinely disturbed by Ndekwe’s attitude, even though he’s on the job, and calls him a smartass as he walks away.
East Cleveland is a separate municipality, but if Cleveland embodies the struggle of America to reclaim its identity, then East Cleveland is inextricable from the greater city’s quest to reclaim its soul. Its 17,843 residents make approximately 42 percent of the median statewide income, and violent crime is twice the national average. It is one of a complex of Cleveland area neighborhoods, including Clark-Fulton, East 55th and St. Clair, and Glenville, which outsiders are generally advised to avoid. It is dangerous and, for the rest of the country, it is the object of derision.
The tensions at the RNC, between a stratified Cleveland with even more stratified suburbs, in the backdrop of a seething national political mood, are realized in a shouting match between white evangelical protesters and Nicholas Hollis, 28, a resident of Cleveland’s distressed Glenville neighborhood.
“Y’all came down to Cleveland for what? What y’all come to Cleveland for?” Hollis asks the protesters, who are members of WarnTheWicked.com. When Hollis tells them that they, too, are sinners, a preacher calls him a sodomite over a megaphone.
“Don’t come down here for a week starting to protest. You should have been down here if you were starting to protest,” Hollis says, explaining that he feels crime in his neighborhood was out of control. If outsiders wanted to protest, they need to understand conditions on the ground. “In my neighborhood, Superior, there’s nothing but killings every day. Thirteen, 14 killings. Little kids getting killed. For what reason?”
Hollis questions outsiders protesting at the convention in Cleveland public spaces. Some of the city’s problems might be viewed as location-specific: its criticized police review board or its segregated housing patterns. But in how Hollis emotionally voices the anger of a group that feels maligned by outsiders, he represents a trend that has replicated itself time and again at the RNC.
Identity politics is certainly present at Columbia, and its effect on discourse is endlessly discussed with respect to groups ranging from conservatives to Jewish and Muslim students. Some argue that identity politics chills debate, and others assert that it is crucial to an accurate appraisal of historical power imbalances. In Cleveland this summer, discourse around identity did not create new fissures as much as it made obvious how deep they already were.
Cleveland resident Nicholas Hollis, 28, confronts the protesters directly in an emotional conversation. (Alastair Pearson)
Hollis was outraged by Warn the Wicked’s Islamophobia and homophobia, their targeting of minorities as part of an identity politics against his understanding of Christianity. At the convention, identity politics spilled from the choreographed show into the streets. Some of those at and around the RNC identified as Clevelanders and East Clevelanders. Others identified in terms of religion, gun ownership, military or police service, or billion-dollar careers in tech and private equity.
Leslie Rutledge, the attorney general of Arkansas, introduced herself at the convention by denying Hillary Clinton’s Arkansas roots: “Y’all, this is what a real Arkansas woman sounds like.” She spelled out exactly who she is: “Raised on a cattle farm, married to a row crop farmer. And I’m a Christian, pro-life, gun-carrying, conservative woman.”
In her speech, New Mexico delegate Lisa Shin identified forcefully as “a Christian, a wife, and a mother.”
Identity politics is, in mainstream political analysis, the formation of political alliances on the basis of a social class outside of traditional party structures. At the RNC, it often took the form sloganeering. Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. at no point mentioned his race, but he did begin with these words: “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear. Blue lives matter in America.”
Political identities, often outside the broad coalitions of the two major parties, are frequently among the first things people outside the RNC mention when describing their politics. Michael Blackmore of Oakland is an activist artist and a Black Lives Matter supporter. Nicholas Hollis is a Christian and a Clevelander.
Chris Johnson is an army veteran and a small business owner, while Pat Mahoney, 25, is also an army veteran, though his service informs the socialism that drove him to attend the People’s Conference as a Cleveland delegate for the International Workers of the World.
These interconnected identities serve as a prism for the discourse in the convention hall and outside in Public Square and War Memorial Plaza. The pressure for the protesters agitating outside the convention to grab the media spotlight seems to incite competition among identities. While some groups treat journalists like parts of the scenery, others seek interviews from the mic at the main stage or hand out pamphlets to anyone who would talk.
Tuesday in Cleveland sees a clash at 4 p.m. sparked by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a fringe YouTube host who believes aliens intervene in U.S. elections. Three hundred policemen reportedly jump in to separate 500 protesters, divided into groups including IWW and Black Lives Matter activists who were awaiting an appearance by Cornel West. Also in attendance are the Ku Klux Klan, Warn the Wicked, and a range of evangelicals and disparate activists.
Police step in between activists from movements including Black Lives Matter and the International Workers of the World, who were confronted by the Ku Klux Klan and followers of Alex Jones’ Infowars conspiracy site. (Alastair Pearson)
At one point, a chant of “All Lives Matter” was met with an angry response of “Police Lives Matter”—though neither is typical of the police reform movement. On Wednesday, demonstrators from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA are arrested as they attempt to light a flag on fire.
Each time the bikes are used to separate crowds during the convention, they become more routine. The police form their interlinked chain of metal, wheels, and flesh and progressively force back the crowds. Their synchronized yells form part of the background noise.
Politics in action
To some Clevelanders, division downtown does not matter. Robert Bailey, 75, says that “people is people,” and he doesn’t mind the GOP coming to his city, even though he plans to vote Democrat, as he expects the Republicans to neglect the poor.
But to others, like Alfred Porter, Jr. of Black on Black Crime Inc. and the Black Man’s Army, two groups that have called for police reform in Cleveland, the RNC and the status quo both in Cleveland and nationally are unacceptable. Cleveland is a one-party city: Fifteen East Side precincts had just one GOP voter this primary season. So change is gradual.
Activism in Cleveland works grindingly slowly, Porter says. He describes the frustration of advocating on both sides of the aisle and his deep concerns about both parties. The net consequence of politics in his life is bad city services in Cleveland and East Cleveland, where he works, along with the crime, drug use, and poverty that the lack of governance fosters.
If uncivil discourse and hostile identity politics outside the convention help explain what creates dysfunctional politics, East Cleveland shows the entrenched disillusionment that broken politics can create and reinforce. Porter and his colleague in the Black Man’s Army, Herbert Stokes, feel that the convention wasn’t for them. They say the economic benefits it allegedly brought will not touch areas in Cleveland and East Cleveland where they live and work.
The underpass attached to the East 79th street RTA train station is covered with graffiti. Visitors travelling to the RNC from the East side of the city and its suburbs passed through this station. (Alastair Pearson)
“Is the inner city going to get any part of this money? Is any of this coming our way? We got a beautiful downtown. But we can’t really go down there,” Stokes says. “This is not for us. Point blank.”
During the last two decades, Porter and Stokes watched the urban decay in the outlying black communities of Cleveland manifest around their homes. Perhaps the fine points of political sloganeering are not relevant to their lives, but they are fully conscious of inequality and racial divides, especially when it comes to RNC funding, or the multiple eyesores within walking distance of their offices.
Then there is what Stokes terms unequivocally a “bad area”: Page Avenue, the site of an abandoned apartment complex that went up in flames in 2013 and has sat empty for years.
Page Avenue looks like the aftermath of a bomber raid. The windows are blown out and traces of fire are still etched on the walls. Boxes, fractured plywood, and mounds of tires are strewn on the streets. Ivy overgrows the buildings and moss and weeds cover the ground. There is graffiti on almost all the walls of the complex and the street is eerily silent. Stokes speculates several trucks parked around the end of the street are owned by illegal copper pipe strippers.
“It was as if the whole city left. Just left. Like the people just disappeared. It was like something you see on The Twilight Zone,” Stokes says. He remembers when Page Avenue had kids in the streets, but now he sees deer flitting through the greenery and thinks it’s slowly being reclaimed by nature.
He and Porter worry about children being snatched by lurking squatters through the open windows of the burnt complex. There have been two nationally publicized serial killers caught operating in Cleveland and East Cleveland in the last decade.
The sensational crimes don’t speak to systemic issues in the Cleveland justice system, but they do show that sadistic men can hide in ordinary neighborhoods in the inner city and inflict suffering on extremely vulnerable people. I still remember being astonished as Michelle Knight, a survivor of Ariel Castro, took center stage at my high school football game: Both her courage and the fact that Castro operated a five-minute drive away from my school were incredible.
Porter and Stokes say that gang and drug-related violence, poverty, and government mismanagement of the local economy are all part of the fabric of their lives. Porter has developed iconoclastic views after a long career in radio and activism directed mainly at Cleveland’s City Hall.
“People always ask me, they ask me, ‘How can you be Republican?’ And I tell them, everybody that I’ve managed to protest against, or deal with, they’re Democrats,” Porter says. “When you see that, and they’re shutting down everything, and the businesses are shutting down, you’re living in poverty, you can’t blame somebody else for something—you have to go straight to the source.”
Stokes wears a uniform with the red, black, and green colors of the Pan-African flag when marching for the Black Man’s Army, and he has been mistaken for a Black Panther member. But he, too, defies stereotyping about militant black activists: Stokes forcefully says he welcomes policing as a fundamental force for good.
“Policing helps. Being vigilant. Just being vigilant. Just riding around sometimes. Letting the people know,” he explains. “That lets the people know that lives in the neighborhood that somebody else cares, and they’ll come together. The community will come together.”
But right now, that is not his reality.
“This is what a lot of people think [the police don’t care] and this is what we sees. We see this. When you call the police and it takes a whole almost hour for them to get here, there’s something wrong,” Stokes says.
Thousands of police officers from across the country at the RNC professionally execute their plans for keeping delegates and protesters in Public Square safe. They receive credit for their performance from Time magazine, Trump, and local officials. In a striking moment, Porter’s colleague at Black on Black Crime, Art McKoy, is picked up by a Cleveland police officer for a photo.
Indiana highway police play table tennis with Clevelanders on the last day of the RNC. Even though police whistles are audible, and the rows of bikes previously used to push protesters back are visible, there is palpable serenity as the ball ricochets back and forth.
However, 20 minutes away in East Cleveland, budget cuts force the city to drop from 14 officers on patrol to four, and the city may soon need to triage which emergency services it funds. Porter closes his radio show on the last day of the RNC by inviting listeners to attend the wake of the founder of the Cleveland State University Black Studies Program, Michael Williams, and the cost of sustaining his emotional investment in politics is writ large on his weary face.
Cleveland area activists discuss the RNC on the Voicelt Radio internet radio station, housed in East Cleveland. The activists at the table are, from left: Herbert Stokes of the Black Man’s Army, in a uniform representing the African-American Flag; First Lady Destiny of Black on Black Crime, in purple; and Alfred Porter Jr. of Black on Black Crime and the Black Man’s Army. (Alastair Pearson)
What actually, really happened in Cleveland last month, in terms of the practical facts, was simple.
The convention had no significant security flaws, mitigating fears of terrorist attacks, nor violent protests. Fifteen thousand media members and 2,472 delegates flew in and out of Cleveland as part of a wave of 50,000 visitors. The nominee trotted out an array of activists, hedge fund managers, family members, law enforcers, and fighting sport executives before delivering a speech that received a mixed media reception. In his acceptance speech Trump was, as always, attentive to location.
“This administration has failed America’s inner cities. It’s failed them on education. It’s failed them on jobs. It’s failed them on crime. It’s failed them at every level,” Trump said.
He spoke about the need to enable children in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, and Ferguson to achieve their dreams, to create jobs, and to protect people of color equally. Trump spoke a language relatable to many working-class people in Cleveland, and even some black citizens. He secured the support of Porter and Ndekwe, and, for what it’s worth anecdotally, a noticeable number of black delegates walking around Quicken Loans Arena—although Trump polls at one percent with black Ohio voters.
But the Trump that left Quicken Loans on that Thursday night did not mend the fractures dividing protesters in Public Square, that separate Johnson from his black neighbors and Porter from his Democratic activist colleagues. Neither are those fissures likely to be patched up by Hillary Clinton or any other politician, at least according to what anyone could see in Cleveland last month.
American political discourse remains uncivil, and rigid identity politics is now a real worry for both the right and left. That is the story of the conversations around the RNC. What exactly that implies in terms of living conditions for the residents of East Cleveland, Ohio, or other towns in similar places like Camden, New Jersey; East St. Louis, Illinois; Englewood, Chicago; or any number of poverty-stricken cities located in Harrington’s “Other America” remains to be seen.
When I meet Alfred Porter, Jr. in East Cleveland, it is the only time in my life I have gone there on purpose. His office lies in a half-million square feet of former Fortune 500 office space. As I wander between cavernous, silent rooms littered with office equipment, I wonder briefly if I had crossed over a line into a dystopia where a mugger might lurk behind the next copy machine. It is the sort of dark vastness you can find in Low lobby as evening sets in, and it is also a short story of urban decay.
The 2016 RNC did not create these problems in Cleveland, but telling the story of what happened at the RNC last month without talking about Cleveland, its history, and what happened outside the convention floor is impossible. As for Councilman Reed, he says days before the convention that the RNC was a boon for a city that has gone through “pure hell.” But it does not disguise the reality of politics in Cleveland, the All-America City, and the country as a whole.
“They’re going to come here and have a big party,” Reed says. “They’re going to be coming in and having a big party and we, as a Democratic stronghold, are going to give them a big party. And we are going to feel good about the party that we are going to give them, and they are going to feel good about the party they got. And then everybody is going to go back to their different political silos and do what the heck we have been doing.”