As the Republican National Convention opened Monday under heavy security and the specter of unrest, Andrew Purchin, a psychotherapist in sandals and checked shorts, stepped into a public park in downtown Cleveland with an easel and a scroll.
Fixing a length of linen to a wooden support, he paused to “feel the scissors cutting the cloth.”
“My working hypothesis,” said Purchin, of Santa Cruz, “is that all of us do better when we can slow down and reflect.”
Hope for calm appeared widespread in Cleveland, from a “Circle the City with Love” event Sunday to the marquee at Mitchell’s Ice Cream: “Welcome to Cleveland, Love for All.”
Yet as Catholic nuns distributed lemonade on downtown sidewalks and Purchin, 54, invited passers-by to finger paint in Willard Park, harmony remained far from hand in an election year marked by racial tension and economic strife.
The killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge, La., on the eve of the convention hung over its opening. The attack, which wounded three other officers, followed the killing by police of two black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and a shooting that killed five police officers in Dallas.
“Our country is a divided crime scene,” Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, said on Twitter on Sunday, “and it will only get worse!”
On the convention stage the following day, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called for a moment of silence for the slain police officers and “all the families who have lost loved ones during these troubling times.”
Purchin, who will go from Cleveland to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week, described his project, “The Curious End to the War Against Ourselves,” as a meditation in which he asks participants to consider the beauty and good intentions of people who upset them.
For many protesters in Cleveland, that person is Trump. The New York businessman has accused the Black Lives Matter movement of “dividing America,” while his proposals to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States have inflamed immigrant rights groups.
As Purchin painted in the park, protesters holding “Stop Trump” and “No Hate in Our State” signs marched nearby, chanting, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
Early protests in Cleveland were largely civil, but police were preparing for thousands more people to demonstrate throughout the week. Large protests are expected in Philadelphia, too, with similar themes of economic and racial discord.
“We are in a period of American history where minority groups emerge as a stronger political force, and as the white population and demographic starts to shrink, the tensions over what we hold to be helpful and not helpful in our racial discourse starts to change,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in Latino politics in California. “This, 2016, is the year when all of this is going to become manifest and discussed. Not in a healthy, thoughtful way, but in an angry, reactionary way. And all sides feel completely justified in their behavior, and that’s why it’s scary.”
Madrid, who worked on George W. Bush’s campaign in California in 2000, said Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, are “uniquely unqualified” to address rising tensions, with a Republican who “fans these flames” and a Democrat who “isn’t trusted by a large swath of people in her own party.”
“There’s so much change happening so quickly, we as human beings, I don’t think, are prepared to process this quickly enough,” Madrid said. “It’s too much, too fast. I think there’s going to be a lot more racial strife, and that’s going to create a lot more political strife, and that’s going to create a lot more political instability.”
Trump’s response to the shooting in Baton Rouge included a demand for “law and order” and criticism that President Barack Obama “doesn’t have a clue.” Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, called the attack “an assault on all of us” and said “we must not turn our backs on each other.”
Several blocks from the convention floor, Tom Mitchell, a retired insurance salesman from Dallas, shook his head. Neither candidate has satisfactorily addressed the police shootings or the police killings of black men, he said.
On one hand, Mitchell said, “African Americans have been treated poorly for so many years.” On the other: “Police aren’t respected.”
He held a sign rejecting both candidates: “Trump or Hillary: Lincoln is turning over in his grave.”
Sean Walsh, who worked for former California Gov. Pete Wilson and served as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s communications director during the 2003 recall election, said recent shootings of police officers could “energize a little bit of the base for Trump,” a constituency frustrated by a belief that no politician is sufficiently addressing crime and disorder in American cities.
“They see someone come out, a false prophet, and say, I’m going to clean it all up, and they say, ‘OK, fine,’ ” Walsh said. “I don’t like it, and I’m unhappy about it, but I think it really has a potential benefit for him.”
In an appearance on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Trump called Obama and Clinton “weak” on law and order issues. Among the roster of speakers he announced for Monday was Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr., who told CNN the night before that Black Lives Matter was a “phony movement” full of “vitriolic hate.”
Eight years ago, hundreds of people were arrested in clashes with police at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. Before the national conventions four years ago, expectations for protests ran high, as well, fanned by energy surrounding the Occupy movement and uprisings in the Middle East.
Purchin, who attended the conventions in 2012, likened the early atmosphere in Cleveland to the relative peace at the conventions in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., in 2012.
Beneath the surface, however, Purchin acknowledged anxiety running higher than before, with “big contingents on the right and left who really want to fight.”
“There’s just so much rage,” he said.