Erika D. Smith

Bracing for chaos in Cleveland

Demonstrators march during a “Shut Down Trump & the RNC” protest Sunday in Cleveland.
Demonstrators march during a “Shut Down Trump & the RNC” protest Sunday in Cleveland. The Associated Press

When delegates arrive for the first day of the Republican National Convention, they’ll have no doubts about where to go. Quicken Loans Arena is plastered in a gaudy array of cutesy elephants and red, white and blue banners.

It stands in stark contrast to the mammoth, black-and-white mural of LeBron James directly across the street. His head is tilted back, his arms are spread wide.

For Californians, I know, this sight represents little more than an embarrassing memory, a disastrous NBA Finals that Golden State Warriors fans are eager to forget. But for Clevelanders, it represents a fleeting moment when people – black and white, civilians and police – managed to put aside their differences and bask in community unity.

Such times are all too rare in Cleveland, a city surrounded by dozens of suburbs that were built along deepening national fault lines of racial inequity. My hometown is no stranger to questionable police shootings, racial profiling, charges of police intimidation and protests.

In fact, Cleveland has the dubious distinction of being the first city in the country to host a political convention with its Police Department under a consent decree from the federal government for civil rights violations against black residents.

Just think about that for a second.

It’s in this environment that Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, two of the most divisive politicians in modern history, will become leaders of the Republican Party in a series of cloistered ceremonies inside a very patriotic Quicken Loans Arena.

I can feel peace and unity being displaced, moment by moment, by anger and division in my hometown.

In the coming days, protesters from all over the country will descend upon downtown Cleveland. The days of marches and speeches are likely to be tinged by racial discord, with chapters of Black Lives Matter vowing to show up, along with white nationalists and everyone in between.

Many protesters will come to oppose Trump, denouncing his plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico, ban Muslims and “make America great again,” which sounds a lot like “make America great again for angry, old, straight white men.”

Others are coming to support the presumptive nominee and Pence, the governor of Indiana best known for signing a law that legalized religious-based discrimination against gay people.

Some protesters will shoot hateful words at the police officers who are there to guard against violence. Some will carry actual loaded weapons, even though Cleveland’s police union on Sunday fervently pushed for a temporary suspension of the open carry law that Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he was powerless to change.

Officers, clad in riot gear, will undoubtedly be worried for their own safety.

On Sunday, a black man named Gavin Long killed at least three officers in an ambush less than a mile from the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana. It’s the same city where two white officers killed a black man, Alton Sterling, in a questionable encounter that was caught on video earlier this month.

“These are attacks on public servants, on the rule of law, and on a civilized society, and they have to stop,” President Barack Obama said. But his words come in the wake of the deaths of five officers killed by a sniper during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter rally to protest the deaths of Sterling and Philandro Castile, another black man who was killed by police in Minnesota.

Cleveland officials, with the help of the Secret Service and Homeland Security, say they’re ready if protests turn violent. Others aren’t so sure. In typical Clevelander fashion, most people here are pessimistically optimistic. I brought a helmet – you know, just in case.

There are good reasons to worry.

A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 63 percent of Americans say race relations are in bad shape, up from the 48 percent who said as much in another poll taken in the spring. The increase is driven by white Republicans and independents – in other words, Trump supporters.

The numbers aren’t surprising given the high-profile shootings of police officers and black men lately. Such cases have gripped Cleveland multiple times in the past few years.

The one most people know about is Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black boy who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun in a west-side Cleveland park. The officers responsible were cleared, raising serious questions about what passes for ethical police work.

But less well known was a 2012 case stemming from the backfire of a car engine. That sound, from the car of a black couple, caught the attention of Cleveland police, who engaged in a 22-minute chase across two cities before killing the unarmed, homeless couple in a crush of 137 bullets.

Some 60 cruisers and nearly 100 officers were involved. One fired 49 bullets, some while standing on the hood of the couple’s car. The officer, Michael Brelo, said he feared for his life. He was fired, but was acquitted of manslaughter.

This case is what got the U.S. Justice Department involved and led to the consent decree. Federal investigators issued a scathing report, detailing how Cleveland officers regularly used excessive force on black and mentally ill suspects, and had an ineffective process for handling complaints.

To say things have been tense here since would be an understatement. So the Republican National Convention will likely present a test of leadership for Trump, who calls Black Lives Matter “a threat,” and for Pence, who loves to pretend that race relations don’t matter.

If protest becomes violent, will they ignore it? Will they remain hidden in their gun-free zone inside Quicken Loans Arena, extolling the Second Amendment and praising the National Rifle Association?

Or will they, as Trump has so often done, throw gasoline on an already raging fire by resorting to divisive rhetoric? Or will they come outside and actually lead?

Like it or not, this country is divided about race relations and policing, and the issue isn’t abating. Trump and Pence say they want to lead the country from the White House; that means they must show voters how they plan to deal with this.

It’s just a shame that it has to play out on the streets of my beloved Cleveland. Prayers for The Land.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith