John Penley knows a thing or two about protests. The 64-year-old New York–based activist, who said he was instrumental in the Occupy movement, has been to countless national political party conventions and once did a year behind bars for trespassing at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant as part of a demonstration. In a 2008 profile of Penley, the New York Post called him the "unofficial leader of what is known as the East Village 'slacktivist' movement." He's a seasoned pain in the ass with two gold teeth, a bevy of tattoos, and what he calls "a lot of experience in this sort of stuff."
But Penley, who plans to travel to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention this July, said he has never seen a municipality so ill-prepared for an influx of protestors. "It's just been the most frustrating, hardest to deal with permit application process I have ever been a part of," Penley told VICE. "I think they're in over their heads."
Some groups or individuals that have applied for permission to protest with the city have waited almost four months for a response. Meanwhile, those who are approved will then only be able to apply for 18 time slots that will be granted throughout the four-day event. Each group will only get to use the officially designated parade route space for an hour at a time, according to the permit application.
What's more, Penley said that rabble-rousers of every stripe––whether they're free-loving hippies who belong to the Rainbow Family or emissaries from the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church––will be confined to a small area, out of sight from the Republican convention-goers they plan to protest.
Cleveland's strategy for handling the expected flood of convention demonstrators is drawing so much flak that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the city Tuesday after weeks of back-and-forth with local officials who ultimately declined to amend the original plan.
"The parade route barely deserves the name 'parade' it's so small," said Chris Link, executive director of the ALCU's Ohio chapter. "It launches over in the west side of the city, goes over a bridge, and ends in an industrial wasteland."
The ACLU suit is representing three groups–– grassroots organizations Citizens for Trump and Organize Ohio, and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. It's a move Link said was deliberate, to show that the city's current proposal is harmful to protesters across the political spectrum. Cleveland officials won't guess how many protestors the convention will turn out, but the city of Tampa, Florida, expected 15,000 protestors at the 2012 RNC, which turned out to be a great overestimation. Then again, Trump has shown a unique ability to get supporters and detractors alike out into the streets.
Michael Freilinger is a Trump supporter from Peoria, Illinois, who had applied for a permit to march outside the RNC back when it looked like the GOP might try to steal the nomination from his candidate at a contested convention. Freilinger has since decided not to go to Cleveland, but he told me he agrees with Penley and the ACLU that the city's current plan is disastrous.
"I think it's a mistake, and I think it will be successfully challenged, and they'll have to scramble to make changes before the event," he said over the phone. "They've got enough police and riot equipment and money from the federal government that they could have figured out a way that the delegates could see the protestors and keep the two groups separated so that there wouldn't be any violence."
A federal spending bill passed in December granted Cleveland $50 million to pay for outside police and surveillance in anticipation of the RNC–––the same amount doled out to Philadelphia, which will host the Democratic National Convention later in July.
Penley's biggest fear is that the city's current setup will incite violence among the demonstrators. Ohio is an open-carry state, which has him worried about the idea of putting armed pro-Trump supporters and beatniks in a small, sequestered area. If fighting does break out, Penley said, it will only look good for Trump––which is exactly the outcome he and other liberal protesters don't want. He added that the city has designated a 3.3-mile event zone around the convention arena, which means protesters won't be able to sleep there. Nearly all of the hotel rooms in Cleveland were booked well over a year ago.
"There is a good possibility of a massive amount of conflict at both conventions," he said. "I'm just worried the first day of the convention there's gonna be a mass round up of protesters, and I am gonna be the first one to go because I've pissed them off."
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