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Why the Republican Convention Could Get Dangerous

Angry protesters encamped together, armed fringe groups, militarized police, and a presidential candidate known for inflammatory rhetoric—what could go wrong?

by Allie Conti
Jul 15 2016, 6:58pm

Inside Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, where the Republican National Convention will take place (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On July 18, the Republican National Convention will kick off, as the Republican Party—along with tens of thousands of its closest friends and angriest enemies—will officially take over a chunk of Cleveland. In a normal year, the prospect of hosting a convention would be daunting, but the 2016 campaign cycle, marked by more chaos and anger than any in recent memory, has many wondering if the authorities have a chance in hell of keeping the peace.

Restrictions on where and when protesters could march led the ACLU to file a lawsuit last month on behalf of both pro- and anti-Trump factions. Even though the official parade route was expanded and protesters are now being allowed to camp in a city park, critics are currently complaining that the impromptu campground won't be segregated by political faction. They say people who have caravanned from the annual Rainbow Gathering in Vermont will be sleeping next to white supremacists who will be sharing bathrooms with Black Lives Matter folks who will be in close quarters with Bikers for Trump.

"Either the city doesn't know what they fuck they're doing, or they're planning on making most marches illegal and doing mass arrests on the first day of protesting," John Penley, a 64-year-old liberal activist currently in Cleveland, told VICE. "Because they have both sides still using protest-approved parks and offered to let both sides legally camp in the same park makes me think they are still trying to provoke trouble in order to make arrests."

Adding to the chaos is the fact that Ohio is an open-carry state, meaning there will likely be guns, lots of them, being worn in public. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified two extremist groups known for their affinity for guns––the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) and the Oath Keepers––that will be attending.

In an interview with Reuters published on Wednesday, the NBPP chairman, Hashim Nzinga, said that his group, a marginalized but radical black-power organization, would come bearing arms. However, he later clarified on Twitter that he hasn't told anyone to bring guns and any members who did have guns would only have them for self-defense purposes.

The Oath Keepers, a right-wing group that largely consists of ex-military and law enforcement types, have a history of showing up to protests armed, and have said they plan to provide backup for the police at the RNC.

Given that two hate groups with opposing viewpoints will be armed and cramped in close quarters is a recipe for disaster, said activist Penley.

Cleveland has prepared for the event by buying things like new body armor and batons for police, which it can afford thanks to a $50 million federal grant. But the department may be extra careful in using force on protesters, because of restrictions placed on the cops by the Department of Justice in the aftermath of the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

"I think the CPD will be extremely cautious in responding to potentially violent conflict given the DOJ's findings of excessive and deadly use of force," said Ronnie A. Dunn, a professor of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. "Keep in mind, however, while the CPD is the host law enforcement agency, and if things go bad it will negatively reflect on them, the Secret Service is the lead agency for the RNC."

No one—not the cops, not the vast majority of protesters, not the Republican Party itself—wants things to go bad. But if enough angry people are squeezed into a small enough space, it's hard to predict what will happen.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

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