Monday, July 18, 2016

Eye of the Storm

Cleveland, Ohio is the epicenter of the political world this week as the Republican Party (or part of it) comes to town to confirm demagogue Donald Trump as its nominee for President.

My application to the Republican National Convention for credentials to get inside the secured spaces was rejected. I didn't take it personally; there will be roughly 15,000 media in town and lots of them won't be inside the arena either. US political conventions are perhaps the most widely covered spectacles outside the Olympics. But you have your choice of national media for what will happen inside the major venues. Our coverage will focus on local impact from a ground level.

Officer directing me out of his path of travel
I went downtown yesterday afternoon to get a sense of the area's vibe and the security preparations for the convention. I was coming from around 86th and Hough, a scant few blocks east of 79th and Hough where, fifty years ago, the city's black residents exploded in paroxysms of rage against the inhumane conditions of overcrowded, substandard housing to which they had been relegated by intentional public policies of segregation and neglect. Scars from the killing, burning and military occupation that followed can still be seen half a century later -- even as new community self-regeneration occurs, remarkably, cheek by jowl to the still-present desolation -- as we headed west a few miles to downtown. Staying off the main streets, we got all the way down to east Ninth and Chester before encountering more than minimal traffic or any significant number of pedestrians.

Everything changed at that point. Heavy black fencing, maybe ten feet high divides the wide north south thoroughfare. A medley of security forces -- Cleveland cops, Secret Service details (plainly market in black combat vests) among them -- congregated there.

Aware of the tension in the air these days -- further horrific news had come out of Baton Rouge only hours earlier of the senseless murder of three police officers -- I approached one of the uniforms to ascertain the ground rules. I was reasonably well dressed, having just come from interviewing two bright and highly articulate black women attorneys about their Republican Party membership. I was also carrying a miniature shoulder bag with my reporting tools and other gear and wanted in no way to raise the apprehensions of these security personnel, even though they appeared not to have noticed me at all, the five or so them being preoccupied in conversation with one another or directing traffic.

The Secret Service guy was disarming in his amiability. I could go pretty much anywhere, he said, not clearly prohibited by the traffic barriers. I let down my guard at that point, and my curiosity rose. Cleveland’s my town, and I wanted to see what had been done in preparation. I turned south and went up to Euclid and Ninth, once the city’s financial heart where the bankers and white-shoe lawyers who once ran the town were all headquartered. The former Huntington Bank Building, which sits on the northwest corner, rises 21 stories and is reportedly the largest horizontal office building in the USA after the Pentagon.

As I headed west on Euclid towards East 4th Street — Cleveland’s one block version of Bourbon St. — and Public Square, several sirens began to wail, coming up Ninth St. and turning east on Euclid. Understandably, this seemed to provoke more than the normal interest of passersby, who were increasing in number as they moved up and down Euclid, Cleveland’s dominant thoroughfare, connecting downtown to University Circle about 4 miles away. But sensing no danger, I continued along Euclid along increasingly busy sidewalks.
Joy Reid [back to camera] and Chuck Todd on MSNBC East Fourth Street set

Arriving at East Fourth, I seemed to be in a new city. MSNBC has erected two temporary studios on the east side of the block. In short order I saw TV host Joy Reid entering the makeshift studio to join Chuck Todd of Meet the Press. I recognized Washington Post reporter and cable talking head Dan Balz walking down the street, looking for all the world like an ordinary Clevelander. For some reason I called out his name; he turned and looked and me, and after a moment, said hello and kept going.

East Fourth seemed mostly filled with natives, there for a drink or just to take in the spectacle. But there were a number of conventioneers and out-of-town media, recognizable from their convention I.D. tags. I could make out no conventioneers of color.

The ordinariness of it all is what struck me the most, as I headed down Prospect and then through Public Square. I decided to walk up Ontario St. to check out the new Hilton Hotel, built with public funds. Although the sidewalks were much less busy, the security presence was much greater, as I saw mounted police, military forces [probably National Guard], and a SWAT team. Ohio State Troopers were also in evidence around the Square. Most of these forces seemed to be socializing with each other when they weren’t moving as a unit from one spot to another. I felt no tension anywhere, notwithstanding the morning attack in Baton Rouge. I saw no protesters, save for a lone spokesman manning a sign calling for support of the Kurdish struggle.

I was taken aback a bit as I prepared to enter the Hilton and was greeted by this sign:

I did not find such inhospitality at any of the other hotel lobbies I passed or entered, including the Drury, which I was scouting for an old college chum who plans to pass through town sometime this fall. I can’t say I was charmed by what they’ve done with the lobby. All that marble seemed austere. [Note: the marble isn’t new. The Drury, which opened earlier this year, is a conversion of the old Cleveland Board of Education building. I did see an efficient, welcoming and hard-working staff in operation.]
Akron SWAT team members in University Circle

I circled back through the mostly empty [as always] Arcade, a building that every visitor should experience, before taking the Healthline back uptown. When I got to University Circle, I saw a SWAT team and a police squad from Akron, perhaps returning from dinner somewhere on the Case campus. They were likely a few of the nearly 2000-person security contingent being housed on campus this week, a situation that produced such angst within the University community that the school has closed until the Convention is over.

Akron police in University Circle
Despite the extraordinary security precautions and momentous action about to be taken by the GOP this week, overall I sensed neither great drama nor tension. Perhaps it was the calm before the storm.

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