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'Perfect Storm' Encircles Republican Convention


People participate in a rally against racism, injustice and white supremacy, in Perk Park, before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

People participate in a rally against racism, injustice and white supremacy, in Perk Park, before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Black nationalists. White supremacists. Anarchists. Nuns concerned about social justice. Pretty much anyone with a cause, extreme and otherwise, seems to be headed to the northern U.S. city of Cleveland, Ohio, this week to protest at the Republican National Convention (RNC).

It's not unusual for national party conventions to attract a wide array of activists. But authorities fear this time the demonstrations could get out of hand, since it comes at a time when the U.S. is seemingly being dragged into a widening racial and political divide.

"You have a perfect storm of issues involving race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, immigration, and sexual orientation," said Errol Southers, who heads the Homegrown Violent Extremism program at the University of Southern California. "I've never seen so many issues come to a head in terms of being confrontational."

Fifty-thousand people are expected to converge on the Midwestern city for the four-day event that begins Monday.

Trump protests

Many are coming to Cleveland simply because they don't like Donald Trump, the highly polarizing candidate who is expected to emerge from the convention as the Republican presidential nominee.

Tom Burke is with the Coalition to Stop Trump and March on the RNC, an alliance of more than 40 groups holding protests against Trump's "racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attacks."

"I think it will go very peacefully and smoothly," Burke said. "I don't plan to be arrested. I'm not looking for a confrontation with the police. I just want to have a political rally."

But given the recent tumult in the country, many fear the protests could turn violent.

Trump supporters and opponents have repeatedly clashed outside the candidate's events in recent months. At times, Trump has encouraged, and even seemed to revel in, the fighting. He's even warned there could be riots if the convention doesn't go his way.

Cornel West, second from left, walks in a march against racism and injustice before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Cornel West, second from left, walks in a march against racism and injustice before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Extremist groups

The expected presence of extremist political groups from both sides of the political spectrum is also raising concerns.

White nationalists, who have been energized by Trump's candidacy, plan to attend the RNC. One such group, the Traditionalist Worker Party, said it will "defend" Trump supporters in Cleveland.

A coalition of white nationalist organizations had been planning a bigger, more organized presence at the RNC and hadplanned to come armed but have now backed off, according to Jeff Schoep, who leads the National Socialist Movement.

After discussing the matter internally, white nationalist leaders agreed to "abandon the idea and work on the next project," Schoep told VOA. "We're not going in, and we don't know of any groups that are."

But many self-declared white supremacists said they're planning to attend anyway.

"I'm pretty certain I'm going to go," said Arthur Jones, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who now heads the white supremacist America First Committee. "They're all going to descend down there, so it could get pretty rough."

Andre Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, a prominent white nationalist website, said many of his readers will also attend, though he hesitated to provide an estimate.

Army National Guard soldiers guard a communications facility, before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Army National Guard soldiers guard a communications facility, before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Guns allowed

Other groups are not only planning to attend, they're also planning to take advantage of Ohio's laws that will allow them to carry guns.

Under state law, protesters will be allowed to openly carry firearms without a permit within the outer ring of the convention zone, which is controlled by the city of Cleveland. (The inner ring is controlled by the Secret Service, which will prohibit weapons.)

Oath Keepers, a conservative group made up of current and former members of the military, says it will carry weapons into Cleveland, according to The New York Times.

The New Black Panther Party, a black nationalist group, told Reuters its members also will bring guns for self-defense. The New Black Panthers, which are modeled after the now-defunct 1960s black power organization, have in the past praised attacks on police.

The group's leader did condemn last week's killing of five police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas, which have heightened fears of racial violence.

Law enforcement plans

Over 300 officers from other jurisdictions, including many from the California Highway Patrol, are sworn in to have police powers in Cleveland, as preparations continue for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Over 300 officers from other jurisdictions, including many from the California Highway Patrol, are sworn in to have police powers in Cleveland, as preparations continue for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 16, 2016.

Cleveland police in the past have been criticized for their use of force, but they have promised to use restraint and will not deploy military-style equipment unless it is needed when dealing with convention protesters.

About 4,000 law enforcement officials, including many from across the country, are expected to patrol the area.

The trick will be for them to protect protesters' right to free speech, even while making sure things don't get out of hand, says Southers, the ex-FBI agent.

"This is what democracy is supposed to look like. We're supposed to have debates and disagree," he said. "But we only need one individual to engage in a violent act for it to be problematic."

(VOA's Michael O'Sullivan contributed to this report.)

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