Genevieve Walters wasn’t looking for violence but would have welcomed it.
Walters was among 100 protesters outside the Richmond Coliseum who angrily chanted expletives, stared down police and taunted supporters of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as they entered the arena for a rally last month.
As the protest shifted to the city’s streets, Walters tugged on a bandanna soaked with apple cider vinegar – an anti-tear-gas tool straight from the protester’s handbook – hoping that things would turn more confrontational.
“Historically, the only thing that has stopped fascism is violence,” said Walters, 28, a Richmond massage therapist. “It’s the only thing that stands up to fascism. Trump’s a fascist. He’s a bigot. He’s a hawk. So fight, like, blow back.”
As the Republican National Convention approaches, several security experts, convention attendees and even the prospective protesters fear that Cleveland might erupt into violence reminiscent of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where an estimated 10,000 protesters showed up to oppose the Vietnam War. Confrontations ensued between police and protesters that left hundreds injured and resulted in nearly 600 arrests.
“There’s a potential for that to happen,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center. “There’s a lot of agitation on both sides.”
A turbulent political season fueled by the unpredictability of Trump supporters and opponents already has resulted in violent clashes at campaign events in San Jose and Burlingame, California, Chicago and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Cleveland government and law enforcement officials insist they’re ready to host the 50,000 convention visitors, 15,000 media members and thousands of protesters expected to descend on the city and keep them safe. The city has sought to triple the size of its 1,600-member police force by recruiting officers from Ohio and other states.
Cleveland will be adequately staffed, Police Chief Calvin Williams wrote in an open letter on the department’s website and Facebook page Wednesday. “Our officers have trained with many partnering agencies at the local, state and federal level to ensure that the highest safety standards are maintained.”
The city’s municipal court is clearing jail space to process up to 1,000 people per day, Cleveland.com reported. Government officials increased Cleveland’s liability coverage from $10 million to $50 million to better protect it against damage from protests or other potentially violent acts.
“Given the climate nationally and internationally, the risk assessment was higher than it’s been for other conventions,” Cleveland Finance Director Sharon Dumas told The Associated Press last week.
City officials had initially planned a massive, 3.5-mile “event zone” zone with restrictions on protests and parades that would have made demonstrations near the Quicken Loans Arena — the site of the convention — nearly invisible to conventioneers.
But the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of pro- and anti-Trump groups. The ACLU and the city reached a settlement last week that reduced the perimeter to 1.7 square miles, giving more room to demonstrators and expanding a parade route for marching in downtown areas.
The plan also increases times between protests, which pro- and anti-Trump groups say will help decrease the likelihood of confrontations.
Police and FBI agents visited several Cleveland-area activists last month who plan to demonstrate during the July 18-21 convention, to gauge what to expect.
“We expect it to be peaceful; we don’t expect to get arrested,” said Randy Cunningham, a 66-year-old local anti-poverty activist who was interviewed by Cleveland police detectives. “But anytime you get a protest, something could go squirrelly. All these people are going to be coming in, and they’ve got their own agenda.”
John Penley, a veteran convention protester and Occupy Wall Street demonstrator from Asheville, North Carolina, fears that the chance for violence remains high.
“I think it’s a similar climate to 1968, when people were beating each other up over the Vietnam War,” said Penley, 64, who wants to hold a peaceful demonstration in a Cleveland park. “This will be unlike and more scary and dangerous than any convention I’ve been to.”
Among those who have received permits to demonstrate in Cleveland: the groups Stand Together Against Trump, Code Pink Women for Peace and the controversial Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, whose members picket at military funerals, saying the deaths reflect God’s wrath for the tolerance of homosexuality.
They are doing exactly what happened in the 1960s that got Nixon elected. They’re shooting themselves in the foot.
Zack Rienerth, 24, of Richmond on violent anti-Trump protesters
Several more are expected to protest in Cleveland without permits, according to Christine Link, executive director of the Ohio ACLU.
“Part of it is they think, ‘I don’t need a stinking permit,’ and part of it is the element of surprise,” Link said. “The challenge is it’s a bigger variety of protesters.”
A group of white nationalists and skinheads who held a rally in Sacramento, California, last week where at least five people were stabbed say they’ll be in Cleveland. Matt Parrott, a spokesman for the Traditionalist Workers Party, told McClatchy last week that about 30 members will defend Trump supporters “from the leftist thugs.”
Trump has blamed violence at his events on supporters of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“And by the way, these are professional agitators, folks,” Trump said of a protest by members of Code Pink outside the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington last month. “They’re sent here by the other party, believe me.”
If Cleveland devolves into violence, it will be Trump’s fault, anti-Trump protesters say. His rhetoric criticizing immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims and his remarks about women have inflamed the passions of people who say they can’t stand idly by as he is nominated for president – and perhaps wins the White House.
We want our message to be seen by the outside world. We don’t want our message to be chaos.
Susan Schnur, a Republican National Convention anti-Trump protest organizer
“When people get riled up, when people have had enough, that’s when they get aggressive,” said Tiffany Tucker, 33, who protested outside the Richmond Coliseum last month. “It’s not a good thing. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m scared for us if he’s president. So I can understand when you’re fed up and enough is enough.”
Evan Sandlin, who attended a nonviolent anti-Trump rally in Sacramento last month, agreed.
“I think the grievances are obviously legitimate,” said Sandlin, 26, a University of California-Davis political science graduate student. “Most of the protesters, it seems, in San Jose, many of them were of Hispanic origin, and this is a candidate that has basically said he’s going to deport their family or people that they know. So I see the violence as based off of a real intense fear of this candidate.”
That spawns a justification of sorts, said Brookings’ West. “They think it’s bad behavior for a good cause.”