Debra Miller drove 12 hours from Kansas City, Mo., looking forward to being part of a massive rally organized to show support Donald Trump.
Instead, she was one of fewer than 300 people gathered for a Citizens for Trump rally – well short of the thousands predicted by event organizers.
“I think a lot of people got scared away with open carry, Black Lives Matter, provocateurs,” Miller said. “I know I was a little hesitant to come here myself – but I’m not easily intimidated.”
Demonstrations did happen around the city, for and against Trump. But they were less attended than the tens of thousands of organizers that were anticipated and for which law enforcement was braced.
Still, it was only day one of what promises to be a political convention unlike any other – with the Republican Party’s soon-to-be standard bearer having both alienated and excited so many people with his bombastic rhetoric.
Many have predicted that this year’s politically volatile atmosphere; the recent spate of fatal shootings of law enforcement officers and minority citizens; deadly attacks and coup attempts abroad could cause chaos in Cleveland during the convention.
Ohio’s open carry gun law added another layer of concern with the head of Cleveland’s police union imploring Gov. John Kasich to at least suspend the law in Cuyahoga County during the convention. Kasich said he doesn’t have the power to overturn state or federal law.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, joined the call for temporarily halting open carry. BuzzFeed reported that Brown told the NAACP convention in Cincinnati Monday that “I know the governor could call a hurried special session, get the legislature to Columbus, like, tonight or tomorrow and do this.”
Christopher Cox, founder of Bikers for Trump, one of the groups that organized the waterfront rally, attributed Monday’s lean turnout to weather.
“We’ve got 500 bikers about an hour and a half from here, caught in thunderstorms,” he said.
Still, the small crowd didn’t shrink the enthusiasm for Trump – nor the disdain for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Some attendees wore “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts and a few had holstered firearms. Emmy Andersen, 30, made the drive from Seacoast, N.H., to the Cleveland rally to show her concern that “there’s something wrong with this country.”
“I don’t think I can vote for Hillary Clinton, I’ll never vote for a criminal,” she said. “I stand with the people and they’re standing behind Trump.”
Like Miller, Andersen was surprised by the rally’s low turnout Monday.
“I think fear played a lot into it,” she said. “I had a lot of family members urging me not to come because of violence.”
At the anti-Trump demonstration, a trio of Amnesty International workers kept a watchful eye for trouble, as did members of the D.C. Peace Team, a self-styled community nonviolence group.
“We want to try and diffuse any hostility that might erupt,” said Laurie Gagne, 60. “I’m not really worried. These are kids who are just speaking out. They just want fair treatment for minorities. … I know there are Bikers for Trump. That has me a little nervous.”
But at least on Monday, the opening gambit for four planned days of protest, cool heads largely prevailed.
An assortment of Trump protesters gathered in Cleveland’s Veteran’s Memorial Park under lowering skies. It was a multicolored quilt of ethnicity, race and religion, and an umbrella for a variety of causes: immigration, Black Lives Matter, MIAs, anti-nuclear weapons and more. Central to them all was antipathy toward Trump.
“I’m just here to show people who Muslims really are,” said 17-year-old Sondos Mishal, a high school senior and Muslim from Akron, Ohio. “They are not the monsters that Trump is making them out to be.”
There were students; families with small children; socialists – their T-shirts said so – the occasional prankster; a contingent from Code Pink, an all-female anti-war and social justice group; and others.
The scene near the convention hall was a scene of colorful signs and banners, insistent calls for change from the speakers and chants among the several hundred that provided a rhythmic cadence as the demonstrators embarked on a march through the downtown streets.
“No Trump, No KKK. No racist USA!”
Yellow-vested activists kept the group in line and a squad of black-clad police officers on black bicycles rode single-file along the edges to reinforce the formation, and possibly for protection as well.
At the pro-Trump rally, a small band of California Highway Patrol officers – on loan for convention security – casually walked through the waterfront park as supporters chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”
Dan O’Brien, a 58-year-old self-employed contractor from Mansfield, Ohio, marveled at how relatively peaceful Cleveland has been, given some of the dire safety predictions. But, he quickly added, “This is only the first day.”