Cleveland in 2016 looks almost nothing like the Chicago of 1968, when that convention city fell into what a federal commission later called a “police riot.”
There’s no belligerent Mayor Richard Daley at odds with Yippies and peaceniks, no draft to drive young Americans to the streets, no war on the scale of the U.S. fight in Vietnam. The Weathermen and other leftist militants have aged into oblivion.
Instead, this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland arrives at a time when the country is politically fractured once again and braced for conflict.
Yet angry Americans filling the streets of downtown Cleveland will come with fast-changing tactics aided by ever more powerful technology. They’ll run up against police bent on their own modernization. The cellphone, for instance, changes both the way a mob might form and cops can react.
Donald Trump brings his campaign — one marked with moments of violence — with warnings that denying him the nomination could spark riots.
The Black Lives Matter movement channels simmering racial frustration and distrust of police. The country’s conflicted feelings about immigration will be on display. The Occupy Wall Street campaign has faded, but outrage of the have-nots lives on.
“I’d like to think everything is going to be organized and nonviolent,” said Robert Beamer of Veterans for Peace in Cleveland. “But you never know.”
Meanwhile, the West finds itself under sporadic attack from terrorists sympathetic to the Islamic State who have struck California, Paris and Belgium in the last year. That anxiety will simmer through the GOP meeting in mid-July and the Democrats’ convention a week later in Philadelphia.
Unlike Chicago in ’68, or even World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in ’99, technology shifts the dynamics between police and demonstrators.
With a cellphone in every pocket, flash mobs can muster in little more time than it takes a pair of thumbs to bang out a text message. Protesters routinely train their iPhones and Androids on police to record their behavior.
Likewise, those same gadgets could reveal protesters’ plans to law enforcement in real time, could be used to measure and track crowd movements, or could be rendered mute by signal jamming.
Chicago officers had billy clubs. Police in Cleveland will sport retractable batons — just a more compact version of the same thing. They’ll also have tear gas, mounted officers, fire hoses, loudspeakers and other standbys used to corral crowds for decades.
The crowd-control toolbox has grown. While authorities in Cleveland remain coy about what devices they’ll deploy, the possibilities include sound cannons, microwaves that can make the skin painfully hot and guns or grenades that repel crowds with rubber pellets or beanbags.
“The catch is that crowd-control technologies don’t always work perfectly,” said Ben Brown, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who has studied the issue. “Sometimes you throw everything you’ve got and it doesn’t work.”
Convention of chaos?
Cleveland’s delegates may or may not nominate Trump. Either way, he figures to be the inspiration for protests.
Trump has drawn eager supporters by the thousands on short notice. The Cleveland convention gives them months to fit something Trump-centric into their schedules. If he is crowned the nominee, that could energize his opponents. If Trump is denied, his supporters outside the arena figure to boil with their own frustration.
He turbocharged his campaign with a hard-line immigration stance and calls for banning Muslim foreigners from the United States. That’s led some critics to cast him as racist and protesters to disrupt nearly every Trump rally on the trail. His national poll numbers show Americans either adore or hate him. Gallup finds nearly two-thirds of voters dislike him.
(Hillary Clinton is nearly as unpopular, feeding into the same sort of anxiety about conflicts at the Democratic convention.)
In Kansas City — one of the cities that lost the GOP convention bid to Cleveland — dozens of protesters outside a mid-March Trump downtown rally were pepper-sprayed by police when the crowd moved onto Main Street.
The Cleveland police already pose a flashpoint. The city saw protests last year when a Cleveland officer was acquitted in the shooting deaths of two unarmed black men. Tensions mounted when a grand jury declined to charge another officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was carrying what turned out to be a pellet gun. Meanwhile, the police department is in the midst of reforms overseen by federal justice officials following complaints of excessive force.
“There will be protests. It could be awful,” said Elizzabeth Schiros, an organizer with Cleveland Peace Action. “We’ve had some serious cases of police violence. There’s a lot of concern about that.”
Meanwhile, public/police tension plays out in convention preparation. Several liberal groups have demanded that the city be more clear about what it’s buying with the $50 million allotted from Washington for convention security.
Along with the retractable batons, the city is looking to outfit 2,000 officers in riot suits — hard shells for shoulders, elbows, shins and knuckles.
City officials have resisted talking about their crowd-control or security plans, fearing that doing so would help anyone aiming to stir trouble.
“We just do not discuss the tactical deployment for any kind of event, whether it’s a parade downtown or the Republican convention,” said Dan Williams, a spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson.
National political conventions are considered “national special security events,” which puts the Secret Service in charge. In practice, that means its agents will guard most posts inside the arena. The farther away from the convention, the more local police from Cleveland and surrounding cities will patrol in league with the Secret Service. Cleveland has 1,600 officers. Some 5,000-plus will be on hand for the convention.
The Secret Service is deliberately circumspect about its plans, saying only it “will create a safe and secure environment.”
Tough-guy approaches have lost favor among police in recent years. They prefer to mingle their forces among large protests rather than station them behind riot shields that might invite confrontation.
“Instead of using riot officers in Darth Vader outfits, we aim to be totally engaged with the crowd,” Deputy Police Chief Doug LePard of Vancouver wrote about the Canadian city’s handling of the 2010 Winter Olympics. “We were out there high-fiving, shaking hands, asking people how they’re doing. … This creates a psychological bonding with the crowd that pays real dividends.”
Still, that city doubled the number of officers on horses, added more motorcycles for escorts and at times found anarchists and other protesters heaving metal barricades and tossing out marbles to get under the hooves of the mounted patrols.
Gregg Etter worked in Kansas law enforcement for years and now teaches a crowd-control class as a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Missouri. He said working with protesters, rather than against them, can be key to keeping the peace. He’d often meet over coffee with opposing groups before a protest to make plans that would avoid them clashing violently.
Yet he said putting out too soft a front carries its own risks. When several officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1992, dozens of people died in the Los Angeles riots that followed. At least one mistake police made, Etter said, was not coming ready in riot gear.
“How long does it take to go back to the station and get staged and come back? Too long,” he said. “You have to be ready to go when things get bad.”
Perhaps nothing changed modern protesting quite like the cellphone. For starters, it means a video camera in every hand. That means that if somebody gets violent — cop, protester, counterdemonstrator, passer-by — someone is likely to get it on camera. Everyone making their way to downtown Cleveland or Philadelphia during the conventions knows that.
“The advent of the video camera on a cellphone has meant that it has been easier to show to the world what is going on,” said Kris Hermes, who chronicled protests at the 2000 Republican convention in the book “Crashing the Party.” “So people know what they’re doing will be recorded.”
Some have said that’s made police more careful to avoid excessive force. Others in the law enforcement world worry that it has created a “Ferguson effect” — officers becoming reluctant to use force when it’s needed for fear that they’ll be subject to lawsuits or criminal charges.
Phones also offer a powerful organizing force. Because they tap into the Internet, the handsets allow protesters to monitor Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. With apps such as Celly, protesters can form their own social networks on the fly.
“You hook in to be included in the next text mob,” said Alli McCracken, a co-director of the anti-war group CodePink. “You can have private ones and public ones. … You need everybody to meet at one spot in five minutes, and the word gets out instantly.
“Cellphones,” she said, “dramatically changed the protest game.”
Various protest groups in Cleveland insist they’re intent on keeping things peaceful. Having cellphones might help keep the calm.
“It could make it safer,” said Julia Shearson, executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s a way of telling people to avoid this or that area if things get bad.”
It’s not been a one-sided shift. Because cellphones are constantly sending and receiving messages to stay connected, they give police a way to track protesters. Researchers have shown that by using GPS signals, pings with cell towers or even Bluetooth signals, the size and movement of crowds can be tracked remotely. Looking at the movement of pilgrims on the hajj to Mecca, that tracking data can even show when a stampede might be forming in a crowd.
With a court order, authorities can set up mobile tracking devices to record cellphone numbers and even conversations over those devices. Called stingrays or swamp boxes, they can fit in a suitcase and put out stronger signals than nearby towers. The phone connects with the stingray instead of a Verizon, Sprint or AT&T tower.
Jamming devices, borrowed from military technology, could also be activated to erase the bars on everybody’s phone — disabling the ability of protesters to text or call one another.
Neither the Secret Service nor Cleveland authorities would say whether they would have the equipment on hand in July.
Whatever police or protesters bring to the streets, experts describe a delicate game that separates calm from chaos. Officers who don’t stand firm enough risk letting things get out of control. Aggressive police tactics can speed the way to bedlam.
“Police departments are getting more privy to what can happen in different scenarios,” said James Chriss, a sociology professor at Cleveland State University who has written about flash mobs and studies law enforcement. “But these things are unpredictable.”