Despite an enormous field of candidates, despite divisive opinions, despite venomous debates and despite controversy upon controversy, Donald Trump was the last man standing and was set to be officially named the Republican presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
The stage was set for a showdown. Within the Republican party itself, there were so many voices of dissent over the impending nomination that there was talk of total revolt. Outside the party, the American left were up in arms that the object of their despise was set to be one step away from potentially taking the White House in the coming November election. They were determined to somehow put a stop to it. Meanwhile, masses of Trump's supporters were talking of showing up in to Cleveland in droves to ensure that their preferred candidate got what was rightfully his. Many asserted that they planned on taking advantage of Ohio's open carry laws and arrive armed and willing if it meant protecting the event and Trump's nomination from being overrun by liberals. With all this talk, police officers from around the country were flying in to assist local departments in handling the predicted shit show. At the last minute, I decided I should be there too.
I made the drive out to Cleveland from New York on a Saturday, two days before the official commencement of the convention. It's a ten hour drive and doing it alone as I did, it's ten hours to think. The main thing occupying my mind was how to work effectively and safely on what could become a huge story. The city had installed a large fence surrounding the downtown area where most of the protests were scheduled. Banned from it were backpacks and unauthorized vehicles. Lists had been circulated amongst members of the press in the weeks leading up to the event on the type of protective gear recommended to keep us safe as we worked. A gas mask, a sturdy helmet, a kevlar vest, eye protection and hand protection were amongst other things to consider. I had most of it with me and in my head tried to strategize how to carry it all along with the necessary cameras and laptop, yet without a backpack to store it in.
I rolled into town late in the day and met a group of journalists I'd arranged to stay with. We took a drive around Cleveland and it was actually quite pretty in a lot of areas. Over dinner we cross checked what we'd heard about the coming week's demonstrations, then figured we go to the source. The city had approved a park to accommodate the droves of protesters expected to come to Cleveland and camp for the week
Decently sized, it was located on the edge of the city, between a freeway and a train track, and it was completely empty. The only sign that we were in the right place was a long row of porta-potties lining the empty parking lot. There wasn't a tent in sight. We triple checked that we were in the right spot but then figured it was two days early so perhaps it would be better to return on Monday when the park would be more alive.
Sunday I woke early. My air mattress had almost completely deflated in the night and my back ached. We slowly piled into our cars and made our way to the first listed action for the week. With each issue seemingly choosing a political side in the increasingly divided nation, the planned "Second Amendment" rally was to be a display of constitutional rights, open carry laws and support for the pro NRA Republican, Donald Trump. It was scheduled in Cleveland's Public Square. Attendees were requested to arrive at midday carrying firearms in defiance of the Democrats they suspected of wanting to take them away.
We parked outside a bar with ample space a few blocks from the edge of the city's aforementioned secure area then walked in. We agreed it was best to test the backpack rule we'd heard about and were waved through by secret service with barely a glance, then continued to the large Public Square, a four block area of newly installed grassy lawns and flat concrete obviously designed to be a multi-purpose type public space.
A large number of police lined the square on mountain bikes under the warming midday sun. Beyond that awaited many familiar faces where our media colleagues had already started to gather. We welcomed each other with high spirits. Time clicked by and once we'd all said our hello's, we started to wonder where the anticipated demonstrators were. I had a feeling that it wouldn't turn into total chaos of a civilian militia overrunning the square, but I also figured at least a small number of people would show. Finally word spread that on the edge of the crowd, an armed protester had arrived. I walked over to take a look and saw a man with a large rifle strapped to his back already surrounded by members of the press. Cameras clicked and TV reporters pushed microphones towards him. I lined up with them to get a frame. It was an awful shot and after a few minutes I vacated the scrum only to have my spot taken by a photographer with the same intentions. And that was it. One guy with a gun and hordes of media surrounding him. It wasn't a great start. I had no idea that this was a preview to the rest of the week.
Monday was the official start of the convention. Again, we carefully picked which demonstrations to attend but again much with the same result. With my planned coverage for day one focusing on Pro-Trump people, I bounced between a few rallies, all quite low key. Public Square was rumored to be filling up and a lot of friends were there so I went to take a look. I was greeted by a circus. A mass of police and media, a small but loud group of right wing evangelists, a smattering of anarchists as well as occasional curious locals coming to see what their typically quiet city had been turned into. People with opposing bullhorns and opinions tried to shout over one and other creating a static hum in the air. As soon as any type of heated debate took place between two people, cameras would swarm hoping to capture the first spark that started the fire all were sure was about to combust.
I took to the top of the square to get some shade and take the scene in. As I scanned the area, the entire crowd started sliding toward the opposite side of the square in an excited exodus. I ran with it, sprinting through the herd of hippies clutching signs and the photographers in a huffing sweat and the TV camera men with their gear bouncing on their shoulder until I reached the front to see what was causing it. The whole commotion had been set off by a group of, at most, ten anarchists all dressed in black running through the street with fists in the air with police flanking them on push bikes. "This is why we're running? Why are we chasing this??" was all I could yell as I kept running along and chasing it. I was able to turn and quickly take a frame before maintaining the chase.
We were led by them for over an hour. A game of many hungry cats and a small group of mice. On occasion there were stand offs, but as soon as the crowd came to a halt, the small numbers of protesters were swallowed by the massive numbers of media and police. Any time that anything resembling a photo appeared in the mess, we piled on top of each other trying to get a frame and cursing and spitting as we went not even noticing that the protester had fled and the police and media were facing off against each other, cop bikes flailing and cameras clicking. Eventually, the protest made it to an RNC event as cowboy hatted republicans were lining up to enter it. Sensing the possibility of an actual conflict, police flexed their muscles and warned that arrests were imminent. Just like that, the protest vanished.
The following days were almost identical. Park the car in the same lot beside the bar, walk to the public square, cross check information on what demonstrations were planned, attend a chosen demonstration only to be somewhat disapointed with the turn out, return to the public square, eat well at night. By day three it was obvious that anything resembling mass chaos in the streets was not to be.
On the final day, we pulled into our regular parking lot. A few of the bar employees we'd seen starting their shift as we arrived each day asked me if I wanted to join them inside for a drink for once, instead of just parking and running. It was midday and obviously I wasn't going to miss any kind of action in the square. I figured why the hell not.
I sat at the corner of the bar. They introduced themselves and I told them what I did, where I was from and why I'd come to Cleveland. I explained that we'd all expected something a few levels down from armageddon to have unfolded by now on the streets of their town, but due to a mixture of good policing, apathy and an inconveniently located city, Cleveland would live to see another day. The most forthright bar girl spoke up. "We were all really scared about that actually. Cleveland went through such a rough time for the longest period and we all feel like it's really getting on it's feet again. The last thing we wanted was for it all to be ruined by a huge number of outsiders coming into our city and turning it into a war zone." I started into my beer as her words sunk in. As much as some won't admit it, people came to cover the protests hoping for some kind of carnage. Once we'd got it, we'd skip town with our images and stories, all leaving the mess for the locals to deal with. Words of wisdom from across the bar. It was like an old Hollywood film. Play it again, Sam.
The final day was slow and as night fell, large screens through the city showed Donald Trump inside the Quickens Loans Arena being crowned as the Grand Old Party's chosen one. Police gathered for what might be one final attempt at a revolution but by then, almost every demonstrator had already left town.