GOP convention protesters united in complaints

William Douglas
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington – — The Republican National Convention is six weeks away, but clashes between Cleveland officials and protest groups already are breaking out over security and free speech.

Prospective demonstrators who oppose and support presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are united in complaints that their assigned location and times to protest will mean that they won’t be seen or heard at the July 18-21 downtown convention.

At least eight groups have sought protest permits, which could bring an estimated 40,000 participants to Cleveland’s streets.

Some groups are particularly incensed by a designated mile-long protest parade route located about a third of a mile from the Quicken Loans Arena, the convention site.

Protest groups with permits will have about 60 minutes to march between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on July 18, and between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. July 19-21 — hardly prime time for a convention.

“They’ve proposed this ridiculous march to nowhere that’s not within sight or sound of the arena,” said Tom Burke, a Grand Rapids resident who is organizing a “Coalition to Stop Trump” demonstration. “We know what our rights are.”

Protests have been following Trump along the campaign trail, sparking clashes between critics and supporters at his rallies, and raising the specter of fights outside the Cleveland convention.

Police in San Jose, Calif., came under criticism this week for its handling of such a dust-up. Videos circulating online show physical clashes occurring in front of San Jose police officers standing stoically in a line outside the convention center where Trump spoke. Critics also complained that assaults occurred on side streets near the venue that lacked police presence.

“Many of the attendees were attacked out in the open,” said Pete Constant, a former San Jose councilman and former police officer. “It appears that law enforcement was more focused on protecting private property.”

Trump called those who attacked his supporters Thursday night a “bunch of thugs.”

In Cleveland, city officials have designated two parks for protesters’ use. And a stage will be set up in Cleveland’s Public Square to allow individuals who register up to a half-hour to speak between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The designated parade route and permits are required only for people who want to march in a street, city officials said. Sidewalk demonstrations are allowed — just not in the secure zone immediately around the convention.

Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the protest rules and restrictions will have a chilling effect on the ability of demonstrators to exercise free speech during the convention.

Her organization has threatened to sue the city, accusing it of acting too slowly on protest permits.

“These folks can never be seen or heard by the delegates,” Link said. “No one is going to be in downtown Cleveland at 9 in the morning.”

City officials say their plans strike the proper balance between protecting convention attendees and securing free speech rights.

Questions about security and Cleveland’s preparedness emerged after Greensboro, N.C., and Cincinnati police said they weren’t sending officers to help with the convention.

“Anybody that wants to come to the city and let their voice be heard in a lawful manner, we’re here to assist them,” City of Cleveland Assistant Police Chief Edward Tomba said last week. “Anybody that goes sideways and is not following the law, there’s going to be consequences.”

The permit-seekers vary from Citizens for Trump — an umbrella organization of several pro-Trump groups — to the Coalition to Stop Trump to the People’s Fightback Center/March Against Racism, a group protesting police shootings in Cleveland.

Ralph King, the Cleveland Tea Party Patriots co-founder who is the local lead for the “Citizens for Trump” permit application, said the group is rethinking its convention plans.

“Not being in the vicinity of the delegates, right now what we’re looking at is: to what level do we want to hold the event?” King said.

He also called the protest parade route a recipe for disaster because groups for and against Trump will be quite close while waiting to march.

“You’re opening up your grandma or Aunt Mary to getting her head bust open,” he said. “It’s going to be chaos.”

Burke, who organized protests at Republican conventions in Tampa in 2012 and St. Paul in 2008, said his group might shun protest permits.

“We’ll have a family-friendly march with or without a permit — and within sight of the arena,” he said. “We plan on bringing out signs and sound system, and I suspect the police will treat us with respect.”

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans preparing for their conventions are hustling to hit fundraising targets that top $60 million apiece.

Organizers in Cleveland said this week they have raised $56 million of their $64 million goal.

In Philadelphia, where Democrats will gather July 25 to 28, former Gov. Ed Rendell said the host committee is about $9 million short of topping $60 million.

Rendell, the lead pitchman for the Philadelphia, points to several challenges facing both cities this year. For starters, Trump has pushed some corporate donors to sit out the election.

That’s in part because of a campaign by a coalition led by the liberal coalition Color Of Change seeking some major corporate sponsors — including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Google and AT&T — to steer clear of the GOP event, citing Trump’s divisive rhetoric.

Associated Press contributed.