CLEVELAND, Ohio -- More than most presidential elections, the 2016 race has been driven by arguments over immigration policy, largely because Donald Trump, expected to win the Republican presidential nomination this week, has made border security, the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, and the threat of terrorism a central part of his campaign.
In Cleveland, the site of the GOP convention that starts today, two men who came to the United States as immigrants joined thousands of law enforcement officers, convention-goers and locals on the streets Sunday afternoon in a city that felt oddly both giddy and on edge.
Recent shootings of multiple law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas, the long string of African American men killed unnecessarily by police, promises to show up armed in Cleveland by gun rights advocates both supporting Trump and opposing him, had created the potential, if not the guarantee, of violence.
Hoping to prevent that, 80-year-old retired psychotherapist Yusif Barakat stood at a trolley stop in the middle of Euclid Avenue. Thin and bearded, he wore a skullcap and a bright yellow vest with the words “Peace Team” on the front. Others in the same vest milled around. There were 15 of them, he said, mostly from Michigan, where Barakat lives, outside Detroit.
“I am originally from Palestine,” he said. “I became a refugee when I was 12 years old.”
Barakat said that his group, whose members have been trained to help de-escalate potentially violent situations, had come to Cleveland with the aim of physically inserting themselves into the expected protests, using their own bodies “to maintain a presence between factions, so that they can say whatever they want, as long as there’s no violence.”
“The police know we’re here, and we’re supposed to have armbands when we get to the location,” Barakat said.
Asked what protesters he was expecting, he appeared to genuinely have no idea -- or care very much.
“Who knows?” he said. “They could be the gun holders for Trump, they could be a lot of people against Trump.”
The point was to prevent things from getting out of control. “The consciousness of America is one of violence, because we grew up that way.... We personally believe in non-violence and we try to maintain that.”
Half a mile away, wearing mirrored sunglasses and a red “Make America Great Again” hat, artist Julian Raven stood in Cleveland’s Public Square. He was propping up an eight-foot long copy of his much larger painting “Unafraid and Unashamed,” which he has been showing across the country as part of a pro-Trump pilgrimage.
The painting (the original is 15 feet long and 7 feet high) is dominated by a stern-looking portrait of Trump, set next to a bald eagle with a billowing American flag in its talons, flying above the earth as the sun rises on North America.
Born in London and raised in Spain, Raven now lives and works in Elmira, NY. He is a convert to evangelical Christianity, who came to the US in the 1990s and only recently became an American citizen.
But he doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about others taking the same path. He spoke strongly in favor of Trump’s plan to crack down on illegal immigrants, as he handed out flyers promoting his tour and his work.
As black and white children played together in square’s central fountain and people of all races sat and enjoyed a sunny afternoon in the calm before the storm of the Republican convention, Raven leaned over the top of his painting. He flashed a thumbs-up at a photographer, and chanted, “Build that wall! Build that Wall!”