CLEVELAND, Ohio -- On the Sunday afternoon before the opening of the Republican Party’s 2016 convention in Cleveland, the mood in this city, packed with thousands of conventioneers and state and federal law enforcement officials, was notably subdued.
Around lunchtime, news began circulating among officers drawn from both local sheriff’s departments and from as far away as California that three police officers had been fatally shot and another three were seriously wounded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The attack came just 10 days after an attack in Dallas that killed five police officers and wounded nine others.
On Sunday, the potential for more violence in Cleveland was plainly on the minds of officers standing on downtown streets, sometimes in groups of dozens or more. Even before the attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the city had already been expecting protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and from pro-Trump groups. Many had pledged to show up toting firearms, as Ohio’s liberal “open carry” laws allow.
The Cleveland Police Department’s union on Sunday called on Ohio Gov. John Kasich to declare a state of emergency and suspend the state’s open carry rights for the duration of the convention. But by mid-afternoon Kasich, himself a former opponent of Trump’s in the Republican primary, had demurred.
“Law enforcement is a noble, essential calling and we all grieve that we've again seen attacks on officers,” a Kasich spokesperson said. But. “Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws as suggested.”
At around 3 p.m. Sunday, dozens of officers from the Cleveland Police Department gathered in Public Square, the plaza that has been at the heart of the city since it was first laid out in the 1790s. Centered on a 125-foot tall memorial to local soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War, the square only just reopened after a massive revitalization project. Children played in a fountain, and passersby sat in an outdoor cafe, or lounged on long rows of stone steps in the shadow of the Tower City Center. A few hundred yards away, massive snowplows had been parked across major intersections to block vehicles from entering an area where protesters were expected to gather.
Cops sat together in groups around the square.
Slideshow: Cleveland on the Eve of the Convention
If the protests spin out of control, would this be where it would happen? A young officer nodded in partial agreement. “The higher-ups, they’re the ones who really know,” he said. “They don’t tell us anything. They just tell us to go somewhere, and ten minutes later, we’re there.”
Had he heard about Baton Rouge?
“Yeah,” he said, nodding grimly.
A police sergeant stationed nearby, who wore a black ribbon across his badge, expressed similar frustration about not knowing what would happen during the week of the convention. “We’re just patrolmen,” he said, shaking his head. “They don’t tell us anything. Need-to-know only.”
Another sergeant, sitting near the war memorial, said that Cleveland wasn’t a stranger to major events. Just a month ago, when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the National Basketball Association championship, 1.3 million fans had pressed into the downtown area for a victory parade that, the sergeant recalled, had been fun and peaceful.
But that wasn’t what he was expecting this week.
Had he heard about Baton Rouge?
“Yeah,” he said, looking away. “I heard about it.”
The grim faces of many of the law enforcement officers downtown struck an odd contrast with giddy convention-goers wandering the streets.
A husband and wife from Florida -- a delegate and an alternate, respectively -- asked to have their picture taken in front of a ‘Cleveland’ sign. A woman dressed in a red, white and blue American flag outfit happily stopped on the sidewalk to pose for picture after picture.
On the corner of East 4th Street and Euclid Avenue, local resident Joe Nester sold campaign paraphernalia on Sunday afternoon. Recently, he said, his merchandise mocking presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had been selling faster than his pro-Trump items.
“‘Life’s a bitch. Don’t vote for one’ is number one,” he said, referring to a button with those words surrounding an unflattering picture of Clinton. “Then I got the ‘Hillary for Prison’ is number two. And KFC is number three now.” The KFC button was a particularly crude attack on Clinton, comparing her body parts to the contents of an order of fast-food chicken, with a throwaway reference to her “left wing” politics.
Asked if he was supporting a candidate, Nester paused for a moment. “No,” he decided. In his line of work, he explained, it was better to be neutral.