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Smart policing — and bicycles — help keep Cleveland protests peaceful

Immigrant rights activists hold up a fabric wall protesting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as law enforcement officers look on in Cleveland.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

For three hours, police officers chased a small but defiant group of about 30 demonstrators through downtown Cleveland.

The rowdy protesters defied officers at every turn, pushing past cops on bicycles trying to direct them down side streets and sprinting through a parking garage to evade police outside.

The cat-and-mouse game on Tuesday came to a head less than a block from a security checkpoint on the outer perimeter of the Republican National Convention.

Many of the protesters hid their faces under bandanas despite the muggy weather. Some called the police “pigs” and began shouting at Cleveland’s police chief, Calvin Williams.

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A police commander branded the gathering an unlawful assembly, and gave the protesters five minutes to disperse or face arrest.

It was the kind of tense scene that could quickly turn violent: frustrated police officers and stubborn protesters in a sweaty standoff in Cleveland’s stew-thick humidity.

Instead, the intersection was clear within five minutes. No one was arrested or injured.

The first two days of protests outside the convention had followed a similar pattern.

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But clashes erupted Wednesday when about a dozen members of the Revolutionary Communist Party tried to burn a U.S. flag outside the Quicken Loans Arena, where the GOP convention is being held.

The flag-burning caused a melee with police that ended with several arrests. Two police officers sustained minor injuries, officials said.

The group had announced the flag-burning ceremony earlier this week, drawing a crush of media and counter-protesters determined to stop the desecration.

Police and media swarmed one man carrying a large flag around 4 p.m., but he turned out to be a Marine veteran who said he came out to oppose the planned burning.

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Minutes later, a dozen people put on Revolutionary Communist Party shirts and set fire to a flag after chanting, “America was never great.”

Cleveland police and firefighters swiftly moved in with fire extinguishers and doused the smoldering flag. Several small fights broke out in the crowd, and the protesters were led away in zip-tie handcuffs.

The incident was the first wild scene in what many feared would be a week of day-and-night mayhem in Cleveland.

Instead, civil rights advocates, city officials and even demonstrators say a mix of smart policing and local demographics has helped keep things peaceful.

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Only five people were arrested from Sunday to Tuesday, police said, and just three were charged with protest-related crimes. More people were arrested at individual Trump events in California last month.

“Much to our pleasant surprise up to this point, all of our fears have been unfounded,” Administrative and Presiding Judge Ronald B. Adrine said Wednesday after an arraignment for three protesters who tried to hang an anti-Trump flag at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That could still change. Activists say protests will swell on Thursday, when Trump formally accepts the GOP nomination.

You can’t go 5 feet in downtown Cleveland without overhearing an argument about Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton, gun rights versus gun control, or whether blue or black lives matter more. But those passionate and polarizing discussions haven’t boiled over into violence or disruption.

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An overwhelming police presence clearly has helped.

More than 3,000 officers from at least a dozen states have outnumbered demonstrators at any single event, according to Steven Loomis, president of the city’s largest police union.

The largest protest so far, a march to end poverty that followed a surprise performance by the rap-metal supergroup Prophets of Rage on Monday, involved only 300 people, police said.

Officers on bicycles race ahead of marchers and form makeshift barricades between opposing ideological groups, preventing shouting matches from turning physical.

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“Every officer seems to know how they are supposed to work and bicycles are way better than weapons or even billy clubs,” said Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio. She called the maneuvers “very well executed.”

Police have given protesters broad leeway, choosing not to make arrests over minor crimes.

Cleveland’s police have been under a federal monitor since 2014, when the Justice Department found they disproportionately used force against blacks. The shooting death by police of a 12-year-old girl put the city at the center of a national debate on the policing of minority communities.

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The consent decree “changes the way they have been policing this convention,” said Jocelyn Rosnick, head of the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “It’s not something that has been in the mix for other conventions.”

While Latinos have come out in force to protest Trump’s immigration policies in California, less than 10% of Cleveland residents identify as Latino.

Even the city’s location — a good day’s drive from Chicago or New York and other presumed hotbeds of anti-Trump fervor — may have helped keep the protests in check.

Tom Moore, 24, of Marion, Mass., said young people seem happy to pillory Trump on social media, but are less likely to take to the street in marches as older generations did.

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“In general, it just makes me depressed about American protest culture,” said Moore, who held a sign that read “Grand Old Party, Same Old Klan.”

Across the street, Bryan Hennon stood outside the city’s main transit hub with a carbine rifle slung on his shoulder.

Ohio’s open-carry gun laws had raised concerns about potential attacks during the convention, fears that spiked after gunmen killed police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in recent weeks.

Instead, Hennon and a dozen other members of the West Ohio Minutemen became mini-celebrities, smiling for the cameras as international media surrounded them.

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Hennon said he had no problem with the docile demonstrations.

“This is the way it should be, man,” he said. “People should be able to peacefully protest without being assaulted or feeling threatened.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

james.queally@latimes.com

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Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for news on protests and police at the Republican National Convention.

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UPDATES:

5:35 p.m.: This story was updated with background.

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3:10 p.m.: This story was updated with information on arrests at the flag-burning demonstration.

2:25 p.m.: This story was updated with developments from the scene of protesters’ attempts to burn the American flag outside the Quicken Loans arena.

This story was first published at 11:40 a.m.


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