By Scott Malone and Daniel Trotta

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Stevedore Crawford strode onto the plaza at Cleveland's Public Square, not far from this week's Republican National Convention, pulled two brightly colored toy guns from his pants, waved them around and then threw himself onto the concrete.

Crawford, 53, was evoking the 2014 fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy, by a white police officer.

"They never kill the people like me," said Crawford, who described himself as a former pimp who served time for shooting a cop. "They never kill the thugs, because they fear the thugs."

Crawford's demonstration was one of the most powerfully emotional protests in what shaped up as a spectacle of free speech that turned Cleveland's Public Square - a 10-acre (4-hectare) downtown park - into the unofficial public square of the Republican National Convention.

Demonstrators came to protest for and against Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee. Others had civil justice or public safety on their minds after recent police shootings of African-Americans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Minneapolis area, followed by the killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

With more than 3,000 police from across the country looking on, the activists spoke forcefully, creatively - and mostly peaceably. There were just 23 arrests over the four-day convention that came to a close on Thursday. Authorities had prepared for as many as 1,000 arrests each day.

In the end, the cacophony of causes was a carnival of free speech.

A liberal Jew dressed in traditional Muslim garb carried a rifle and spoke against religious intolerance. A retired U.S. Army veteran who said he had been in the Special Forces spoke on behalf of a veterans group that aims to "take back the country from leftists and Muslims." A group of conservative preachers showed up wherever gay-rights activists appeared, while dozens of African-American demonstrators had a direct rejoinder to Trump's slogan, "make America great again."

"America was Never Great!" their signs read.

A young man who did not appear to be a billionaire had a simple message opposing Trump's plan for a U.S.-Mexico border wall: "Build a Wall Around Trump," his sign read. "I'll Pay for It."

One man walking through Public Square on Thursday seemed to have tired of the nonstop debate. His sign read, "God Hates Signs."

LINCOLN-LIKE DEBATE

In contrast to the bitter rhetoric and personal invective on the campaign trail, the free-for-all in Cleveland was at times even charitable.

Apropos of a Republican convention, one demonstrator simply dressed as Abraham Lincoln, the party's first elected president. “I’m here to spread the message of Lincoln, because it is one that still applies,” said Robert Ginzu, 55.

A group of several dozen motorcyclists calling themselves "Bikers for Trump" came to help convention-goers pick their way through crowds outside the fenced-off convention area.

"We want to show that Trump supporters are law-abiding citizens," said Daryl Rembowski, a 52-year-old carpenter and member of the group.

Bob Kunst, 74, an openly gay advocate for Jewish causes, came from Miami Beach to rally for Trump. In 2008, he campaigned for Hillary Clinton, and still considers himself a Democrat.

But Kunst believes Trump would be more effective fighting Islamic State than Clinton would be. “If we don’t get a handle on ISIS, nothing else is going to matter," Kunst said. "We are in crisis situation.”

Stacia Huyler, 45, came as an alternate convention delegate from Rhode Island. But she wound up holding a pro-Trump banner in Public Square. Her motivation: seeing a man dressed as a Muslim holding a sign that said, "Ban Trump Supporters, not Muslims."

"So here I am," said Huyler, as nearby Trump proponents and opponents yelled at each other through bullhorns.

(Additional reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)