By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) – As dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters chanted: “No justice, no peace!” in central Cleveland on Monday, they faced down a wall of police – on bicycles, dressed in polo shirts and shorts.
It was the kind of police presence the organizers of next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland have long had in mind – respectful of free speech, and orderly. No arrests were made.
Elsewhere in the United States, tensions are high since last week’s deadly attack on police in Dallas, creating scenes like the one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where police in riot gear confronted a woman standing calmly in a flowing dress, an image captured in a photograph that has attracted worldwide attention.
But in Cleveland, where the four-day Republican convention begins on Monday, police are committed to a low profile, avoiding the militarized presence that has become common in recent years since police across the country received free war surplus equipment from the Pentagon.
The Ohio city is sticking with its plan even after the events in Dallas, where a black U.S. veteran of the Afghan war, who had said he wanted to “kill white people,” fatally shot five police officers on Thursday.
The attack came during an otherwise peaceful protest to denounce last week’s police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Protests have continued in those states, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Cleveland police have said they will increase intelligence and surveillance as a result of the Dallas attacks.
“(Dallas) affects our planning, but we have planned, we have what-iffed and we have table-topped this for a long time,” the police chief, Calvin Williams, told a news conference on Tuesday. “We don’t want anybody to trample on anybody else’s rights.”
Steve Loomis, the head of the Cleveland police officers’ union, said Cleveland may be too lightly equipped. He also complained about a 28-page General Police Order sent to officers a month before the convention, with instructions on de-escalating conflicts and preserving protesters’ rights, calling it condescending and designed to make officers look weak.
“We have no shields because they think it is too offensive,” Loomis said. “But a brick to the head is offensive to me.”
Political conventions are a magnet for protests even under normal circumstances, and Cleveland will have the Trump factor.
Donald Trump, the New York businessman set to receive the Republican presidential nomination for the Nov. 8 election, has stirred passions among supporters and opponents during the campaign with his comments on illegal immigrants and Muslims, and the two sides have clashed at several of his campaign events.
Cleveland’s gun laws will allow people to carry guns openly within the so-called event zone where demonstrations will take place. The New Black Panther Party, a “black power” movement, will carry firearms for self-defense during demonstrations in Cleveland, the group’s chairman said.
The city comes into the convention with less hardware than other places. Cleveland never received any war surplus but has bought one armored vehicle and personal protective equipment for officers, a police spokeswoman said. Otherwise, Cleveland has avoided “controlled equipment” such as bayonets and grenade launchers, which the Defense Department has since recalled from many police departments.
But the city is also keeping secret millions of dollars worth of police purchases until after the convention, citing security concerns.
Among the publicly disclosed purchases for the convention to date have been 2,000 new sets of personal protection equipment, colloquially known as riot gear.
The U.S. Secret Service and FBI will run security inside the convention hall, while Cleveland police will handle crowd control outside, aided by 3,000 reinforcements, mostly from elsewhere in Ohio.
Jacqueline Greene, co-coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild, a human rights organization, expressed concern the visiting officers may not share Cleveland’s priorities on protecting free speech.
Cleveland and visiting police will be bound by the General Police Order on managing crowds while protecting free speech and assembly rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The order directs police to “rely on de-escalation and voluntary compliance, and without using force, as the primary means of maintaining order.”
Only the police chief or one of his designated subordinates may approve mass arrests.
“One order is to create space,” Loomis said. “That is retreating. When they (protesters) see we are on our heels, it is a victory for them.”
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Peter Cooney)