Catharsis in Cleveland


A line of nine police officers on horseback watched over the square as a man held up a sign in their direction that read, “F**k your badge.”

Delegates and press streamed in through the entrance on the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and a lady started trying to wrestle the sign away from the man. He backed away and kept holding the sign. She yelled at him and ripped the corner of the sign. A plain-clothes officer escorted her away.

“I got angels around me,” a man with a megaphone said. “You’ve got demons in your life. Devils! Marijuana devils! Pornography devils! Homosexual devils! I don’t want the devil. He’ll destroy you.”

A man named Vermin Supreme, with a white beard and an upside-down rubber boot as a hat, danced around in front of the street-preacher and mock-pointed at others in the crowd.

“…You’ve got to pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow Jesus. If you don’t, you’ll perish. You’ll end up in the grave!”

Two young men got close to the preacher and kissed.

“The perverts! The perverts—are an abomination to God!”

One of the young men kissed Vermin Supreme. (Mr. Supreme, by the way, is running for president.)

“Oh, you people,” the preacher said. “You need to repent, before you end up—. Oh yeah, you’re joking about it now, but you’ll be trembling when God replays the tape.”

Down the street, a man named Tom Mitchell, a 68-year-old retired insurance salesman from Dallas, Texas, held up a sign that said, “Our candidates Stink! Make America Smell Great Again!”

“I’m a frustrated, middle of the road voter,” he said when I stopped and talked with him. “Haven’t voted a ballot for a republican or a democrat since 1972. Republicans and democrats refuse to negotiate and get things done. So the far right and the far left have too much influence because they’re more active. The people in the middle need to take some of that back.” 

He voted for George McGovern in ’72, he said, and has written in Colin Powell’s name the past three presidential elections.

I walked down the street and then turned back and walked past a young journalist who had also stopped Tom Mitchell. “I’m a frustrated, middle of the road—”

Police from more than a dozen states roamed the streets and National Guardsmen perched at the corners of city buildings. A group of police on bicycles followed the roving protest groups. Police on horseback stood by and moved into areas when protests grew large near the entrance to the convention center. Other police stood on corners and mobilized each time a new group started to rally in the public square, moving in between opposing groups.

A mile away, on the shores of Lake Erie, a boater eased his yacht out from a marina. Two people on a paddle-boat explored the docks and sailboaters coasted out near the breakwater causeway in the distance. Out past the breakwater causeway, whitecaps from the winds pushed north and one or two boaters motored out into the lake that stretched past the horizon.

Hundreds of people watched the speeches that night on a large MSNBC screen outside the arena. Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, Jr., Ben Carson and others spoke.

The next day, I loafed around Cleveland for much of the day.

Crossing the Hope Memorial Bridge, which spans the Cuyahoga River, I passed a man singing a Charlie Daniels song.

The bridge was closed to traffic except for an occasional bus of delegates headed toward the convention. There were a handful of pedestrians on the long bridge.

“A poor girl wants to marry and a rich girl wants to flirt!” He belted out.

“A rich man goes to college and a poor man goes to work! A drunkard wants another drink of wine and a politician wants a vote!”

On the way back over the bridge a half-hour later, I caught up with him.

He said he’d lived in Cleveland all his life except three years after high school. 

“You want a beer, man?” he said after a minute.

He handed me a can of Busch from a small cooler he was carrying around. He drank tequila, mixed with orange juice and cranberry juice, through a straw from a large, plastic Cleveland Indians cup.

“Just be cool. Ain’t no cops around, but—. Salud.”

“My name’s Jerry, man,” he said.

I introduced myself and he said, “My real name is Jerome. Jerome Tylicki. I’m a polack.—c-k-i is the real polacks, man. S-k-i could be slovenians, czechoslovakians—.”

He said he’s a machinist who makes tools and works twenty-five hours a week. “I made parts for Ford. I made airplane parts. I made parts for NASA. Cleveland’s got the best machinists.” He was going to see about some free live music near the convention. 

“Been down to the flats yet?” he said.

“No, where’s that?”

He spread his hand out over the area beneath the bridge on either side of the Cuyahoga River.

“That’s the flats. This here is the industrial part, but over there is the recreational part.”

We kept walking and he told me about Cleveland’s various lift-bridges over the Cuyahoga.

“What are your thoughts on the presidential election?” I said once the conversation slowed.

“I tell ya, I was hoping it was going to be one of them contested conventions. Yeah, I don’t know. I’m a democrat, but I voted for Kasich in the republican primary. ’Cause I didn’t want f**kin’ Trump. You know, I mean—guy don’t know nothin’, man. I’m not saying nothing bad about him, but he ain’t got enough experience to be president. I think he’s gonna get creamed. I don’t know—that’s just my opinion.”

He asked where I was staying and I told him that, since everything’s booked up, I’d been sleeping in my car. He said I’d be welcome to come by his place.

“I got the coolest front yard, man. Can’t miss it. My front yard is all herbs. First row is chamomile. Basil. Onions. Horse radish. Mint. Garlic. Then, after the sidewalk, comes oregano. Chives. Sage. I got grapes, berries, peaches. Just a cool yard.”

I asked him how Cleveland’s changed over the course of his life.

“I tell you, man, downtown’s beautiful and things are jamming, but if you ain’t got money, you ain’t gonna have as much fun as you used to. I used to have season tickets to the Browns. My brothers still do. Man, they sit in the seventh row of the dog pound, man. I go to two games a year. Usually I just go down to tailgate and, when they go in, I go home.

“But, yeah, Cleveland’s jamming, man. Construction workers are working. They built that bridge up there and they’re building another bridge. When the construction guys are working, man, there’s money. Those guys—they spend money. Talkin’ bout the flats—they just built that, see that tower down there. Law firm moved in there. But, go down there, man. You wanna see how the other side lives? Go down to Tower City. And that’s how the other part—the people with money in Cleveland—live.

He said that his wife was going to come with him, but, “We were waiting for the bus and she got bored and she went home. I said, good, I’ll probably have a better time without ya.”

He told me about his wife’s kids. One, who lives in West Virginia, just had a baby.

“She’s a hillbilly. You know what makes a hillbilly? The Indians marry the Irish. Serious, if you ever find a hillbilly that ain’t Irish or Indian—. A real hillbilly. I mean, there’s Cleveland hillbillies.”

“What’s a Cleveland hillbilly like?” I said. 

“I don’t know, I haven’t known none of them since I worked at Ford—there was a lot of them at Ford.”

We talked more about the election, how he usually doesn’t pay attention, but how this is such a strange year in politics, he’s been tuned in. He said he’ll vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

“I wanted the Ohio governor—Kasich. Guy’s a good guy, man. He would make a good president. He looks like a president. Sounds like one. You know, he’s not supporting Trump. Hell no, man—he won’t stoop. All these other politicians, the ones saying they didn’t like him the whole time, now they’re lining up. How hypocritical is that, right?”

Soon, a man who knew Jerry came the other way on a bicycle and told him of the streets that were blocked off by the authorities. Everything around the stadium is barricaded, he said. Jerry’d have to walk a couple extra miles to get to the free music he’d heard of. 

He decided to turn back.

“Thank you for the beer,” I said. 

We shook hands and he said, “Have a good time.”

Walking back, I passed David Axelrod on the street and watched as Van Jones debated two young men from on the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I heard of the protest an hour or so earlier where somebody’d lit an American flag and caught their pant-leg on fire and an officer trying to put the blaze out, said, “You’re on fire, stupid.”

That night, the crowds were bigger in front of the screens as Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential pick, spoke. And vendors selling t-shirts and buttons kept trying to get top-dollar.

Protestors of all stripes poured into Cleveland’s public square the next day. 

Black Lives Matter. Code Pink. A group rallying for a free Palestine. Drum circlers. Banner wavers. Fire-and-Brimstoners. Illegal immigrants for Trump. People calling for justice for Tamir Rice, the boy shot in Cleveland in 2014.

A supporter of Donald Trump sat in the park talking with a young man filming him.

“Don’t listen to the media telling you that this guy’s bad. That he’s a racist. He’s not a racist. You know what, he is not a racist. I’m sorry, there’s no way to paint it. He might’ve said some things that he didn’t understand. That man is not a politician. I’m sitting here running my mouth in front of you. And I’m worried about what I’m gonna say, because I could say the wrong thing. Okay? You back a non-politician—a politician has whole teams that teach them what to say. But the fact that he’s said there’s an issue and he wasn’t afraid to address it is an important thing. He might’ve said it the wrong way. But he addressed a problem.”

The heat was oppressive on this final day of the RNC. Kids and barefooted adults danced through the fountain in the park and people gave out water bottles that said, “Jesus for President.”

“You are anti-America bigots!” A man with a megaphone shouted.

A line of police separated the converging crowds.

“Stop the hate!” A crowd in front chanted.

“You hate police!” the man with the megaphone shouted back. “You hate the Bible! You hate God’s word. You’re a bigot. On your way to hell!”

“Stop the hate!” the crowd chanted back.

“God is for building a wall! You can’t get into heaven, unless you are a citizen of Heaven. You are anti-America! You are anti-police. You are wicked. You are vile. Rejects of society. On your way to hell!”

“Stop the hate!”

“Get all of the socialists, all the anti-Americans, out of this country. You are anti-morality. All lives matter. Police lives matter. Trump needs to build a wall. Trump needs to build a wall. You are going to burn in hell!”

Later this same group was greeted with a counter-heckler: Vermin Supreme, this time with a megaphone. 

“You have a very pretty mouth, sir!” Supreme shouted through the megaphone. He also shouted that he saw the other man taking part in homosexual activity the night before.

“Liar!” The man shouted back. “This man is a liar!” 

As Reince Priebus spoke, the crowds in the public square built toward the crescendo. Energy was high. Everything was building toward Trump’s speech.

“Stop Trump’s hate!” a group chanted before switching to, “Stand together against Trump!”

“I’m a black muslim American professional and there’s not a single part of me that Donald Trump has not offended,” a woman with a megaphone said. “We disagree with all of Trump’s rhetoric during this election cycle.”

“Build a wall!” people chanted back. 

The “Stop Trump’s hate” chant broke out again.

“We’re going to build that wall, ladies and gentlemen!” one man said.

Down the street from the park, the screen carried the image of Donald Trump as he made his speech officially accepting the nomination of the Republican Party. Supporters cheered and clapped. People leaned against buildings and sat on curbs, watching the screen. Groups of police walked through the crowd and lots of people thanked them and they thanked the people back. Crowds on a rooftop cheered the police each time they came through. Someone poured a beer off a rooftop in celebration during Trump’s speech.

Once the speech was over, I walked back toward the public square.

The protests had long since died down, most of the crowds dispersed and gone elsewhere. 

Police, on their feet all day, were sitting on the concrete benches that circle the park. 

Fireworks exploded in the sky over the lake. The display, simultaneous with the balloon-drop inside the convention hall, went hard and quick into the night. 

City workers pressure-washed the glass of a bus stop. 

Crossing guards in the distance blew their whistles, taking relief that when the crowds walked off that night, they'd be gone for good. 

The top of Terminal Tower, a 700-foot high building at a corner of the park, was lit in red, white and blue. 

The firework smoke lingered in the sky and helicopters circled above.