How A Political Convention Turns Your City Into A Dystopia
You wake up one day and find your city transformed. Ominous black fences have appeared overnight, giant banners hang from buildings and proclaim the greatness of the city, and armed guards stand watch in between concrete barriers. Did a warlord overthrow the local government overnight? Are they shooting an adaptation of a young adult post-apocalyptic novel about a teen girl who will (spoiler) find out she is the chosen one? Nope -- your city has just been chosen to host a major political party's convention.
This week, the "lucky" city is Cleveland, which is hosting the Republican National Convention as we speak. We sent a couple of Northeast Ohio natives (Evan V. Symon and Isaac Cabe) to observe what an event like this -- and the anticipation of giant crowds of angry protesters -- does to a place you know and love.
You Hardly Recognize The Place
When we rolled into downtown the day before the convention, it was like we'd dropped straight into a criminally underfunded episode of The Twilight Zone.
That's a cemetery to the left. Wait, are they trying to keep us out of the cemetery, or trying to keep something in? WHAT ARE THEY NOT TELLING US?!
The Cleveland that had been hard-pressed into our memories had been effectively decimated. We were trying to navigate streets where we knew we'd parked for baseball games or field trips as kids, only to find giant metal fences obscuring everything, protected by everything from plainclothes officers to the National Guard. Cleveland is a surprisingly good city for walking from place to place, but the openness and friendliness we knew were gone. Statues of ballplayers from our childhoods look like they're stuck in deliberately shitty batting cages.
Which is sadly the perfect symbolism for Cleveland baseball.
It's hard to explain exactly how jarring this is, but we do have to hand it to Cleveland: They invested a lot of time, energy, and money into making sure that the city looks presentable for this convention. Public Square has been nicely refinished, some buildings got a bit of a facelift, and several roads seem to have been repaved. The problem is that some parts of the city were apparently cleaned up by nine-year-olds who throw things under the bed. There are alleys we never noticed before which now look like Thomas and Martha Wayne could have been shot in them. To top it all off, enormous temporary labels have been slapped onto buildings that will mean nothing a week from now.
We can't wait to read the Yelp reviews of this place.
Outside of the RNC Zone (which sounds like a great name for a building-sized bouncy house) was the same Cleveland that normally goes ignored -- potholes, poor roads, and trash floating around like an unplanned Christo piece.
Welcome to Cleveland.
There's Got To Be A Propaganda Minister Somewhere
We documented this on the Cracked Snapchat while we were walking around, but all over the place are signs promoting Ohio as a place that maybe isn't so bad after all. We're sure these signs look great to out-of-towners, but we weren't fooled for a second. The first one of these we noticed was the least-believable, and we immediately didn't trust a single one thereafter.
Go on. Get those giggles out of your system.
There are serial killers who have told less boldfaced lies to law enforcement. A very cursory googling won't even let Ohio crack the top 10. And then, because we're both internet writers by trade, we couldn't help but groan at this next one.
Are you kidding? Isaac here for a second: I went to high school with a guy whose dad actually coined the term "WiFi" for Bill Gates himself, and I've got an article right here about how he predicted the failure of free citywide WiFi in Akron (which is just south of Cleveland). Freaking Huntsville, Alabama is getting Google Fiber before anywhere in Ohio. Come on, signs, we're not even in the top 10 in internet connectivity, let alone investment.
"Welcome to Ohio. We're trying."
Similar signs touted Ohio as one of the best states in which to do business (we're about 23rd), and as having the most improved economic outlook in the country (in fact, that title belongs to Connecticut and New Mexico). Only one outlet, the obscure Chief Executive Magazine, named Ohio most-improved.
OK, so that's a lot of info that someone must have had to fake. What about real, bona fide facts? Surely, we've got some great facts about Ohio history that visitors will care a lot about?
We're so sorry, America.
Homelessness Has Been Banned
One of the things most associated with Cleveland since the last big development project (Flats Revitalization) went belly-up around the time of the Y2K scare has been the homeless. It's been a real issue. What the city lacks in population compared to, say, New York, it lacks even more in funding.
Well, as of Friday night, we can verify that the homeless population was still out and about, and in the spots where you'd expect to find them. In the couple of days since then, it seems they've been ushered out of town with lightning speed.
"Oh no, we just sent them to a farm where they could run and play with other homeless people all day. Honest."
Cracked talked with a Cleveland representative from the charity Food Not Bombs, who pointed out that the city was essentially making it illegal to be homeless during the convention by banning things like sleeping bags, tents, and freaking backpacks within the "event zone." And since the event zone is a 3.3-square-mile area, that basically means homelessness has been banned in downtown Cleveland. The ACLU is not happy.
Typically, early mornings are a good time for homeless people to catch people beginning their days in hopes of scraping together money for food, but we noticed that they were distinctly absent. Even the Greyhound station was mostly empty, save for a few other media types arriving. We even walked past a Presbyterian church 15 minutes before a service started, and there wasn't a single homeless person hoping to benefit from some Christian generosity.
Of course, we're perhaps being cynical in speculating that these people were hustled away as not to wind up ruining the delegates' good time with their walking reminders of the horrors of inequality. Maybe they all found gainful employment and the social services they desperately need. Maybe Cleveland spontaneously solved an issue that has vexed even the greatest of civilizations since time began. And over one weekend, no less!
It's An Understaffed Police State
In case all of the fences and law enforcement didn't hammer the message home, it almost feels as if downtown is under martial law. But despite looking like a disappointing sequel to Cloverfield, there's not nearly as many officers as we should have. Many police departments, including Greensboro, NC and Cincinnati, refused to send officers for several different reasons (the main one being questions over whether Cleveland would compensate those officers if injured).
We have a source in the Cleveland Police Department assigned to RNC duties, and despite numerous departments backing out, he seems confident that it will go well and not like the post-apocalyptic nightmare so many media outlets seem to be anticipating.*
"The news has made a big deal about it, but we'll be fine. It really stings us that Greensboro turned back on its promise, and that many cities are refusing to help out. But we'll have enough. We're working with the Secret Service and assigning officers where they're needed ... once we were told some departments weren't coming, a bunch of others stepped in. They're coming from pretty far away, but they're going to be here. It's all hands on deck here, even with all that help. We've been trained on how to deal with protesters, because most of us haven't experienced a big protest here."
However, other places, such as local news stations, aren't so optimistic, calling them "understaffed." Our impression was that there are a lot of officers visible all around the convention area, but the rest of the city seems almost deserted. Even in the areas where the police presence was high, they've had to rely on unarmed National Guard troops to fill out their numbers.
At one checkpoint, an army K-9 officer worked as a bomb detector. But he wasn't in uniform, and in his blue shirt and khaki pants, he looked like a plainclothes officer. His high-and-tight hair cut and the army logo on the dog's collar were all that gave him away.
Pictured: Isaac's semi-pretentious gray wool British-cut suit.
*We realize that all of this will seem cruelly ironic if, by the time this article goes live, Cleveland has in fact turned into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Let's take a moment to remember that the vast majority of protests are peaceful, and that hopefully Cleveland will be no different. Stay safe, everyone!