Downtown Cleveland is sliced and diced by miles of temporary fencing, sturdy, black and terrible. This is not your ordinary chain-link. It is, rather, military grade. The mesh is fine, the framing expensive. You could not climb it if you wanted to, and it's not going anywhere. Like the Cleveland PD's new, black beetle body armor, this stuff is the Darth Vader shit. It's the kind of thing you expect to see in Gaza, not in front of the Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland, Ohio welcomes you.
In surreal juxtaposition to this positively Palestinian block-by-block, intersection-by-intersection partitioning of space, the positively giddy Republican delegates on 4th Street, the reclaimed urban restaurant row leading up to the "Q", are having a "positive experience", as one of them explained to me. This is the party street, home to two restaurants by TV chef Michael Symon, the House of Blues and 20 more bar/restaurants just like them, serving the same warmed-over ribs and two-for-one drinks. MSNBC has set up not one but two live broadcast booths along 4th street, and the lights and the color and the drinks make this three-block strip the place to see and be seen. If politics is show is show-biz for ugly people, this, surely, is their comic con.
It's a very, very white scene, with what little color there is supplied by the black and brown officers of the various police agencies who are such a huge presence here. There are black and brown servers, cooks and dishwashers in the restaurants. There are gaggles of black street vendors selling Trump t-shirts and hats, Trump bobble-heads and Trump posters. When I asked one of them how they could support Trump, he answered simply "he's not getting a dime from this, I'm supporting me". Fair enough, these young brothers are on their grind, and a month ago the shirts were all LeBron and the Cavs, now it's what's selling this week. There are black, hispanic and Asian delegates, and I've even seen one or two. Before I leave Cleveland, I hope to speak to one.
And there's the color supplied by me, black secret agent T, light-skinned enough that I get answers other folks may not, and that's always fun. So I spent part of Day 2 of the RNC down on 4th Street, down on the party street, asking as many delegates as I could, and the ones I spoke to were all white, a simple question: Despite the high spirits here in the street, How can you stand the racism? How can you stand to be associated with Trump and what he represents?
"We're having a positive experience" one young woman told me. Yes, some things about Trump were "a little extreme", but she said the party was uniting behind him (as we spoke a tally of the states made it official, Trump is the nominee) and people "feel good about that, about moving forward". I tried to make her hear the word again. What about the racism? "I think people make too much of that, I think they want to bring race into everything". When I replied that Trump brought race into his campaigns, with his remarks about Mexicans and Muslims, she smiled "But see, Mexican is not a race, that's what I mean". She had me.
Several others acted as if I hadn't used the "r" word at all, and they spoke of the need to "stop Hillary". "She'd be a disaster", one told me. "Is she a racist?" I asked. Again, they told me Trump might not be "perfect", but he would stop Hillary, again, these were people who didn't want to hear or say that word.
None of my conversations with the delegates were confrontational. In each case I explained that I was a journalist covering the big show, I gave them my card, which identifies me as "writer/journalist/cartoonist" Tony Puryear. In all cases the delegates were pleasant, happy to be asked their opinion, happy to be asked a question at all. Some asked if I wanted to talk to their friends, too. I did. After a while, I must admit, I found the pleasant tone of these conversations infuriating.
I also admit I brought assumptions and preconceptions to party street that were way off base. I assumed that for at least some people there'd be a gap between them and their candidate. I assumed that there were "decent" people among the delegates, as I assume there are everywhere, and that this decency would create a space of, I don't know, embarrassment or shame between them and the overt bigotry and hate-mongering of Trump. Well, there were "decent" people, but with whatever guile or charm or cleverness at my disposal, I couldn't make them fess up to even a tiny bit of the shame I was expecting to find, and after speaking to a score of them, I realized I was wrong in thinking it had to be there. It just wasn't.
Some, of course, rolled their eyes in a common acknowledgement of "hey it is what it is". He's a buffoon, they'd concede, a freak show, a clown. That was a bit embarrassing to educated or achieving or relatively hip people such as themselves. I began to realize that a lot of these Republican delegates, and many of them were young, even millennials, were the educated or achieving or relatively hip people in their worlds, presidents of their high school classes, state senators, people who watch the Food Network (many brought up Michael Symon, avatar of a certain kind of worldliness, I guess). I'd keep trying to bring the question around to the racism, how did they feel, personally, about that? They couldn't or wouldn't speak about themselves, but many assured me Trump, (and by extension, they themselves) "could not be racist", or "not really", anyway. Two reminded me Ben Carson supports him. Many told me they had "black friends". Of course they did.
As I walked along Party Street, my fury grew. I was furious with these people. I was even more furious with myself, in my new role as a journalist. I'm failing to do the gig. What stunning revelation do I have for my readers? Republican delegates are white? They are, in the main, shameless about Trump's racism, and therefore theirs? This country is as divided as downtown Cleveland, with miles of fencing separating us, and it's not going away. I came here to protest against Trump, and I came here to bear witness to what's going down here at ground zero. There have been precious few protests or protesters, more on that in my next post, and as for bearing witness, I'm realizing I'm asking the wrong questions.