Your average Clevelander probably couldn’t pick Ralph J. Perk Plaza out on a map. The grassy space is tucked at the intersection of East 12th Street and Chester Avenue, three blocks east of Quicken Loans Arena, site of the Republican National Convention. Named for a 1970s mayor whose wife famously turned down a dinner date at the White House because it interfered with her bowling night, the park is barely an acre and change, best known now as a place for a quick smoke break during the day, or for buying a dime bag at night. But on Saturday afternoon, two days before the convention opened, voices were pinballing off the metal and stone of the surrounding buildings: “Black power! Black power! Black power!”
The first of the 50,000 expected visitors had arrived. And if any Cleveland resident had entertained any wild misconceptions—Oh, this’ll be nothing—about what it would look like to host the coronation of the most controversial presidential nominee in decades, in a time of accelerated emotions and anger, they were quickly being cleared up.
By Saturday morning, the city’s personality swap from Rust Belt capital to RNC location had nearly been complete. Downtown was eerily empty; streets usually lined with parked cars were largely vacant, and nearly half the bars and restaurants had been shuttered. Many Clevelanders had clearly, wisely, abandoned the city to the incoming delegates, pols, media and law enforcement. Beyond the sense of 28 Days Later isolation, other signs of what was to come were clear. The last of the eight-foot high metal fencing cinched around the city’s 1.7 mile official convention “event zone” had been nailed in place. A plane trailing a “Hillary for Prison” banner was lazily looping overhead. National Guardsmen in fatigues were manning the barricades surrounding the nearby Justice Center, Cleveland’s police headquarters and the place where arrested protesters will be taken this week. The thump of news helicopters was all that broke the silence, sometimes overtaken by the hard chop of military Black Hawks as the rally began.
The National Convention of the Oppressed-Black Unity Convention had Perk Plaza for the afternoon, for the first scheduled protest of Donald Trump’s coronation. On a raised hump of ground, a dozen activists, speakers, and members of the New Black Panther Party (who had announced they’d be coming to Cleveland armed), local Black Lives Matter activists, and a smattering of other social justice groups stood together before a group of more than 100 attendees as occasional rain spit out from a gray sky. Malik Zulu Shabazz, a civil rights attorney and former head of the New Black Panther Party, led off the event in his characteristically fiery manner: “Mr. Trump is an uncouth racist, an uncivilized savage.”
Most nodded along, fists in the air. A handful of attendees, however, didn’t seem to be buying the message. Standing out among the mostly black faces, and the media members huddling behind their cameras, was a group of four middle-aged white men. White and grey hair was peaking out from beneath their ball caps. They were wearing camouflage T-shirts with their jeans. They were stone-faced through Shabazz’s message. Their presence sent a chill through the crowd—were these members of the notorious Oath Keepers? Neo-Nazis? They weren’t open-carrying. But it felt like anything was possible.
As Shabazz turned to police shootings—“Stop killing black people! Stop killing black people!”—a young black man nudged his way closer to the four men. Thin and dressed in all black, his face covered by a white ski mask, he began shouting in response to Shabazz’s voice. “Fuck yeah!” he screamed, the words aimed directly at the four white men. “Fuck them up. Fuck them up. Fuck them up.”
The camouflaged men just stared at the young man, faces pinned in a hard look, not speaking or moving. After ten minutes or so, they walked away and left, disappearing into the rainy afternoon. But they’d left behind an unmistakable message: We’ll see you again soon.