During last week's Republican National Convention, Downtown Cleveland was a veritable flea market of ideologies and beliefs, with Public Square serving as its focal point.
Bearded motorcycle enthusiasts in Donald Trump shirts trooped by hijab-wearing Muslims calling for an end to Islamophobia, while hellfire-promising fundamentalists exchanged angry words with Black Lives Matter activists. Elsewhere on the historic square, a fellow displaying a seven- by 15-foot acrylic painting of a stern-faced Trump, titled Unafraid and Unashamed
by Julian Raven, stood yards away from a distraught man protesting the Tamir Rice police shooting.
Tempers rose along with the mercury, resulting in shut-downs of Public Square
and East 4th Street
. An American flag-burning
at the intersection of 4th and Prospect Avenue led to 18 arrests, the most contentious moment in a week that saw 24 protest-related collars
, standing in sharp contrast to the 800 arrests at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul. Ultimately, the well-policed
Cleveland event was an odd combination of the outré and mundane, a prototypical melting pot of political stripes and socioeconomic strata co-existing side by side, if at times contentiously.
For me, this strange feeling peaked on the afternoon of the convention's second day. Alex Jones, a popular radio host, 9/11 "truther" and conspiracy theorist, was greeted on Public Square by a bevy of supporters, detractors and scrambling media members. According to reports, Jones led a chant of "Hillary For Prison," which was met by two men waving red flags and shouting, "Off our streets, Nazi scum!"
I arrived toward the tail end of the fray. Jones had already been whisked away by an SUV, but the newly refurbished square was still unsettled by his fans, reporters, curious onlookers and bike officers there to defuse the situation. As police cordoned off the area, I ducked into the Tri-C Hospitality Management Center
on Public Square's periphery.
Though only 30 yards from the circus outside, the space seemed hermitically sealed in its low-key orderliness. The Tri-C facility had been converted into a meet-and-greet space for delegates, a fact I learned almost immediately when a very nice member of the serving staff offered me a one-bite breaded lobster roll from a wooden tray.
I politely declined, then let loose a laugh, a bit overcome by the curious contrast of this comfortably cool space, separated from the heat and noise by a simple glass door. After explaining myself to the amused server, I wandered down the hall, where smiling delegates spoke with New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a sight that only added to the situation's loopy humor: Near chaos outside, white wine and heavy hors d'oeuvres inside.
There's not even a political statement to be made here, just relief that Cleveland held itself together so admirably despite the contradictory forces in town, all eager to sell their particular brand.
Nor was I the only one to find the whole shebang darkly amusing. Eric Yesbick, a stand-up comedian from Albany, Georgia, drove to Cleveland to be part of the madness. When we met, Yesbick was staked out on the busy corner of East Fourth Street and Euclid Avenue, people watching and selling gag-gift condoms printed with the faces of Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
A solid pitchman, Yesbick was conferring in a clear voice that his wares could be had one for $5 and three for $10. He sold a half dozen condoms as I watched, guessing his week-long haul would be enough to pay for the trip. He was enjoying his first Cleveland visit, both the city itself and the spectacle unfolding before him.
"With this election, you have to laugh," Yesbick said.