The French government banned protests at the global summit on climate change in Paris over the last two weeks, partly in response to the November 13th terrorist attacks that killed 130 people. The government contended a state of emergency exists. Peaceful protest groups said security concerns were being used as an excuse to deny them the right to dissent.
French authorities banned what was loosely defined as “more than two people sharing a political message,” which led to some creative workarounds — including the placing of thousands of shoes at the Place de la Republique. They symbolized the feet of those who were prohibited from marching.
“Even before the attacks of 13 November, the government was trying to close the borders to activists, trying to ensure the mobilizations would be as small as possible,” Juliette Rousseau said. Rousseau is the coordinator of a French coalition of 150 organizations that intended to protest the inaction of governments in the global climate crisis.
“The state of emergency has turned out to be a tool they could exploit to achieve this,” she continued. “They never wanted their agreement to be received with waves, never wanted their party to be ruined by civil society — which in its diversity is actually the best expression of society’s interests.”
Civil libertarian and free speech advocates in the United States watched the action, or perhaps the prevention of action, in Paris closely. After the militaristic responses in recent years by police in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, during protests over police use of excessive force — as well as protestors trying to push the media away during recent college campus protests — many are wondering how the city of Cleveland and police will respond to protestors at the Republican National Convention next year.
Given the intense media attention they bring, the political conventions every four years always draw protestors. But this time it seems that more and larger groups could be out in full force: immigration reform organizations, Black Lives Matter, climate change action advocates, and those who want the issue of economic disparity at the forefront such as the growing Fight for $15 movement.
These groups will likely come out at the Republican convention in greater numbers than at the Democrats’ meeting, because the GOP’s platform and conservative ideals are at definite odds with many of these groups. Donald Trump’s controversial rhetoric about religious and ethnic groups alone is sure to act as gasoline being thrown on the fire, regardless if he is the nominee or not.
“There are definite possibilities of some fairly big civic unrest and protests in Cleveland this summer,” says Judy Lubin, an adjunct sociology professor at Howard University, and the lead author of Sociologists for Justice’s comment on the shooting death of Michael Brown and police reaction to protests in Ferguson. “But it all depends on how the rules are set up. If they put protestors far away from the arena and the downtown hotels to be invisible, there may be even bigger problems. Because people will get creative on how to be seen.”
“Will Cleveland 2016 be like Chicago in 1968?” she says, referring to protests at the Democratic National Convention in that era. “Hard to tell at this point, but when you look at what was happening in that time period — civil rights, anti-war, the divisions of the country — there are some similarities. But the big similarity might be whether Cleveland police decide to take the same violent tactics to infringe on civil rights as the Chicago police did in 1968.”
Another issue at play is that Cleveland is a city brimming with racial tensions. The city has avoided an uptick in large protests in part by city leaders and members of the business community working with gang leaders, church groups and community volunteers. But more than a year after the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police, a grand jury has still not decided whether the police who shot the young man carrying a fake gun should be indicted.
This also comes at a time when the city of Cleveland is working with the United States Department of Justice to change police procedures. The feds charge that Cleveland police have violated civil rights of Cleveland citizens with unwarranted use of excessive force. Some of those rights were violated during protests over the summer after the acquittal of a police officer who fired 49 shots into a vehicle with two unarmed African-Americans inside, including 15 shots fired into the windshield while the officer was standing on the hood. Both the man and woman inside the car were killed.
When the acquittal verdict was announced last May on a Saturday morning, the protests in downtown Cleveland were relatively small. But the police in riot gear herded about 70 protestors into an alley and then arrested them for failure to disperse. “They were told to disperse, but police blocked the end of the alley where they could disperse,” according to Freda Levenson, legal director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio.
Many were detained for a few days without hearings, and the ACLU won a $5,000 settlement from the city for a photographer who was was arrested while documenting the scene in the alley. The city has since changed its policy on how and when police can use a “dispersal” order, but hasn’t nailed down completely what practices it will employ for protestors who come to the city in July 2016 for the Republican National Convention — including where protests can take place, and what permits will be required and the time frame to get them.
“What concerns us most about the process is that the city’s plans for how basic civil liberties and security and protest rules during the convention have been very slow to be decided, and they have not shared them publicly,” Levenson says. “We’d like to know the plans and possibly challenge these plans, because at some point they will say it is too late to challenge, sorry.
“But our main fear is that [the Cleveland] police force has already demonstrated an inability to do good policing even at small-scale protest events.”
One of the issues in Cleveland is a lack of big, open spaces near the convention activities downtown where protestors could convene without interfering with the convention or the daily life of downtown workers and residents. Downtown Cleveland is also framed and cut off from the outside by freeways and the Cuyahoga River. In that respect, in won’t be like Chicago in 1968 where the protest crowd was moved to Grant Park on Lake Michigan, which is connected to downtown Chicago.
“This is one of those events where the local police and Homeland Security and Secret Service will all have a say in what security will be imposed,” Levenson says. “But we are telling them now that if the places where protests are allowed and the numbers are very restrictive, they will cause more problems than they will solve. We are just hoping for a reasonable approach that doesn’t use over-heightened security practices as an excuse to violate free speech.”
Daniel J. McGraw is a writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.