In January of 1968, eight months before the Democrats were to meet in Chicago to formally nominate their candidate for president, there were no blatant signs that one of the worst civic unrest situations in U.S. history would be taking place in August. The Black Panthers were a little militant group that had not yet expanded out of Oakland, California. The Yippies, a confluence of anti-war groups, had just formally named themselves on New Year's Eve of 1967 and wouldn't announce their existence to the world until March.
The Viet Cong Tet Offensive hadn't started yet in the Vietnam War, a final nail in the coffin that helped convince the public that the war was becoming unwinnable. LBJ hadn't announced he wasn't running, and Alabama governor George Wallace hadn't yet announced he was running as an Independent geared toward Southern whites opposed to black civil rights changes in the country. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were still alive. And CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite hadn't yet told the American people that "we are mired in a stalemate" in Vietnam.
By August 26, 1968, when the Chicago convention began, MLK and RFK were dead, the Vietnam War was perceived as a lost cause, and Yippies and Black Panthers had thousands of followers camped out in Grant Park. The city of Chicago was more of a war zone than a host city for conventioneers.
As Cleveland is now six months out from hosting the Republican National Convention in July, Northeast Ohio cheerleaders are still pushing their wishful narrative that this event will be a wonderful showcase for Cleveland to a worldwide audience. It will, hopefully, be a week when the national media and political leadership will bring the "Cleveland Comeback" story to the world. But what no one is talking about is the other part of the convention, the tens of thousands of protestors who might descend upon the city and make their presence felt. In fact, the local media act as if none of those protesting folks will stop by.
And the question that is unanswered, and will be until after the convention is done, is whether the world will remember Cleveland as the place with those cute restaurants on East Fourth Street and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Lake Erie, or as the city that was under siege by protestors telling the world about racial injustice and gun control and climate change and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
Some think it might be as disruptive as Chicago in 1968 during the Democratic National Convention, when the Chicago police had their own riot. Others think Cleveland will find a way to keep the protesters out of sight. But it is quite evident that the divisiveness in the country has a good chance of boiling over this summer in Cleveland.
In January 1968, it was evident that there was rage and hate and distain bubbling below the surface, much more than what was showing up in the news headlines. Campus protests over the war had started in the previous few years, and some of these students were burning their draft cards in public protest, but the big ones hadn't happened yet. The civil rights movement had had some big victories under King: the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. There were also very violent marches like Selma and other racial violence prior to 1968.
But middle-class white America wasn't real comfortable with these changes, and it all came to a head in many ways in Chicago. Chicago police cracked heads, because they were getting tired of being accused of being a problem. Politicians were divided on where the country was headed, and race was being interjected into the presidential campaign with Wallace running. The white middle-class majority felt left out as well, and were fine with the cops beating the shit out of those who did not adhere to their version of American patriotism.
But there are so many differences between 1968 Chicago and 2016 Cleveland, most notably the effect the assassinations of King and Kennedy had on the country, and how the Vietnam War opposition had unified black and white protest groups. So, on the one hand, don't expect Cleveland police to be pulling out their billy clubs and pounding skulls.
But there are some similarities too. Black Lives Matter folks see Cleveland as ground zero for excessive police force due to the Tamir Rice and Brelo cases, among others. There are also the issues of divisiveness in the Republican Party itself, where gun-toting and immigrant-hating Trump supporters will likely be out in full force. Add to that the millennials looking to make their mark on the era — with protests over climate change and environmental justice issues like the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the economic pressures they face with huge student loan debt and a poor employment economy.
This isn't to say patriot-types occupying federal lands in Oregon will be facing off against those who were burning buildings in Ferguson, Missouri. But the cultural divisiveness and rage from all sides that are clearly being seen in the presidential race are becoming more heightened, and the lines shooting off from displeasure and madness from the various divisions within the electorate are heading straight for Cleveland.
"The Tamir Rice case will make Cleveland an epicenter and there will be very major protests there during the convention," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida who taught at Cleveland State University in the mid-1980s. "It is obvious the way things are lining up that this might be the biggest number of protesters at a political convention in many years.
"This isn't going to be a few people blocking intersections, either," she continues. "This will be outsiders coming to Cleveland with a purpose, because they always do in events like this. But it will be much bigger in Cleveland because of all the events of the past year or so. And Cleveland is also very ethnic and racially polarized, so how the city handles major racial protests will be something everyone will be watching.
"The Republicans are worried when they talk about this privately," MacManus says. "The Rice case and the Brelo verdict weren't on the radar much when they picked Cleveland, and now protests over these police cases might dominate things that week."
Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State, and author of the 2011 book Racial Profiling: Causes and Consequences, agrees that the protests will be big — much bigger than the city had thought they'd be when wooing the Republicans for the convention. "They have been portraying these small protests over the Brelo and Rice cases as dry runs to prepare themselves for the convention, but they haven't seen anything yet," Dunn says. "I'm expecting tens of thousands of people to be coming to the city, and I don't think the local African-American activists are going to stay home and do what their clergy and the black political leadership says they should do.
"If the white suburban millennials join forces with the Black Lives Matter folks, as they have been doing with issues of urban environmental issues and economic disparity, this could be much bigger than we are thinking now," Dunn says. "How well they are organized, and what happens on the college campuses this spring will be very telling and predictive."
Several attempts to reach Black Lives Matter leadership — both locally and nationally — for this story were unsuccessful. That dearth of information from some of these groups might make predicting the size of the protests difficult; many of the Black Lives Matter leadership distrust the mainstream media for being part of what they perceive as racial injustice.
But previous comments by black leaders suggest that the RNC will be the target. After Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of two unarmed African-Americans, the Rev. Al Sharpton wrote in the Huffington Post that, "when [the Republicans] come to Cleveland to convene, they will be coming to a city and a state under high mobilization on this issue. I say to all GOP candidates that have largely remained quiet on this topic, as you begin primaries and head to Cleveland, remember the words of legendary boxer Joe Louis: 'You can run, but you can't hide.'"
Last summer, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors told MSNBC: "Trust and believe that any opportunity we have to shut down a Republican convention, we will."
After Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty announced at the end of December that the grand jury in the Tamir Rice case declined to indict Cleveland police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, a coalition of Cleveland civil rights groups (including the local NAACP chapter), held a press conference where local activist Basheer Jones said, "What you are about to see here in Cleveland, you have never seen before. At this moment, activists are coming from all across the country to march and walk with us. There will be civil disobedience."
One major question is how hard the Cleveland African-American leadership will work to keep the locals from joining up with "outside agitators." They have used a group called the Peacemakers Alliance, a conglomeration of community leaders, clergy, and former gang members —funded with about $800,000 annually from the Cleveland Foundation — to keep the peace during times of protest. It is unclear whether the Peacemakers Alliance will be used in the same way during the convention.
Dunn, the CSU professor, says, "Cleveland leadership has gotten a pass from the local African-American community on police issues, in part because of Carl and Lou Stokes, and the history of being a city that had African-American leaders early on. I've been critical of [Cleveland mayor] Frank Jackson and his administration in the police excessive force issues, but the clergy and political forces have kept people from blaming Jackson.