By Cathy Tang
When the world didn’t end in 2012, thousands of Doomsday preppers emerged from their underground bunkers disappointed by the relative calm of the scheduled apocalypse. Fortunately for them, they can once again pull out their survival kits and pamphlets because the apocalypse wasn’t cancelled, it was just postponed until the 2016 Republican National Convention.
During every presidential election season, the who’s who of the Republican party gathers under one roof to officially nominate the party’s presidential candidate, and to kick-off the next four months of cross-country campaigning. To those who don’t usually pay attention to politics, the convention can come and go without so much as a hiccup, but this year’s convention put the spotlight not only on Republican nominee Donald Trump, but also, on the growing tensions between communities across America.
Given Trump’s vitriol campaign rhetoric, it’s no wonder that the country held its breath in anticipation as the convention convened in a city with the third highest poverty rate in America. Those living in Cleveland and those tasked with protecting the city during the convention feared, and with good reason, that the week-long event would bring about violent and uncontrolled clashes between protesters, citizens, and convention attendees. In anticipation of these close encounters, Cleveland hospitals had increased their stock of medical supplies, the city brought in 2,500 outside law enforcement officials to help monitor the barricades separating the attendees from the protesters, and citizens were warned by their local government to stay away from the downtown area, where the convention would take place. In perhaps the most surprising and telling move leading up to the convention, the president of Cleveland’s largest police union wrote and requested that Governor John Kasich, a Republican and former candidate for president, place a temporary ban on Cleveland’s open carry policy.
Ohio has traditionally been considered an “open carry” state because neither federal nor state laws prohibit citizens from openly carrying firearms. This means that individuals can carry their firearms around without a permit, so long as the firearm is made clearly visible. By demanding a temporary ban, the police union effectively asked that for one week, citizens be restricted from openly carrying their weapons. This request, although denied by the governor, signals a tremendous effort by law enforcement officials to suspend a state policy in an effort to maintain and maximize safety and precaution for the city. In other words, law enforcement officials recognized that even with responsible gun ownership and gun usage, the proliferation of firearms in public spaces would undoubtedly make the safety of these spaces more and more difficult to regulate and monitor.
Gun violence prevention advocates have consistently questioned the logic of open carry, so it comes as no surprise to them to hear a request for a suspension of open carry for security reasons. What is wholly surprising however, is that this request came from law enforcement officials themselves. While officers from around the country have often made statements opposing open carry, none have ever gone so far as to request a temporary ban on it. The significance of Ohio’s largest police union requesting a ban should not be lost: trained law enforcement officials felt so compelled by the potential dangers of open carry that they went so far as to request an executive order to ban open carry during the week of the convention. Given already heightened tensions, officers predicted that a contentious environment with easy access to firearms could result in uncontrolled violence and chaos. The Cleveland police union made their gun violence prevention stance overwhelmingly clear: Their job is to protect and serve the city of Cleveland but they cannot do their jobs well in a state that allows open carry during one of the most contentious Republican conventions this country has seen.
The effects of open carry don’t just stop with the police. Governor Kasich’s refusal to temporarily ban open carry during the week of the convention meant that in order for law enforcement officials to feel comfortable doing their jobs, they had to arm themselves with riot gear and other military-grade equipment. The hyper-militarization of the police poses significant security issues to the community and could have the adverse effect of escalating violence, rather than preventing it.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio cited several concerns over the militarization of law enforcement officials during the convention. There is no reason why local law enforcement should have access to military-grade weapons and technology in a noncombat civilian state. Additionally, local police lack proper training for using these weapons and could “scare people into not exercising their right to protest peacefully.” In their attempt to maintain the safety of the collective community, Ohio enlisted the help of over 2,500 additional law enforcement officers—1,700 of whom were going to be housed in student dorms at Case Western Reserve University. Students and professors were told to cancel a week of summer classes in order to accommodate the presence of a paramilitary force on campus. Suddenly, the space of the university, one built with safety and learning in mind, became a space in which riot police with military grade weapons could sleep next door to unarmed students. Not only is this a distraction from the purpose of a higher education learning institution, but at its very core, this is a violation of the students’ right to safety on campus. Law enforcement or not, military grade weapons have no place on a university campus.
In an anonymous letter, a Case Western University professor asks, “What does it symbolize when a university library closes while security forces store firearms and pepper spray in dorms, weapons that will likely be used against next week’s demonstrators—some of whom, I fear, might be my students?” Additionally, at what point do the lines become so blurred that in order for a police force to protect and serve their community, they must first put that very community at risk? These are questions not only directed at law enforcement or government officials—these are questions we must ask and answer as we imagine our country’s future after the November elections.
These events leading up to the national convention do not exist in a vacuum. When a presidential nominee of a major party uses hateful rhetoric to incite fear, people react. They protest. When these divisions become so divisive that the police feel unsafe doing their jobs without riot gear, we need to seriously rethink our state of affairs. This is no apocalypse yet, but if the Republican National Convention is any indication of what life is like after a Republican victory in November, then I’ll be the first person in line for an underground bunker.
Cathy Tang is an intern with Generation Progress Action.