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The specter of violence hangs over protests at the Republican National Convention

Demonstrators march through downtown ahead of the Republican

Demonstrators march through downtown ahead of the Republican National Convention on July 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Getty Images / Jeff J. Mitchell

CLEVELAND - Joy Roller had to make a last-minute add to her speech about peace and unity.

Standing on the edge of Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, on Sunday, she was welcoming area residents and visitors to a “public display of unity.” After a difficult, divisive month— shootings in Orlando and Dallas, the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — the “Stand for Love” event was meant to put the city in a mood of togetherness on the eve of the Republican National Convention.

As news broke about the shootings of police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she had to add another “horrific event” to the list.

“People just really want peace and calm,” said Carol Malone, 60, a Cleveland native attending the event. “That doesn’t take away from people being angry and wanting change.”

The unity gatherers, many wearing white T-shirts urging “Stand for Love,” were urged to make this a non-partisan-, non-issues-based moment, though there were some covert Hillary Clinton stickers and a bolder Bernie Sanders banner. The crowd made its way across the bridge overlooking the city and stood in silence for some 30 minutes.

Later Sunday afternoon, more vocal protesters marched from Cleveland State University downtown, a small cohort of groups denouncing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and the RNC on grounds of racism, Islamophobia and other causes — from students chanting Black Lives Matter slogans to the familiar Revolutionary Communist Party bringing up the rear, hawking newspapers and looking for donations.

Two onlookers wearing white “Stand for Love” shirts said they’d been on the bridge earlier Sunday. Standing together in silence “felt really amazing inside,” said Aaron Benson, 41. It had been about “projecting peace and love.” 

The Stop Trump march was “yelling about someone else’s hatred,” he said, which made him feel less comfortable.

But even those protesters, with more radical signs and slogans, were marching peacefully, not advocating violence. Some carried signs saying “Resistance is Justified from Baltimore to Gaza,” and RevCom did what RevCom does, but at least here and now that resistance was limited to walking, advocating, exhorting. 

“No one is coming here to hurt anyone,” said Jordan Curl, 19, a college student from Michagan. She carried a sign in support of a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. This was the first convention she’d attended.  

With more and major protests expected in Cleveland as Trump accepts the nomination later this week, combined with the violent events of the past weeks, there is a mood of wary anticipation among these protesters and rallyers of different stripes.

A so-called “Peace Team” from Michigan had made its way down for the convention site, hoping to “get in between factions that might be in conflict,” said Yusif Barakat, one of the yellow-vested volunteers.

If they see violence, he said, they’ll “go towards it,” tomorrow and afterward. “Violence doesn’t work. Period.”