Republican National Convention: Security Takes Center Stage as ‘Anything Can Happen’

Republican National Convention Cleveland
Greg E. Mathieson Sr./REX/Shutterstock

CLEVELAND — As the crowds in downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square district began to swell on Sunday afternoon in preparation for the Republican National Convention this week, the focus on security and law enforcement was palpable.

Law enforcement officials from at least a half-dozen agencies were out in force on the streets around the Quicken Loans Arena where Donald Trump will formally be anointed as the party’s presidential nominee. From the Cleveland Police Department to the Secret Service to Homeland Security, uniformed officers were stationed in large numbers on every street corner. A large number of local police officers patrolled the streets on bicycles.

Ohio State Troopers wore a black band across their badges to show respect for the three police officers killed and three others wounded in a sniper attack in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday morning, a horrific echo of the July 7 shooting in Dallas that left five law enforcement officials dead. Those incidents have law enforcement officials across the country on heightened alert — a response that was evident in the numbers deployed in Cleveland. Many passersby on the street were heard to thank the officers for their service.

When asked what the greatest fear for the gathering in Cleveland, a state trooper with the surname Santiago cited Baton Rouge and the fact “that anything can happen.” (He declined to give his first name because he was not authorized to speak for the department.)

As police prepare for the unexpected, there is no question that demonstrations will be part of the scene given that Trump’s controversial positions and statements about minority groups have spurred anger.

A number of anti-Trump protesters, some carrying Black Lives Matter signs, made their presence felt in Cleveland on Sunday with a march down Euclid Avenue near the arena.

The stepped-up security was also seen and heard as city crews were busy pounding temporary chain-link fencing across a number of streets to keep traffic from flowing down side streets leading to the arena. Outside the tall iron gate leading to the TSA-style security screening area for credential media and convention-goers, a female state trooper was overheard asking a Secret Service officer: “If they start coming through here protesting are we swinging this door shut?”

Even as temperatures topped 80 degrees in the late afternoon, there were no exceptions to standing in line for the security screening. ABC News anchor David Muir was among those who sweated out the lengthy wait to get into the arena around 4:15 p.m. ET.

Despite the ample evidence of heightened security, there was a festive atmosphere among delegates who strolled down the cobblestone alley leading to the arena entrance. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and other major news organizations have set up studio installations and hospitality suites in local bars and restaurants, giving delegates and onlookers plenty to take in. And where there are crowds there are capitalists, selling everything from faux straw hats to T-shirts to all manner of anti-Hillary Clinton paraphernalia. A small plane circled the downtown area tugging a “Hillary for Prison 2016” banner across. That same sentiment was seen on many T-shirts and buttons on display.

Next to the arena at Progressive Field, home to the Cleveland Indians baseball team, vendors were busy putting up tents and bunting for the “Freedom Marketplace” that will open tomorrow.

Inside the arena, news organizations were putting the finishing touches on their skyboxes and makeshift production offices. “Face the Nation” anchor John Dickerson was deep in conversation with the GOP official outside of CBS’ installation. Greta Van Susteren was among the Fox News personalities spotted strolling around.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan each appeared on the stage on Sunday to do a quick rehearsal. Ryan peered down at a group of reporters and photographers and answered a few questions.

“It looks nice,” he said of the set, which looks a bit more futuristic than that of the GOP’s 2012 gathering. The set piece features a giant video carousel that resembles the set of a cable news program. A digital crawl running along the second level of the arena displays Twitter messages — an appropriate touch given Trump’s affinity for social media missives.

When Mitchell asked Ryan “What are you looking forward to most,” the speaker responded, “Oh, I’m not doing that!”

Shawn Steel, former chairman of the California Republican Party, was also on the floor of the “Q,” as the arena is dubbed. He’s serving as one of three sergeant-at-arms of the convention proceedings (another one is Bruce Hough, father of actors Julianne Hough and Derek Hough), and on Sunday he was busy surveying the arena’s layout.

Steel’s duty, he said, is to keep order in the arena, working in coordination with Cleveland police, the Republican National Committee and Trump’s private security detail.

“We got to make the political and practical decision of, ‘Is this person so much out of control that we got to talk to them?’ Say please sit down, or I am going to remove your credentials and you won’t be authorized to come in anymore,” Steel said. “Or, if they are even more belligerent or hostile, then we will say, ‘Sergeant, please take them out of the convention.'”

It’s not out of the question something like it happening: Code Pink protesters interrupted Mitt Romney’s speech during the 2012 Republican Convention.

“I have never seen security like this in my life,” Steel said. “I mean, everything. Externally particularly. Internally, it is hard to get a credential. We know we got the credentials number. If someone’s credential is pulled we will know who they are or who gave it to them. And there will be a severe accounting for that.”

He said that one thing of note was an ad that appeared on Craigslist bidding for tickets for the convention, even though credentials had not been distributed. “It’s a fraudulent ad, but that alerted Secret Service to start checking social media.”

He said that he met with Trump’s “black tie” private security service on Sunday.

“This is the private security group that has been working for Trump for years,” he said. “These guys got experience at big rallies, and they are the best in the country because Trump has had a lot of big rallies. And their protocol is the same as ours: A, identify the problem and try to talk the person down. Call me, call one of the sergeant-at-arms. And C, if we can’t talk them down and they continue to be belligerent, we will ask the Cleveland police to have them removed.”

The scene on the red-carpeted convention floor, among the rows of empty chairs laid out for the state delegations, was not unlike the atmosphere on the red carpet at a major award show during the calm before the storm. TV news crews were prowling around for interesting color, and correspondents were heard delivering reports in a multitude of languages.

Convention producers ran the voice-over artists through practice runs of introductions for GOP bigwigs including Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus. Later, a dozen members of a local youth choir, the Singing Angels, assembled on stage for several practice runs of the “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“Brendan, I need you to smile more,” the choir’s artistic director Charles Eversole instructed one young man. The next time through, Brendan was smiling from ear to ear.