Keep America Safe Again: A Black Person’s Guide to Safety, Space and Activism at the RNC

Protesters struggle with police after trying to burn an American flag near the site of the Republican National Convention in downtown Cleveland on the third day of the convention, July 20, 2016.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Be safe.”

“Stay safe, brother.”

“Be safe, praying for you.”

These are the paraphrases of just about every text, Facebook post and social media DM I’ve received since spreading the word that I was headed to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week.


The absolute palpable fear on the part of black people I know about the dangers of going to the convention of a party that was about to nominate Donald Trump was evident in every exchange. In the wake of high-profile police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., there was every reason to believe that right-wing conservatives would use the Cleveland convention as a billboard for their “tough on activists” rhetoric and crack down like there was no tomorrow. Is it really that bad on the ground, though? It depends on whom you ask, how you dress and what kind of colors you’re showing.

I am not a war correspondent, but I have covered some fairly volatile political events in the last few years. I was at the massive protest marches by the YoSoy132 movement during the Mexican presidential elections in Mexico City. YoSoy132 was a student movement that led to over 10,000 citizens marching on the largest television network in Mexico to protest biased reporting and government corruption.


I was also in Ferguson, Mo., during the protests, and, to be honest, I felt less safe than in Mexico City. Everyone was terrified of going to Cleveland, and a colleague insisted that I go to journalist “riot training” before heading to the Cleveland convention. This was helpful but also heightened my concerns that a city like Cleveland, which I have lived in for over a decade, wasn’t nearly as safe as I wished it could be.

The riot instructor said: “You don’t really have to worry about snipers, too much. They mostly like to operate in places with a lot of tall but abandoned buildings where they can get from location to location without being spotted.”


Don’t worry about abandoned buildings? Clearly, he’d never been to downtown Cleveland. While much of the downtown has been revitalized, the upper echelons of the old buildings downtown are still empty and haven't been used in years. However, many of my fears and concerns have been unrealized in my first two days at the Republican convention, in large part because I am—ironically at a Republican convention—the right color.

By that color, I mean, yellow, red, silver or taupe: the colors of the press. The police have been on extra-special nice behavior throughout the week, especially to the members of the press and, oddly enough, even to protesters. As of the first two days of the Republican convention, and protests throughout the city, only five arrests had been made.


“The police chief said they are going to let everyone practice their First and Second Amendment rights,” says Jeff Johnson.

Johnson, whom many know from his media work and activism, is working as a communication liaison for the city of Cleveland during the RNC and had high praise for how the police have handled things thus far. He pointed out that there was a distinct effort on the part of police not to focus on small petty crimes and target only significant threats.


From my own observation, this seems to be the case thus far. I saw five police officers charge after a man who was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and aggressively ask him what was under his shirt. Cameras all swerved toward the incident, which happened just behind the MSNBC booth on the main convention strip. But as soon as it started, it was over. The man, who smirked at the cops and chided them, was left alone, and I saw a few police officers walk over to him later and laugh with him and apologize. Even at night, I saw a black woman walking along the side streets where about 100 officers were congregating, and they all just parted like the Red Sea for her to pass by without so much as a word.

It hasn’t all been perfect; this is still America, and it’s still Cleveland, and it’s still the Republican National Convention. On Monday I observed neo-Nazis attempting to record and provoke activists into a conflict with police. I also saw a woman speaking in the town square asking for justice for Tamir Rice, only be arrested, strapped to a gurney and whisked away by the police. She screamed her name, address and telephone number in fear of never coming back alive.


Is the Republican convention a safe place to be for a black person? Perhaps. If you are a member of the press, there seems to be a distinct effort to treat you better, which is certainly more than can be said of Ferguson or Baltimore. Also, the number of arrests seems to suggest that activists and police officers have been getting along peacefully through two days.

However, there are two days to go, more people showing up every night, and Donald Trump has yet to make his acceptance speech. The city of Cleveland has made America seem safe again, but who knows how long that will last?



Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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