When America Responds to Donald Trump’s Platform of Hate with Peace and Unity


When I arrived in Cleveland for the 2016 Republican National Convention on Tuesday morning, I expected mayhem. I’m an aspiring conflict journalist, and the Republican National Convention promised an opportunity to cut my journalistic teeth. At the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, riots broke out and hundreds of people were arrested. And Mitt Romney didn’t even have the legacy of violent rallies like Trump does.

In the weeks leading up to the convention, headlines like CBS’s “Cleveland Police Prepare for Riots” or The Intercept’s “Cleveland Prepares for Chaos at Republican National Convention” predicted violent unrest. The Washington Post revealed the list of equipment procured by the Cleveland police for convention security to include 2,000 sets of riot armor–preparations that appeared to dictate a militarized response.

Photography @ben_toren_

Photography @ben_toren_

I even purchased a gas mask on Amazon for $25 for the event.

I was hardly the only one to think Cleveland would be the scene of bedlam. The oft repeated joke in the streets of Cleveland this last week was there was more media than protesters, and more police than media. On Wednesday, the Cleveland police Tweeted, “Massive media presence is making it difficult for law enforcement officers to police demonstrations.”

In the absence of action, I roamed downtown Cleveland, interviewing people on the street and taking photos. The weather was beautiful all week with the temperature in the low 70s. Cleveland’s stately architecture provided a handsome setting for a–regardless of one’s politics–watershed moment in American history.

I asked little old ladies why they supported Trump. According to Phyllis, from Ohio, the Republican nominee has “Good morals. And he speaks like people want to hear him. Like I want to hear him anyhow.”

I asked Republican delegates what is one thing they would say to Hillary Clinton. John Raece, a delegate from West Virginia and previously the chairman of the state’s Republican party, said he would tell Hillary, “Go home to Bill.”

There were many artists in Cleveland spreading images of love. Vishavjit Singh, an artist from New York City, travelled to the RNC to deliver a message that America–Republicans and Democrats alike–need to “figure out ways of dealing with the intolerance and engaging with each other despite our differences.” 

Photography @ben_toren_

Photography @ben_toren_

There were numerous men with assault rifles strapped to their backs, and I asked them about why they felt compelled to bring their guns to Cleveland. Jesse, a resident of Ohio who carried a shotgun, told me: “I have never lived in a time so tense, where police are shooting people, people are shooting back at police. It’s built a stigma that if you have a gun, or if you seem like a threat in public the police will shoot you. Police are here to protect us, and the second amendment is a constitutional right. I’m here displaying with that respect and responsibility that you can be down at Cleveland at the RNC open carrying and it’s all cool.”

After three days in Cleveland, the reality couldn’t have been farther from the expectations I had upon arrival. Aside from Joey Johnson’s attempted ignition of the American flag, leading to his and numerous other members of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s arrest, public reaction to Donald Trump’s nomination was largely non-violent.

In fact, the convergence of the press, police, and protesters in downtown Cleveland had a carnivalesque atmosphere–there was even music and dancing.

On East 4th Street, Cleveland resident Brittany played her saxophone while her brother, George, held a “End Racism” placard and danced with a bare-chested Biker for Trump. “Stop all the white against black, black against white,” Fossett declared. “It’s all about love. This is what Cleveland is about. This is what the world should be about.”

Photography @ben_toren_

Photography @ben_toren_

Around the corner on Euclid Avenue, Big Dave held up a sign saying “Free Hugs.” After his friend died on 9/11, Big Dave travelled the world spreading love through his free hugs campaign. He came to Cleveland to continue embracing strangers, and as a line of police officers trudged by him, he high-fived each one in turn.

When an argument became too heated, New York City-resident Roy Vlcek AKA Mr. Doingtoomuch stepped in and diffused the situation with a dance. “I’m telling people that I’m running as a third-party candidate, as a member of the Jiggy Party, and so what the Jiggy Party’s ideals are are ‘Harlem Shaking’ through the pressure.”

On Cleveland’s streets during the Republican National Convention, these similar acts of love were more common than ones of hate. Kevin MacDonald, a native of Cleveland, said the week made it seem like “we’re all one big American family.”

In my experience, the police were all extraordinarily friendly–a courageous act in the wake of the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and the general tensions between civilians and police in America. Cleveland’s Chief of Police Calvin Williams was in the streets himself, shaking people’s hands and directing his officers when necessary.

“The police are very friendly,” James, a resident of Arkansas with an AK47 strapped to his back, told me. “When people start to respect each other and this country, things are going to change. It’s about responsibility and working hard to make things right, to make things good, and to love each other.”

All these people with their far-out convictions, I noted on Tuesday. This is what makes America great.

Even though I didn’t get my adrenaline fix, I returned to New York with a very different takeaway of America’s political system, one that is wholly unique from any other democracy in the world. I did not have access to Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention took place, and what I gleaned has nothing to do with Donald Trump or his politics. It has everything to do with free speech.

Even the Westboro Baptist Church, an objectively horrid group, are guaranteed under the First Amendment to espouse hateful diatribes. Their rallies were met with boos from the crowd in Public Square. The Westboro Baptist Church are clearly not a popular bunch, but a police perimeter around its members with their “Muhammad is in Hell” t-shirts protected them from the obstruction of their right to free speech.

Photography @ben_toren_

Photography @ben_toren_

The Republican National Convention was surreal in my observations of peace and unity, which must be noted for their deep irony considering how exclusionary and hateful Donald Trump’s campaign has been. One could expect a bunch of bible belters like the Westboro Baptist Church spreading vitriol, but who would have thought the 2016 Republican National Convention, amidst one of the most contentious elections in recent memory, would be more Woodstock than political rally?

It’s interesting, how the celebration of the crude is apparently endemic to America. Donald J. Trump, reality star and scumbag, becomes a legitimate contender for the office of the president of the United States, and the mood is light. What does it say about America that the energy surrounding a platform regarded by most as hateful was cheerful and optimistic?

Ben Toren