Conor Friedersdorf

CLEVELAND––After two days of wandering widely in the blocks outside the Republican National Convention, the tensest moments that I’ve witnessed haven’t concerned Donald Trump, despite the intensity of dislike for him among his detractors and the harsh denunciations levied by various demonstrators here. The most tense moments I’ve witnessed have instead transpired in a space filled with an overwhelming police presence, protesters objecting to recent police killings of black men, and open-carry advocates dressed in surplus military clothing and body armor. Many here are hoping that the volatile mix doesn’t explode.  

My colleague David Graham wrote about a large protest where all those factors were present. Earlier the same day, I witnessed something that brought home how the high emotion associated with protests against police sometimes risk more violence.

The protester, a middle-aged black man, was there in the Public Square with three young girls, presumably his daughters. He was upset about the killing of Tamir Rice, and stood on an elevated bench to voice his grievances to those milling around.

Here’s a small part of a much longer monologue:

As you can see, the speaker ended his remarks and picked up a plastic water gun. It was bright green, not easily mistaken for a real gun. Still, I cringed when I saw him pick it up. And I marveled that any father, let alone one speaking out against the killing of Tamir Rice, would give his children toy guns to take to a public square positively teeming with armed police officers from more than a dozen police agencies.

All kept their distance.

When the speaker began shouting at a group of passing police officers, “Some of those are cops and at least some of them are pigs,” they just kept walking, preferring not to make eye contact, let alone enforce the rule against water guns. Right then, another observer asked the man why he was angry at police for killing Tamir Rice when the young man was holding a realistic gun that they reasonably mistook to be real.

The speaker became angry and emotional, said that he had watched the video of Tamir Rice’s killing dozens of times, and declared that the young boy wasn’t waving the gun around, but had it tucked into his waist ban so that it was almost hidden.

To illustrate his point, he tucked his own water gun down the waist of his shorts, covered it up with his shirt, then reached down into his waistband to pull out the water-gun. The entire time I was terrified that some passing police officer was going to catch  the movement out of the corner of his eye, mistake it, and open fire. It wasn’t a likely outcome. But given the setting, the high tensions, the number of cops present, and the presence of open carry advocates, it was a crazy thing to do.

By the time I started recording again the man had fallen to the ground:

His protest ended peacefully and he left with his daughters, toy water guns dangling from their hands. He was justly upset, understandably emotional—and risking a lot. It’s easy to imagine how things could have gone wrong, how an error in perception by a passing cop could’ve proved catastrophic, but the police were coolheaded and competent, even in a crowded space with terrorism and cop-killers on their mind.

It is but a small success, but one worth noting.

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