During the RNC, a Political Rainbow Forms in Cleveland's New, $50 Million Public Square

Jul 21, 2016

At first glance, one might assume Bruce Spratling from South Dakota is a Hillary Clinton supporter, but a closer look reveals his pro-Trump shirt. Spratling says the last Democratic Presidential candidate he voted for was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

The $50 million revamp of Cleveland’s Public Square was finished last month, just in time for the Republican National Convention. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on what things are like in and around the square this week.

“I was a Democrat until Peanut Brain. What a miserable failure that guy was," says Bruce Spratling, visiting here from South Dakota. He’s one of the many people of various political stripes – Republican, Democrat and Independent – who have converged on Public Square this week. The new square features open grassy areas, a large concrete mall and a reflecting pool. People have been milling around while scheduled speakers take the stage and impromptu speakers commandeer crowds.

Cash v. Hate

This week, Public Square has been less a melting pot and more a salad bowl of different viewpoints coming together peacefully.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

On Wednesday, one of the biggest responses was for the Westboro Baptists, a controversial church which has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That’s Cliff Cash, a comedian from North Carolina who’s here for some shows during the RNC, heckled them by yelling, "This is the worst comedy show I’ve ever seen! Party at your church after this. I’m bringing some Natural Ice.”

When asked if he thought it was having an impact, he said, "No, but I’m funny. I can’t write anything better than that. I can ‘drill sergeant-yell’ that dude for hours without being tired.

At first, bicycle police formed a barrier around the Westboro Baptists, then a second line of California Highway Patrolmen formed a human barrier around that. Eventually, a group of nearby musicians started playing to drown them out. Marilyn Cornell – aged 76 -- from Parma wore a Bernie Sanders shirt and kept her distance.

“They’re speaking against gays and against blacks and I want to know if they’ve ever read the part in the Bible that says, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ I don’t know. I wonder? Makes me wonder.”

Police quickly moved in during a flag-burning at E. 4th and Prospect, after one of the protesters accidentally lit his pants on fire. Two police officers suffered "bumps and bruises," and the crime scene was marked with police tape for several hours.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

The crowd -- and police -- eventually spread back out to roam the square. Nearby, Bruce Spratling took in the proceedings. He’s the one who said earlier he dislikes “Peanut Head” – his name for Jimmy Carter. Spratling looks like a walking relic from Woodstock: he’s decked out with Willie Nelson-styled braids, wide, red suspenders and lots of pinbacks from various blues concerts on his tie-dyed T-shirt. But look closer, and the shirt says “Make America Great Again.”

“Trump’s support is broad-based. What I really like is building the wall, stopping illegal immigration and not letting Muslims into the country.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, Alex Chabbott came here from California with a wagon full of free food – and a bed-comforter-sized upside-down American flag with the words “Stolen Flag” on it.

“It’s still being used to justify going all over the globe: Iraq, Afghanistan, South America – everywhere in between. This has a really bloody history. And I don’t think it ever really represented what people think it represents.”

Flag-burning
Sean Witte from California quickly jumped in, saying, “as a Marine Corps veteran I’ll say it represents sacrifices made by my people. And if you’re thinking of doing something with that flag, I strongly suggest that you change your ideas.”

Witte was referring to the rumor that a flag was going to be burned on Public Square. But that turned out to just be a rumor – because the flag was burned later, at the corner of E. 4th Street and Prospect Ave. Police from Cleveland – as well as from Georgia, Texas and Florida – streamed in to maintain order and keep people on the sidewalks. Eventually, 17 people were arrested, charged with things like refusing an order to disperse, resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer. Frank Casagrande – a guest of the Florida delegation – says Cleveland has the “perfect” number of police officers here for the RNC.

“The police department is doing a fantastic job. They need so much credit. Because you got a situation that could get out of control, and they have done a world-class job and they oughta be commended for it.”

Dan Malfronte (right) and Darren Maconi came to the RNC from New Jersey to sell his two cereals -- "Captain Clinton" and "Trump Flakes." He says Cleveland is one of the cleanest cities he's been to.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

A well-balanced breakfast
Up and down Euclid Avenue and E. 4th Street, conventioneers, media and visitors weaved around the various street vendors. Most of them were selling pro-Trump or anti-Hillary T-shirts. But Dan Malafronte came from New Jersey to sell boxes of cereal.

“We are Trump Flakes and Clinton Crunch. Basically, it’s just a funny twist on a serious topic.”

Malafronte says he plans to be at the Democratic National Convention, “unless we sell out. I love Cleveland, man. [It’s] actually one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been to. It’s been awesome.”