Red, White, and Bruised

When Donald Trump and the GOP Convention arrive in Cleveland, they will find a city with a long history of violent outbursts, racial tension—and brushes with fascism. In short, the perfect stage for the 2016 presidential campaign. Kyle Swenson explores the history of his hometown.

Kyle Swenson | Longreads | July 2016 | 14 minutes (3,440 words)

 

My hometown isn’t very good at stomaching bad news. The word on Tamir landed on an icebox Monday afternoon deep into December. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office must have been watching the calendar—and the Doppler radar. The announcement arrived in the patch of dead static between Christmas and New Year’s when most of the country is unplugged or has hit the mental snooze button. As Prosecutor Timothy McGinty started his press conference, a perfect storm of human error, a tragic accident, winter rain began soaking the city. That night, spot protests were small in number. But the word went out: tomorrow afternoon, downtown, be there.

The one-day delay seemed to heap more anticipation on the rally. Tamir’s mother’s words looped around the city. “We no longer trust the local criminal-justice system,” Samaria Rice said after the decision. “Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son.” For the last 13 months, the city had lived with the grainy footage of 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of two Cleveland police officers. This killing was world-shaking, one of a similar pattern of police brutality that turned the Black Lives Matter hashtag into a lasting social movement. But delays and stalling and leaks and insufferable news coverage and speculation marked the wait for a grand jury’s decision on whether criminal charges would be filed in the Rice case. It ate through patience. The city seemed perched on a volcano. Cleveland shared working class DNA with Baltimore, it knew the same racial dynamics. If Charm City could explode for Freddie Gray, there was a palpable fear that Cleveland would do the same for Tamir Rice.

On Tuesday, more than 100 people were on the steps of the Justice Center, a straight Soviet-looking block facing the lake. You could see a lot of anger sitting behind people’s eyes—decades of grievances stacked up on one another. A poster-sized picture of Tamir flapped in the wind ripping off the lake. The crowd was black and white, young and old. When the group moved onto the street, a raised, upside-down American flag led the way, fifty stars dipping to the ground. The chants started. No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace.

After a few blocks, I walked in the opposite direction, north to where FirstEnergy Stadium squats against the lake. Since the grand jury decision, I’d been fielding messages from out-of-town friends, half-jokingly telling me to be careful if people here started to “go all Cleveland.” It was the same thing they said when we lost tragic sporting events, the image here being of a city as a longtime loser with a hair-trigger collective id quick to violence. Just as I was thinking this through, six Cleveland police cars, bumper to bumper, shot past me, their roof lights spinning, a ribbon of winking blue and red bending around the stadium heading for the rally. Despite the rush, sirens weren’t on, giving the scene a weird quiet, like someone had edited out the sound. Whatever was going to happen, I realized, probably had just started.

Cleveland has always been quick to throw a punch. That’s not a homer tough guy boast. If I can lift a line from Jack Nicholson’s gangster boss in The Departed, I slander my own environment, and it makes me sad. But flare-ups of violence are status quo here, both if you dive into the historical record or consult your own eyeballed primary source memories of being ringside for bar brawls. That bruiser history is symptomatic of a civic arena marked historically by fractious competition and tension between groups, racial injustice, bad vibes pinballing all over the place. That track record will also tell you a lot more about the upcoming Republican National Convention than a busload of national pundits—particularly in the jacked-up political landscape that has draped the country in 2016.

Much of the prognostications about the upcoming RNC have been dooming and glooming over the possibility of chaos in Cleveland when Donald Trump accepts the GOP Presidential nomination. But those guesses assume the candidate himself is the wild card, the agent of possible chaos. In reality, the stage, not the players, is the x-factor here.

This is not to say my hometown isn’t full of lovely people. It is. But historically, Cleveland has been hot-wired with the kind of bad socioeconomic juju that not only has combusted regularly into violent public episodes, but also has fed local flirtations with homegrown fascism. Look at this history, you see there’s violence sitting close to the heart of depressed and distressed American metros like Cleveland. Look closer, you see that this energy is swelling behind Trump’s candidacy like wind filling a sail. Look closer still, get eye-to-eye with that history, and you’ll understand that despite his rise, Donald Trump has zero clue about the forces he’s set loose.

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The slug-first climate here stretches back to the early days. Like many of the settlements plotted out post-1787 in the territory then known as the “Old Northwest,” Cleveland was settled by an East Coast land company eager to flip the plots for quick profit. But speculation far outpaced available buyers in what would become Cleveland and Northeastern Ohio. Towns—and their investors—lived and died based on a limited number of infrastructure improvements. Decisions at the legislature on who got a port or canal terminus determined the future.

In the 1830s, Cleveland was locked in such a rivalry with Ohio City, just on the other side of the Cuyahoga River. Already connected to the Ohio Canal, Cleveland had the upper hand as the east bank settlement. But in 1837, Cleveland constructed a bridge joining the two municipalities. Ohio City, worried the connection would hurt their local merchants, declared a “bridge war.” According to the account in Jon C. Teaford’s Cities of the Heartland, Ohio City’s town marshal attempted to blow up the bridge with blasting powder. The explosion failed to topple the structure. In response, Cleveland posted a cannon on the east end of the bridge. An “army” of west and east siders faced off on the structure, trading rocks and bullets. Surprisingly, no one was killed. But Ohio City’s fears proved right on: less than 20 years later, Cleveland annexed its western neighbor.

This kind of conflict, Teaford argues, dominated these settlements as they bloomed into full-fledged cities. This was largely due to the grab bag demographic filing in. Post-Civil War, Cleveland and other Great Lake cities became industrial powerhouses thanks to canal and lake access; rail, iron, steel would write the region’s history over the next century. This growth spurt was fed by waves of European immigrants, initially from Ireland and Germany, later from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Hungary. But these groups were tuned to vastly different cultural frequencies. The Irish gravitated to civil service jobs; Central Europeans who made their exit after the 1848 political upheavals, however, distrusted the state. Socialists shared streets with committed capitalists. “Poles fleeing from German oppression in their homeland,” Teaford writes about Milwaukee, which very well could have applied to Cleveland, could find themselves living now “a short distance from Germans proud of their national heritage.”

Another group entered the mix in numbers when World War I cut off the faucet flow of foreign-born arrivals. Manufacturers began shooting down south, recruiting sharecroppers and other African Americans stifled under Jim Crow for factory work up north—one of the sparks that set off the Great Migration.

What the recruiters failed to mention, however, was that the newly arrived black workforce was largely being employed as strikebreakers against organized labor. Fresh off the train, new black Clevelanders arrived for their first day of work crossing a picket line they didn’t know anything about. This immediately set bad blood between Europeans and the blacks—who kept coming. Violent brawls were common. The labor violence culminated in 1919 with the May Day Riot, which ended in two deaths and 40 injuries.

About 40 years later, the Civil Rights era proved to be another rough, violent transition for Cleveland. By the mid-1960s, the city’s black population was sizeable—more than 279,000, or 34 percent of the total population. But these numbers were almost exclusively crammed into Cleveland’s east side, hemmed in between downtown and wealthy suburbs. Reports of overcrowded and inferior schools in these neighborhoods sparked a push for busing black students into half-filled classrooms in white areas. When Cleveland’s school board inadequately addressed integration, black parents and activists began protesting in white ethnic neighborhoods.

This, according to historian Leonard N. Moore in his book Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power, would prove to be pivotal. “[T]he white community had a history of ignoring black grievances, confident that whatever protest African Americans launched would be sporadic, short lived, individualistic—and resolved behind closed doors,” Moore writes. “But this time the city experienced its first major racial confrontation.”

On a Thursday morning in January 1964, picketers arrived at an elementary school in Murray Hill, also known as Cleveland’s Little Italy. A mob of 1,400 white people were reportedly waiting with bricks, baseball bats, guns and knives. The crowd attacked, chasing off the protesters before anyone was seriously injured. “Police were present in large numbers and saw repeated examples of violence and lawlessness,” a reporter from the city’s major black newspaper, the Call and Post, reported, “yet, not one person was taken to jail, booked, or held in court.”

The racial fires cooked over the following years. Much of the violence was located in Sowinski Park, a DMZ between white and black neighborhoods, contested turf that saw regular conflict. Swastikas, KKK and other racist graffiti inked the walls of the public bathrooms. White teenage gangs—reportedly wearing matching white T-shirts and blue jeans like holdover greasers —regularly attacked black school children in the park with bike chains. “If you are going to beat up those niggers,” one Cleveland police officer was quoted as telling a gang, “take them down in the park where we can’t see it.”

Everything went Code Red on July 18, 1966. In the Hough neighborhood, an overcrowded black neighborhood south of Sowinski, a white bar owner refused to serve a glass of water to a black patron. A crowd closed around the bar. The police were called. Rioters and looters tore through the east side over the next five nights. Over 1,400 National Guard members were called in to quell the violence. Four people were killed.

Although the city stopped burning, it was clear the issues lingered. A few months later, black political leaders held a hearing on the causes behind the violence. The event became an open forum for black east-siders to talk out years of unheard grievances. “You don’t need anything to incite people when they know they’re being mistreated,” one local black woman told the hearing. “This was something that’s been brewing . . . I don’t think Brother Malcolm X could have stopped this crowd.”

“The feeling that I now have, the more I see this,” an elderly black man testified, “the more and more the tune from Stokely Carmichael, who sings of Black Power, becomes more sweeter and sweeter.”

Two years later, the same racial tension flashed again, arguably in a way that flagged a new era of national race relations. Well before the Black Panthers became the militant boogeymen ruining the sleep of the white mainstream, on July 23, 1968, a group of self-professed black nationals ambushed Cleveland police officers watching an apartment in an area called Glenville. Led by Fred Ahmed Evans, the militants spent hours trading gunfire with authorities. The next morning, seven people were dead—three police officers, three black nationals, and an innocent bystander. Riots shook the neighborhood for the next two nights, tallying more than $2 million in damage. The Glenville Shootout, as it became known, burned across the national news—here, for the first time, was an actual armed insurgency in an American city.

Throughout the following decades, the city’s reflex for violence was mostly subdued, only flaring with the same fervor during—oddly enough—sporting events. In June 1974, a poorly planned marketing ploy at Municipal Stadium offered ten-cent beer for spectators taking in a match-up between the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers. By the end of the game, fans were attacking players on the field, leading to a brawl between desperate Major Leaguers just trying to get to safety. Decades later, in December 2001, Cleveland Browns fans responded to blown call that cost the game against Jacksonville by raining trash and bottles down on the referee and players. The league was forced to temporarily call the game for safety issues.“Bottlegate,” as it went down, was another black eye for the city—and a disturbing echo of what came before.

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Running down a track parallel to these episodes of violence is something else, something guzzling the same energy. Fascism—both imported from overseas and homegrown—has also had a footprint historically in town.

With a large ethnic German population, Cleveland was tuned into the politics of central Europe during the 1930s. “American Nazism was born in Cleveland,” writes historian Michael Cikraji, who explains that the 1920s a German sympathizer posing as a journalist came to Cleveland to establish the Teutonia Society, a group of ethnic Germans tasked with spreading the Nazi ideology in the states. The group eventually became a branch of the German-American Bund, the jackbooted, Swastika-wearing American organization that promoted Nazism as a way out of the Depression. In Cleveland, the Bund at its height boasted around 1,200 members and held enough local pull to land the city’s mayor as a featured speaker at their 1936 Fourth of July event. By the late ‘30s, the Bund ran military drills and youth camps on a 30-acre farm outside of town. A more secret group of Nazi sympathizers, known as the Silvershirt Legion, was made up of prominent doctors, businessmen and influential members of the community.

The same racial friction that blew up so violently in the 1960s also manifested itself locally in a more sotto voce register. With his roughhouse segregationist stance, former Alabama Governor George Wallace became the national foil to the Civil Rights push. Although remembered now as a Southern phenom, Wallace actually had national backing, including in racially tense Cleveland.

In early 1967, Wallace sat in a Montgomery office with a visiting Northern newspaper reporter. To prove a point, the ex-Governor waved around a stack of fan mail on the desk. “Here’s Ohio,” Wallace croaked behind his trademark cigar, before going on to ruminate on his chances of running for president as a third party candidate. “If I do, Cleveland and Ohio will be among my strongest areas,” Wallace stated. He later added in the conversation: “I’m not a racist, I’ve never made a racist speech. But if this mixing is so good how come ya’ll have a policeman stationed in every corridor of your big schools in Cleveland? How come ya’ll have race riots?”

Indeed, Wallace found support among members of Cleveland’s City Council. And when the grassroots politico made an appearance in Cleveland several years later, 2,200 Clevelanders attended. Wallace had one particular fan base: Cleveland police. In 1968, following the Glenville Shootout, the city’s major daily paper ran a series quoting unnamed cops on their politics and feelings. “Lots of policemen say they’ll vote for him,” the paper reported. “Some even say one-third of the department will vote for him.”

“George Wallace is the only savior of the people,” an anonymous police office told the paper. “He’ll make the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday’s news.”

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And now Trump.

It’s hard to think of a locale that vibes less with the Trump aesthetic—gold-dipped and spray-tanned, megaphoned ego and zero filter—than an aging smokestack city with a median household income of $49,308. In the taxonomy of Americans types, the Midwesterner seems a 180 from Reality TV Star, the former one who apparently keeps his emotional life locked behind a fence of cordiality and vowel-stretched pleasantries. But a lot is going on in there.  

In the Ohio GOP primary, Governor John Kasich walked away with the win. But Trump did well throughout the state. Cleveland was no different. In the county, Trump pocketed 32.6 percent of the vote. The revealing pattern, however, is where he won. Cleveland is traditionally union-dues blue in its voting patterns. Trump, however, carried white working neighborhoods—Garfield Heights, Brooklyn, Brook Park, and more.

There is a lot swirling around now about how Trump’s run for the White House has taken on a Rust Belt flavor. The Atlantic has tracked how the candidate’s relentless word salads about bringing back American industry aim right for that demographic. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Jeff Sharlet argued that Trump’s message reconfigures the prosperity gospel, a sales job that resonates particularly well with people who have come to see their lifestyles and value systems sidelined by changes in the country. This flows into Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s take at The New Yorker that despite the fact that Trump is “running a Midwestern campaign,” new polls in late May were tracking that Trump support lagged among middle class voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The campaign has trucked out the Rust Belt as vivid reminder of “the threats to American prosperity,” but facts on the ground don’t necessarily support that image. “You wouldn’t say the Midwest is thriving, exactly,” Wallace-Wells writes. “But neither is it in collapse.” As such, the Midwest for the Trump campaign has “lost its specificity and become a floating metaphor.”

All this goes to show that the appeal is more gut than statistical—emotion over fact. Trump then is an empty vessel you can fill with whatever you want. Here in Cleveland, that could be economic pains or racial suspicion, foreclosure or outsourcing or early retirement or deferred pensions or the health plan that’s triple in price because of Obamacare or the kid addicted now to heroin or any number of other things that are tightening nerves and haunting sleep.

Describing the Southern supporters rallying around George Wallace in the 1960s, journalist Marshall Frady wrote these were people who “cherished visions of their persecution.” When Donald Trump barks from the stage about attacking a protester—“I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you”—he comes off as corny septuagenarian mumbling empty threats. But for the listeners, there’s a stack of visions of their persecution they can imagine swinging on. And Clevelanders and other Rust Belters live with the past violence as a reminder, a muscle memory that can be triggered by as little as a blown call at a football game.

Wallace is ultimately the skeleton key for why Trump is, in the end, clueless about his base. Frady’s 1968 book on the upstart segregationist point out Wallace knew his constituency. Wallace’s were basically “village sensibilities” that were “made up . . . of the clatter and chatter and gusting impulses of the marketplace, the town square, the barbershop.” From this, the candidate was able to work the valves of their outrage and fear like an organ maestro.

Donald Trump doesn’t have those populist feelers. I doubt he’s ever punched anyone in the face. I don’t think he’s ever had a reason to. The common ground between Reality TV Star and Midwesterner is slim to none.

***

Wherever those Cleveland patrol cars were rushing to the day after the Rice decision, they weren’t heading to riots. The city overcame its earned street rep for public violence on that December afternoon. No arrests. No bloody faces. No gunshots. Just rhythmic chants in the rain.

Today, however, it’s nearly impossible not to pick up on the same feeling spiking the atmosphere after Dallas, and Baton Rouge, and Minnesota. Whatever comes next week, Cleveland hopefully be able to mine that same reserve and patience it showed on that after seven months back. Hopefully that will be another difference between Donald Trump and my hometown.

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Kyle Swenson is a journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. He is currently working on a book about wrongful conviction, police misconduct and Cleveland, forthcoming from Picador in 2017.

Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles