With rows of police standing in front of Republican National Convention protestors shouting hateful statements about Black people in the middle of downtown Cleveland’s Public Square, Frances Caldwell just shook her head when a group of White people responded with “Black lives matter!”
“That’s the first time I personally heard these chants from White people,” said Caldwell, executive director of the African American Museum of Cleveland, on Wednesday (July 20). “Our representation here has been very minute considering that Cuyahoga County has 400,000 African-Americans. I’ve been here every day since Monday, and I’ve never seen more than about 5 percent of Black protestors.”
Not far away, among about 500 protestors, Audrianna Rodriguez, 26, said she’d stumbled upon this demonstration of mostly Black, Latino and White people holding up pieces of cloth painted to resemble bricks. The cloth "wall" was a response to Donald Trump’s call for mass deportations and building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The Cleveland resident wanted to see what was happening downtown for herself, but people she knows stayed away.
“A lot of my friends thought it would be dangerous and didn’t want to come down,” noted Rodriguez, who is African- and Mexican-American.
While some chalked Black Cleveland’s lack of participation up to apathy, others cited parking fees from $5 to $80 and encouragement from city leaders and business owners to stay away from the downtown area this week. Still, others said Blacks in Cleveland tend to protest at the ballot box, not in the streets.
MeLisa Collins, who helped organize the National Convention of the Oppressed Black Unity Conference, said while she was pleased with the turnout for the four-day gathering that ended June 17—the day before the RNC began—she was disappointed with the turnout when it came time to protest in the streets.
The conference featured a number of popular personalities including Cornell West, Marc Lamont Hill, George Frazier and Boyce Watkins.
About 1,000 people came out for the entire conference, which was sponsored by Malik Zulu Shabazz, founder and president of Black Lawyers for Justice and the former national chairman of the New Black Panther Party.
Around 200 people attended a rally, but fewer than 100 hit the streets for the conference’s anti-Trump National March and Rally Against Racism, Injustice and White Supremacy.
“I definitely felt like members of the African-American community have not made their presence known in connection with the RNC,” said Collins, an author, activist and youth advocate. “We came out in an abundance to participate in the NBA championship parade. But when it comes to talking about politics and what’s going on in the African-American community we’ve been less likely to show up.”
While an estimated 1.3 million people went to last month’s NBA championship parade in downtown Cleveland and local law enforcement was prepared, there’s no comparison to safety prevention measures taken with the RNC.
Inside the RNC, only a handful of Black people were present, including Cleveland Heights pastor Darrell Scott, who gave a fiery pro-Trump address late Wednesday that brought delegates to their feet.
"Donald Trump knows that for all of the sharp elbows, and all of the sharp words, and all of the bruised egos, and all of the hurt feelings, the art of the deal is bringing people together, to unify, and to get them from no to yes," Scott said to applause. "That means problem solving, it means finding common ground, and then moving forward. Donald Trump has done that for himself for 30 years. And he now wants to take that experience to get the best deal for America and the best deal for all Americans."
The percentage of Black delegates at this year’s Republican convention was at its lowest level in recorded history — around 0.7 percent according to data compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Out of a total of 2,472 delegates, only 18 were Black.
Trump’s unpopularity with Black people (and Latinos and Asians) is staggering. In an early June Washington Post/ABC News poll, 88 percent of Blacks reported an unfavorable impression of the candidate. (In the same poll, 78 percent of Black people had a favorable view of Hillary Clinton.)
Despite the widespread disapproval of Trump, Cleveland resident Jerry Primm said he’s wasn’t surprised that local Blacks weren’t on the frontlines of RNC-related protests.
“Historically, Blacks in Cleveland protest a little differently, “ said Primm, a political consultant for Strategic Resources Consulting and the Eastside campaign manager for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor-Elect Mike O’Malley. “We’ll beat you at the ballot, like most recently when we organized to unseat prosecutor Tim McGinty who failed to indict police officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. It goes back as far as getting Carl Stokes elected in the 1960s as the first Black mayor in a major city.”
And for local political outsiders like Leonard McCutchen, none of the process matters to him except election-day in November.
“I think that Black people stayed away from downtown Cleveland because they wanted to stay away from the drama,” said McCutchen, a 28-year-old bartender. “Yes your voice can be heard on the streets, but I don’t think that a lot of Black people fear Trump. I think that they know that voting is the way to control Trump. And I think that they’re going to come out to support Hillary Clinton the way they did with President Obama.”
Marcia Pledger is a business journalist and columnist at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland who specializes in sharing stories of reinvention, in both careers and companies. With experience covering topics ranging from small business and technology to business etiquette and workplace issues, she’s the author of "My Biggest Mistake and How I Fixed It: Lessons from the Entrepreneurial Frontlines."