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RNC Protest Rule Change Touted as Victory for Homeless, Free Speech

City officials had proposed the largest-ever security perimeter for a national political convention

Republican National Convention, Cleveland, RNC

The City of Cleveland has changed the size of the "event zone" for this summer's Republican National Convention after it was deemed "unduly large."

Jim Wilson/The NY Times/Redux

Back in April, when Tim Selaty applied for a permit to protest during the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland, he did so imagining himself and legions of Trump-faithful raging against a party that had betrayed them. “We thought the RNC was trying to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump,” Selaty says.

As that fear gradually subsided, Selaty and his group, Citizens for Trump, rebranded their event as a celebration of the presumptive Republican nominee. The “America First Unity Rally” he envisioned would take place on a pier in Lake Erie — which, he says, would make it easier to keep the riff-raff out of this unity rally. “It was one way in, one way out. We could secure VIP people, we could have boats and yachts come up on the side, plus it was way away from the hubbub of Mr. Trump’s detractors,” Selaty says.

In the end, though, all his preparation was for naught, because the City of Cleveland denied Citizens for Trump’s application. The group wasn’t alone: Officials also rejected the progressive group Organize Ohio’s request to hold a “March to End Poverty” on the city’s impoverished east side during the convention.

On Wednesday, Cleveland was forced to adopt new terms accommodating both groups, as well as more than 100 homeless individuals living within the city-designated “event zone.” A judge last week ruled Cleveland’s original security proposal was too draconian, even as lawyers for the Republican Party warned any last-minute changes could make it “impossible to fully account for the changed circumstances and protect the safety and security” of those attending the GOP convention.

Some 50,000 people — delegates, party officials, journalists, lobbyists — are expected to descend on Cleveland in July, and dozens of groups, from Code Pink to the Westboro Baptist Church, have applied for permits to protest the event. In preparation for the Republican Party’s week-long occupation of their city, in May Cleveland officials proposed strict restrictions on movement and speech in a huge swath of the downtown area.

They proposed the largest-ever security perimeter for a national political convention: 3.3 square miles. By comparison, there was effectively no security perimeter outside the 2004 RNC in New York City, and just a 0.16-square-mile “vehicle restriction zone” in St. Paul in 2008. Tampa, in 2012, had a 2.7-mile event zone that was similar, but still smaller, than the one proposed in Cleveland.

Under the new rules, large gatherings like the type Citizens for Trump wanted to have were forbidden in the event zone without express permission, and parades like the one Organize Ohio wished to hold could only happen on a designated route — most of which was over a bridge, out of sight and earshot of anyone other than the marchers themselves.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the 3.3-square-mile zone included four of Cleveland’s five largest homeless shelters as well as several large homeless encampments, which advocates worried would leave Cleveland’s homeless population at particular risk of being targeted for unlawful searches and harassment. A long list of items prohibited inside the event zone — like canned food, coolers, tents, ropes and umbrellas — added to anxiety that Cleveland’s homeless might have their possessions confiscated.

“By prohibiting all of these items and activities inside the soft zone, they just criminalized the existence of many homeless people because they have to carry their possessions on their back every day,” says Elizabeth Bonham, an ACLU Ohio lawyer who represented Citizens for Trump, Organize Ohio and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless in their lawsuit against the City of Cleveland.

Selaty puts it more bluntly: Cleveland’s convention rules, he says, amounted to “pretty much martial law.”

Judge James Gwin agreed. Last week Gwin found the event zone “unduly large,” and said Cleveland hadn’t “sufficiently, narrowly drawn the [First-Amendment] regulations to serve government interests.” The boundaries of the revised zone — roughly 1.7 square miles, or 48 percent of the original — were revealed Thursday morning.

As part of the agreement reached with the three groups, Cleveland agreed to extend to homeless Clevelanders the same permissions as other residents of the area. “If you live inside the zone under the rules you can have these items and you won’t be disturbed and now the city has explicitly agreed that the homeless will be treated as if they are in their homes so they won’t be disturbed.”

Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, calls it “a total victory for homeless people.

“We just wanted some assurances that people who are resistant to shelter aren’t going to be harassed by law enforcement during the RNC, and looks like we won that,” he says. “And then people who are in shelter won’t be regularly searched and made to display all of their valuables.”

An extended parade route — which will culminate in a busy area of downtown rather than emptying into a deserted industrial neighborhood, where the old route ended — was also part of the agreement. (Organize Ohio was given special permission to hold its march on Cleveland’s east side.)   

Citizens for Trump’s plans, meanwhile, are a little more uncertain. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through,” Selaty says. “With just three weeks left, it’s going to be a bear of a monster to even come close to putting on the same meaningful rally that we planned to put on 90 days ago.” 

But he’s looking on the bright side. “As Trump supporters, it’s a victory for us,” he says. “But to be honest, as a citizen, I think it’s a bigger victory that we stopped the City of Cleveland and all the other forces adjoined to it from instituting such a barrier on our free speech, and I’m pretty happy about that.”

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