CLEVELAND — The woman holding a handbag lets loose. Leaning in to the microphone, she decries police brutality, economic inequity, racial strife, domestic violence — just about every pressing issue of these American days.
“This is not the will of God!” shouts the woman, a local activist and pastor named Pamela Pinkney-Butts. “This is not the Constitution!”
Her words shoot like verbal fireworks above the trees of dogwood and elm, then float down to blend with all the other words, so many words, that are pooling in a sacrosanct space dedicated to polemic and communion: Cleveland’s Public Square.
True, this is a week of words. In a sports arena a few blocks away, the nation’s Republicans are engaged in a dayslong theatrical event — disrupted here and there by flashes of familial dysfunction — that will close with the formal nomination of their wordy candidate for president, Donald J. Trump.
But the convention’s many words are about as unscripted as Monday night’s brief appearance by Mr. Trump, who emerged from the stage’s smoky shadows like some Vegas magician in mid-illusion. By contrast, the raw words being leveled in the square are hurtful here, comical there, and very often at war with one another.
This is the national conversation, then, conducted in a 10-acre downtown commons. Over it all looms a Civil War memorial, erected in 1894 so that certain American principles and ideals would never be forgotten.
The congregation in the square includes protesters and counterprotesters, earnest young capitalists and earnest young socialists, delegates away from home and locals without a home, a man with a pet iguana and a man with a semiautomatic rifle, both of them just waiting to be asked about their accessory.
A few professional characters pepper the mix. That guy wearing a black boot for a hat is Vermin Supreme; you might have seen him at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. And that scraggly-bearded man, the one lugging a white cross around the square like Christ bound for Calvary — between cigarette breaks — is Gary Mathes; he was at the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul.
There are many journalists who, in the absence of the anticipated rabble-rousers, hunger for meaningful moments. And there are many police officers, on horseback, on bicycles, on foot, in reassuring numbers for some and in oppressive numbers for others.
The overriding presence, though, is that of the word.
Here stands Ms. Pinkney-Butts, one of a parade of citizens who have reserved a half-hour’s time on a speaker’s platform, set up by the city as part of convention week. “I’m tired of religious and political leaders and the so-called media,” she calls out. “They’re preparing us for a war!”
Others follow, enduring the glower of the statue of the city’s founder, Moses Cleaveland, at their back and obeying the countdown of a digital scoreboard at their feet. Two well-dressed men from a group called Patriotic Millionaires, who seek to reverse the country’s economic disparity. A representative from Black on Black Crime, who speaks against police brutality. The comedian Conner O’Malley, in the crazed guise of Trump’s No. 1 fan, Mark Seevers.
“He was born to rule over us!” Mr. O’Malley shouts during a hilarious verbal fusillade so foul that his more strait-laced listeners might expect his mike to be cut in protection of civil discourse.
No. This is the Public Square, where people have colorfully baited and debated one another since before Ohio was a state.
The woman arguing for a better America and the man wearing a boot for a hat stand on ground set aside in 1796 as a New England-style commons. Roaming livestock were gradually replaced by people who gathered to celebrate, commemorate and quarrel.
This is where returning Ohio soldiers mustered after helping to win the Civil War, and where bereft citizens passed the coffin of Lincoln, and where the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was built, its 125-foot column topped by the Goddess of Freedom, reportedly in the likeness of the artist’s wife.
It is where a May Day march in 1919 was bound when a deadly riot broke out, and where the efforts of two world wars were promoted. It is where rail commuters belching out of the Tower City Center found their connections; where Christmas trees dazzled and dignitaries opined.
“The Hyde Park of Cleveland,” says John Grabowski, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University and a Cleveland native. “They would come to vent. But they would also come to celebrate.”
And it is where the closing of a couple of streets allowed the square’s quadrants to be reunited and very recently transformed into an even more inviting public space — as if the city of Cleveland were inviting the country and saying, simply: Discuss.
The country obliges, in a setting bracketed by skyscrapers and a historic church, remnants of beloved old department stores and a casino with a double entendre of a motto (“Welcome to Jack”).
Typical is the square-off between a black man and a white man over race, eternal damnation and who knows what else, the thread of the discourse becoming knotted and frayed in the afternoon heat.
The white man, who identifies himself as Mark Steven from California, is wearing a “Fear God” baseball cap and an olive-drab uniform that includes a canteen and maybe, or maybe not, a gun. He prefers to leave that vague, but not his feelings, which he shares by screaming.
“You need to live holy and righteous!” shouts Mr. Steven, who describes himself as a preacher and the owner of a cafe and dessert parlor. “That’s love to the black man from a whitey!”
The black man, Devonn Bush, 37, wears a “Unity and Community” T-shirt and an expression of tolerance that a parent might flash for a misbehaving child. He is carrying his clothes in a suitcase and his home — a tent — in his backpack. When asked later why he did not engage the preacher fully, Mr. Bush says, “I don’t have time to go to jail.”
Whatever the situation, the loose rules of the Public Square must be obeyed. At one point a woman lunges toward the speaker’s platform and seizes the microphone to complain about a personal problem. Officers from several states subdue and carry her to a white van reserved for circumstances like this, but she continues to talk, shouting her case even as the van’s doors close behind her.
The words flow like the days, one into another, with debates breaking out in corners, under shade-providing trees, in the line to the bathroom. Even the pavement seems to talk. The words “Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere” are scribbled on the ground beneath a Georgia trooper’s black shoe.
Here, a man and a woman repeatedly cycle clockwise around the park, toting large billboards for a new documentary about Hillary Clinton; judging by the ominous image chosen of her, the film is of the horror genre. Here, too, are two women walking counterclockwise around the park in T-shirts that say “Dump Trump.”
As night descends upon the square, its forensic team recedes to other quarters of Cleveland. Come early morning, people will pass in silence: a red-haired woman walking two poodles; a city worker emptying the trash bins; a solitary runner. Only the cawing sea gulls argue.
But by midday the national debate is once again in full-throated fury. Clinton, Trump, the worth of black lives, the worth of all lives, the mercy, wrath and existence of God. Amid the arguing crowds stands yet another man with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and he’s just itching to talk.
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