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The Chicagoan Who Traveled To Cleveland To Watch The Protests

Republicans have been in Cleveland this week for their national convention - and so have protesters. Those activists are kept away from the arena where the convention is happening, mostly gathering in a public square a couple blocks away.

On Wednesday afternoon, there are hundreds of people gathered for about any cause anyone could think of. One man carries a sign reading ‘Hillary for Prison.’ Another poster says ‘Let me pray with you.’ A woman sits on the side next to a sign propped up that reads ‘Trump loves hate but love trumps hate.’

As the sun sets, the scene is mostly just people mingling, but with a very heavy police presence. That’s mostly how the demonstrations have gone this week in Cleveland, according to Jerry Boyle, a Chicago attorney who watches demonstrations with the National Lawyers Guild, in case someone gets arrested and needs representation.

Boyle has spent most of his week near these demonstrations, not to take part in them, but to watch them.

“We are observers. We are not protesters, we don’t wear buttons, we don’t carry signs, we don’t engage in chants,” he said.

The square is full of protesters and tons of police officers, on horseback, on bikes, and just walking around in groups. Boyle talks to me just before his observation shift starts.

He and others with the National Lawyers Guild wear bright neon yellow-green shirts and hats around the demonstrators.

“We don’t spend much time looking at our clients. We’re really here to look at the police and see how they behave, see how they respond, see what kind of tactics and weapons they’re deploying.”

Boyle’s done these observations for a while now. In Chicago, he remembers the 2012 NATO protests. And when 800 people were detained for protesting the war in Iraq in 2003.

“I do it because as a younger man I engaged in protests and activism is something that interested me and then when I got out of law school, I realized I’m more useful serving the activists as opposed to being one,” Boyle said.

What makes watching protests in Cleveland different from others Boyle has seen over the years is Ohio’s law that lets people walk around with rifles. He calls them counter-protesters.

“It definitely puts other people on edge. Myself, my judgment is, that unless somebody panics for some reason, they’re unlikely to be firing those rifles. They’re really just showing off.”

Boyle thinks those who carry the guns on the street are just trying to show some force, like what the police do when they line up or wear heavy equipment. He thinks the guns deterred out-of-town protesters from coming to Cleveland in the first place, which is why he hasn’t seen any mass arrests or really big scrums with police.

“There hasn’t been a police riot. There hasn’t been a mass arrest. Yet,” he said. “I’m crossing my fingers. Knocking on wood. Making a sign of the cross.”

Shortly after our interview ended, I saw a herd of photographers and people from the square go running down a side street. One block over, by the time I got there, I saw a woman being arrested with several police officers surrounding her - along with photographers, reporters and people in bright neon yellow-green shirts all watching the action.

Tony Arnold is WBEZ's State Politics reporter. Follow him on Twitter @tonyjarnold.

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