CLEVELAND -- I was standing in the shade of the gazebo where Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy with an Airsoft gun, was gunned down by a Cleveland police officer on a cold November day in 2014, when another journalist walked over and muttered the news that three lawmen had just been gunned down in Baton Rouge.
The nation's downward spiral of violence and rage had just taken another shocking spin, as the nation's social and TV networks began to crackle with fresh anxiety. And yet here at Cudell Rec Center playground on Cleveland's west side – a landmark in the twisting road from Ferguson to Dallas and Baton Rouge – there was an almost surreal calm.
To anyone who follows the news, the gazebo here is eerily familiar, like a bad dream, thanks to the grainy video that was played over and over again, with a cop cruiser screeching to a halt and a rookie officer – thinking that Tamir's gun was real – gunning the boy down in less than 2 seconds. On this pleasantly warm July Sunday morning, though, the swings were still and often the only sound was a bird chirping in the far distance.
The only visitors to the park at the moment the Baton Rouge news broke were a young man who said his name was Bryan Wilson and his older cousin, up visiting from Tennessee. The pair sat at the picnic table next to where Tamir was mortally wounded – now covered with about every creature in the stuffed animal kingdom from teddy bears to manatees and penguins, each a homage to the boy who never made it to his 13th birthday.
"That's just not the answer," Wilson said, shaking his head at the reports out of Louisiana. "That is terrible."
The nation's eyes were – at least before the distraction of the Baton Rouge tragedy – starting to focus four miles east of this spot, where several thousand Republican delegates and party activists were descending on the Quicken Loans Arena, with thousands of police officers flush with millions of dollars in anti-riot gear and with demonstrators from all over America, now even more on edge than they were 24 hours ago.
There, presumptive nominee Donald Trump and an unlikely array of speakers like Hollywood's Scott Baio are expected to focus on things like the endlessly litigated 2012 attack on Benghazi and would-be First Husband Bill Clinton's past sex scandals – but to say little about the issues affecting the patchwork quilt of vacant lots, squat, faded prairie houses and rusty factories that make up Cleveland's east and west sides.
The GOP – not to mention a Who's Who of network news anchors and reporters – will spend four energetic days near the banks of Lake Erie, but viewers will hear next to nothing about the decades of controversy over policing in Cleveland's poor neighborhoods, not just the death of Tamir but incidents like a 2012 chase in which cops pumped 137 bullets into a car whose occupants were unarmed. Or the aftermath of the housing foreclosure crisis in which Cleveland neighborhoods like Slavic Village were called the nation's "ground zero" for the mortgage crisis.
And if Trump and his advisers have a solid plan for dealing with the fact that Northeast Ohio lost nearly half of its mostly good-paying manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2010, it's the second most tightly wrapped secret in Cleveland – behind only The Donald's scalp.
The convention-watchers won't hear words like those uttered Sunday afternoon by the Rev. Jawanza Colvin, the fiery 41-year-old pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church -- where Dr. Martin Luther King based himself during one of final campaigns -- was preaching. In the wake of Tamir's killing, Colvin has emerged as Cleveland's leading voice for police reform, and he played a role in the recent election defeat of the district attorney who'd not prosecuted the cops in the 2014 incident.
Seated in a tall leather chair behind a glass altar with a bronzed representation of Jesus, tightly clutching and waving a worn Bible in his right hand, Colvin's sermon -- "The Struggle Is Not Over" – bounced at high-velocity from Tamir's grand jury to global warming, with a timely dig at Trump and his endorser Sarah Palin even if he refused to name them.
"'I want my country back'" – a Palin mantra – "had a baby and it's called "Make America Great Again,'" Colvin thundered.
The minister said Americans shouldn't act so shocked over videotaped encounters like Tamir's shooting, because systematic racism has been present and ignored for years. "The only difference now," he said, "is that it's not Roots…it's on video." He dismissed the notion that police-involved shootings or other injustice should inspire a national conversation on race, saying that talk is a substitute for action.
"The problem in America is not race!" Colvin exclaimed, as most of the 100 or so worshippers sprang to their feet. "The problem in America is racism!" He also deplored the murders in Baton Rouge and wrapped up his sermon with a clarion call for people to come together. Yet the cycle of violence -- especially the killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge – has already cast a shadow over Cleveland before the first pound of the gavel.
Trump is already doubling-down on his promise to become "the law-and-order president" – a direct invocation of Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign, the stepping stone on the path to the "war on drugs,' stop-and-frisk policing and mass incarceration. On Sunday, the presumptive GOP nominee tweeted that "our country is a divided crime scene."
His words were harsh, manipulative, and divisive – but sadly he also may have been part right. Trump's new confrontational tone for the Republican Party is already drawing a call-and-response in the streets of Cleveland. On Sunday at about 5 p.m., about 400 protesters against Trump and police brutality funneled down Prospect Avenue, a wall of bicycle cops hemming them in, as chanted and carried signs like "Justice for Alton Sterling – Dismantle Racist Police."
Proudly wearing his backwards Phillies' cap, Gordon Smith, a 65-year-old filmmaker and radical activist from Chalfont in Bucks County, who like the majority of these marchers was white, said he came to Cleveland for one simple reason – because "Donald Trump is a flaming idiot."
It capped a day when hope struggled to keep alive. At the rec center, a 32-year-old man named Richard Jones brought his 6-year-old son to the playground. When a crew from French television asked to speak with him, the dad sat with the boy a few feet in front of where Tamir's crumpled body had laid prone that afternoon – on a seat where someone had written, "We miss you." He said he didn't see a peaceful resolution to America's racial problems.
"The only change..it has to be violent," Jones said at one point, later softening his words only a tad, "that black folks – we need to come together and be on the same page."
Overhead was the steady roar of jets coming into Cleveland's airports, carrying convention delegates who won't get any closer than those 3,000-or-so elevated feet to Tamir's former playground -- or the problems of western Cleveland -- over the four days. As his dad spoke, little Richard squirmed away and ran to the swing set.