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Republican National Convention highlights racial tensions

The scene in Cleveland underscores how the Trump campaign has succeeded in polarising the debate along racial lines
Support for Trump comes overwhelmingly from white men (MEE/Yasmine Ryan)

CLEVELAND, United States - It did not take long for race and gender politics to come to the forefront on the first day of the Republican National Convention.

“In a few months, white supremacists are going to take over America!” declared a Black Lives Matter speaker on the main stage in Public Square, in the heart of this usually sleepy lakeside city. An older African-American man, he wore a blue t-shirt with the message, “America: You Haven’t Come that Far.”

A few metres behind them, a group of white men began competing to send their own message, waving signs advertising their opposition to everything from Islam to abortion to “fornication” and “sinning” in general. They call themselves the Bible Believers, and are best known for their regular picketing of Hollywood events.

“If you resist arrest, you might just get shot!” shouted one man through his trusty loudspeaker. He was wearing a t-shirt that said “Allah is Satan” in bold red lettering.

When the Black Lives Matter protesters crashed the Bible Believers' protest, the latter started proclaiming “Black babies’ lives matter,” and attacking African-American women as “baby-killers”.

For Kathy Coleman, a Cleveland resident, the Bible Believers took their rhetoric one step too far.

“They want to talk about our bodies? Guess who most needs abortions? Poor black women,” she said after.

Later, onlookers gasped as the group called her and other women nearby “whores”.

The scene in Cleveland underscores how the Trump campaign has succeeded in polarising the debate along race and gender lines.

Conventions amid tense political climate

The Republican convention opened on Monday in Cleveland and will run through Thursday, while the Democrats will gather from 25 to 28 July in Philadelphia.

This year, the two conventions take place in a tense climate - marked by a wave of nationwide protests over policing and debate over structural racism - and following a particularly bruising primary election cycle.

Black Lives Matter protester injects in protest by rightwing "Bible Believers," saying "These are White Supremacists" (MEE/Yasmine Ryan)

The Republican convention kicked off with the theme for day one - "Make America Safe Again" - and with Donald Trump's wife playing character witness as the mogul sought to lock up his presidential nomination.

The Republican convention opened to chaotic scenes as the real estate’s mogul’s opponents and supporters traded angry shouts, disrupting his plans for a smooth coronation as the party's White House nominee.

Simmering divisions among thousands of Republican delegates spilled out into the open on the convention floor. 

Outreach to minorities

Aside from the internal wranglings Trump's candidacy has provoked within the GOP, his team also needs to pull some serious contortions to overcome the racial and gender divide. 

The eccentric billionaire was able to clinch the Republican nomination largely thanks to the support of the white men who make up the grassroots of the Republican Party. To make it to the White House, though, he is going to need to win over at least some of the voters in the very groups he has so far mostly derided.

That is especially the case here in Ohio, a key swing state. A recent poll showed that while Trump was tied with Clinton overall, he had zero support among the 848 registered African-American voters surveyed.

Trump faces a similar problem in Pennsylvania, another major swing state, where 91 percent of African-Americans polled opted for Clinton. Again, not a single African American said they would vote for Trump.

That might explain Trump’s unusually reflective reaction to the 7 July shooting of five police officers in Dallas. In his statement, he chose to refer as well to “the senseless, tragic deaths of two people in Louisiana and Minnesota” - a sort of recognition of the Blacks Lives Matters, which he has previously derided.

Or his appointment of Theresa “Omarosa” Manigault, a former star of his reality TV show The Apprentice, as director of African-American Outreach for his campaign.

Cleveland’s woes parallel rising anger over status quo

In other ways, Cleveland represents the type of voters Trump has been successful at winning over. The city reached peak economic prosperity as a manufacturing hub in the early 1950s, when the population hit 900,000.

But since then it’s been in a steady decline. Nowadays, less than 400,000 people live in Cleveland. The early 1980s were especially hard as American manufacturing began to be outsourced overseas, and many of Cleveland’s factories closed down.

Anti-Trump protesters wave signs saying "No to the war against migrants" (MEE/Yasmine Ryan)

His anti-immigrant message appeals to Louis Brown, an unemployed African-American man in his 40s who has come to the square to watch the spectacle.

“I’m trying to understand about the fence, maybe it’s for real about Mexicans coming to the country and stealing other people’s jobs,” Brown said. “I don’t see nothing offensive about that.”

But in Marva Patterson’s view, a Trump presidency is only likely to exacerbate existing racial injustice. She lost her home in 2012 when she said the bank forged her husband’s signature, and like dozens of other African-American families affected in similar cases of alleged fraud by banks, she expressed frustration that the local authorities have done little to help uphold their rights. The issue affects the predominately African-American eastern suburbs, but not the whiter areas in the west.

“Trump is a bully, whether it’s against women, Muslims or blacks, it’s all bully tactics,” she said.

As the angry scenes kicked off at the convention centre a couple of blocks away on Monday afternoon, it was a world away from the concerns of Cleveland’s African-American majority, and it’s hard to imagine what an increasingly right-wing Republican Party could do to change that.