CLEVELAND — Joy Roller jammed her thumb into the air horn, and hundreds of people stopped holding hands and began to cheer.
Roller’s cheeks still wet with tears hugged her fellow organizers.
Hundreds of Clevelanders and tourists descended on Hope Memorial Bridge in an attempt to set a peaceful tone for this week’s Republican National Convention. The event, Circle the City with Love, asked demonstrators to hold hands for 30 minutes in complete silence.
“All I could say was, ‘It’s so beautiful, it’s so beautiful.’ People took it so seriously,” said Roller, one of the head organizers of the event. “They know the seriousness of the situation going on in the world. It surpassed my expectations. Our goal was to set the tone and we accomplished that goal.”
With a long list of world and national tragedies continuing to pile up, the world’s eyes have turned to Cleveland.
There’s a perfect storm brewing above Lake Erie, as one of the most divisive presidential nominees in history brings incredibly strong feelings from supporters and protesters to the industrial city.
A palpable uneasiness can be felt churning in Cleveland.
FBI tip line billboards dot the highway, fences line the streets and police’s presence is both seen and felt.
But that under the surface churning stopped, if only for a few moments today, as the “power of silence” connected the city.
The massive group of demonstrators gathered at the west end of the bridge to hear from speakers and organizers of the event before forming two lines and walking to the east side of the bridge, where they then linked together for the 30-minute silence.
Sister Rita Petruziello, who came up with the idea for the event, addressed the crowd before the demonstration, “We are putting the power of love into the energy field, this is true, science tells us that energy has memory, and the collective memory of thousands of us will leave a powerful effect on the universe.”
She dominated the microphone cracking several jokes that made the collective group laugh in one breath and made the same crowd cry out “Amen” in another.
Organizers said the event was nonpartisan and that its only message was to promote peace in the city.
Police and demonstrators mingled peacefully, and many of the overheard conversations focused on things outside the political backdrop of the RNC — friends and families chose to talk about back to school shopping and the heat of the day instead.
Some people used the event to make social and political statements. A few donned “Black Live Matters” t-shirts, and one man even toted a Bernie Sanders flag.
But for the most part, the event focused on setting a positive tone for the RNC.
Both attendees and organizers avoided using the word “protest,” oftentimes pursing their lips, about to say the loaded-term, before pausing and choosing words like “event,” “demonstration” and “gathering” instead.
“There’s been a lot of violence in the past year, and I disagree with the rhetoric that is currently happening in the world, and I didn’t want to get myself into a situation that could become violent,” said Adam Leidtke, a Cleveland resident since 2011. “So coming to this event that was celebrating diversity, love and acceptance and these values was something I could really get behind.”
Leidtke said he wouldn’t be going downtown this week to avoid the possibility of being caught in a violent situation.
He said he believed this event was made up of mostly Clevelanders looking at those visiting the city and saying, “Hey, do things the right way. Don’t hurt our city.”
That sentiment was echoed by dozens of individuals, mostly from Cleveland, that attended the event.
The city has reason to be nervous and something fragile to protect.
Cleveland is working to shed the negative “Mistake on the Lake” national image. People are moving back downtown (residency numbers are up 79 percent since 2000), and commerce is steadily growing.
Ohio City, where the demonstration began, was once a high-crime area people avoided at all costs.
Now it’s one of the hippest places in town, as the restaurant scene in the area has boomed and millennials flock to live just a short commute from downtown.
Brand new townhouses sit at the bridge’s west end, proclaiming that revitalization.
As Clevelanders stood on that bridge united in silence, only the distant sounds of traffic and the clicks of photographers’ cameras could be heard, but the message they were sending to the rest of the world was shouted load and clear.
Jacob Gedetsis is a Cleveland native currently covering the people and protests at the Republican National Convention. You can follow along this week on Twitter @jacobgedetsis and Rare’s Snapchat @official.rare.