17 Arrested as Tensions Rise During Flag-Burning Protest in Cleveland

Notorious flag-burner Joey Gregory Johnson was among those arrested

A notorious flag-burner, who set an American flag on fire outside the Dallas Republican National Convention in 1984, was among several demonstrators arrested Wednesday in the most turbulent protest since the four-day event in Cleveland began.

Joey Gregory Johnson was tackled by "several police officers" after successfully setting an American flag on fire, according to a statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party.

"American lives are not more important than other people's lives,” announced Johnson before burning the American flag. According to the political group — of which Johnson is member — Donald Trump's message of America first is "a fascist message of control over the people of the world, waging unending war to exploit people all over the planet."

Johnson was charged and convicted with the desecration of a venerated object after the Dallas RNC incident. In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court determined that Johnson’s actions were symbolic speech protected by his First Amendment rights, invalidating prohibitions on desecrating the American flag.

Video posted on social media appeared to show a law enforcement official spraying something into the surging crowd after skirmishes broke out over the flag-burning protest. Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams told NBC News that no pepper spray was in Wednesday's demonstrations. The chaos prevented members of the media and others from getting into the arena for the evening's proceedings.

Williams said 17 people were arrested, including two for felonies of assaulting an officer. Police said two officers were assaulted and suffered minor injuries. One officer was seen bleeding from his elbow.

One man who was in handcuffs stood in the street with his shirt pulled above his shoulders. A woman in a torn shirt also was led away in handcuffs.

Carl Dix, a representative of Revolutionary Communist Party, said the group organized the burning of the American flag as a "political statement about the crimes of the American empire. There's nothing great about America."

The skirmish erupted just outside an entrance to the arena and near a row of popular restaurants where a couple of cable news networks had set up their operations for the convention.

Officers, some wearing riot helmets, yelled at the crowd to move back as members of the flag-burning group locked arms amid chants of "It's time, it's time for a revolution." Pushing and shoving broke out, and police began pinning people to the ground.

Police Chief Calvin Williams was among a dozen officers pushing people away. He later pulled aside a man with a bandanna over his face and told him he needed to check his backpack.

Firefighters extinguished the flag and took it away.

Earlier in the day, blocks away from the arena, a right-wing religious group lifted a banner reading "Jesus is angry with you sinners," while kissing lesbians mocked their message, helping turn Cleveland's Public Square into part-carnival, part-debate floor.

The expansive square was a free-flowing mix of ideas and beliefs along with colorful characters pounding on bongos and wailing on a sousaphone.

The day's demonstrations started with a few dozen people holding banners printed with a red-brick design and forming a human wall to mock Donald Trump's plan to seal off the Mexican border.

"We want to wall off the hate of Trump," said Tim Chavez, of Columbus.

A half-dozen Trump supporters defended the GOP nominee from attacks by immigration activists.

Police officers used bicycles and their bodies to separate those with opposing views.

Jesse Gonzalez, of Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb, carried a rifle on Public Square while wearing a camouflage-style "Make America Great Again" hat.

"I'm out here to illustrate that not all gun owners, if any or very few, are irresponsible or uneducated," he said.

The city's police chief said he spent three hours Tuesday evening riding with bicycle officers on patrol and that he waded into one confrontation because he's "still a police officer."

Williams said he plans to show up wherever there are "issues" during the convention.

As of Tuesday evening, police said five people had been arrested since the start of the convention.

That includes one person accused of trying to steal a state trooper's gas mask and three people charged with climbing flagpoles at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and hanging an anti-Trump banner.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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