CLEVELAND (CBSNewYork/AP) — Police arrested 17 people Wednesday after a melee broke out during a flag-burning in the streets outside the Republican National Convention.
It was the most turbulent protest since the four-day convention began on Monday. The chaos briefly prevented delegates and members of the media from getting into the Quicken Loans Arena for the night’s proceedings.
The melee brought to 22 the number of people arrested during the convention, far fewer than some law enforcement authorities had feared.
“Right now, I think so far, so good,” Police Chief Calvin Williams said Wednesday night. “We’re still out there, we’re still vigilant, to make sure we finish this day and the last day tomorrow on a positive note.”
Among those arrested was Gregory “Joey” Johnson, whose torching of the flag at a GOP convention three decades ago led to the landmark 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said flag-burning is speech protected by the First Amendment.
Moments after the flag was set on fire, officers charged in to put it out with an extinguishing spray that some in the crowd thought was pepper spray because of similarities in the design of the canisters and the eye irritation caused by the fire-suppression substance.
“You’re on fire! You’re on fire, stupid!” a Cleveland officer shouted at a protester while firing the extinguishing spray.
“Burn that rag! Burn that rag!” supporters of the group yelled.
Police also said two officers were assaulted and suffered minor injuries.
Officers, some wearing riot helmets, yelled at the crowd to move back as the flag-burning group locked arms. Williams was one of several officers in the middle of the crowd, trying to keep order.
Police used their horses to create a path to a van for people being detained.
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 cable news networks had set up for the week.
Some in the crowd jeered the officers, yelling, “Blue lives murder!”
About 10 more minutes passed before the crowd was under control.
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.
Earlier, 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.
(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)