CLEVELAND (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 evening’s proceedings.
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.
Two officers were assaulted and suffered minor injuries, police said. One officer was seen bleeding from an elbow. Two of those arrested were charged with felonious assault on a police officer, the rest with failure to disperse.
Police Chief Calvin Williams said a protester whose pants caught fire got defensive when a police officer tried to put out the blaze. The man assaulted the officer, and “things escalated from there,” Williams said.
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,” 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.”
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.
Officers swarmed the group within seconds after the flag started to burn, and firefighters extinguished it right away. Pushing and shoving broke out, and police began pinning people to the ground and handcuffing them.
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.
Police Chief Calvin Williams was among a dozen officers trying to restore order by pushing people back.
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. Ohio law allows gun owners to carry their weapons openly.
“I’m out here to illustrate that not all gun owners, if any or very few, are irresponsible or uneducated,” he said.
Before the flag-burning protest turned violent, 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.
Associated Press writer Mark Gillispie contributed to this report.