Cleveland Police, RNC Protesters Clash Over Flag-Burning Arrests

Image: Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams joins a prayer circle in Public Square outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams, fourth left, joins a prayer circle in Public Square outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 20.ANDREW KELLY / Reuters

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By Tracy Connor and Tom Winter

CLEVELAND — The group behind the flag-burning protest that resulted in 17 arrests outside the Republican National Convention disputed the police account of what happened and demanded its members be released.

Joey Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who was party to a U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized flag-burning, was among those taken into custody after the chaotic scene Wednesday afternoon near a security entrance to the Quicken Loans Arena.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams claimed the trouble started when Johnson set himself and others on fire on while lighting up the flag, forcing police to intervene as a scuffle broke out. At a press conference outside the jailhouse on Thursday morning, party members disputed that.

“He was never on fire,” Sunsara Taylor said. “The police attacked this, suppressed this.”

The burned flag that led to a fight between protesters just blocks from where the Republican National Convention was being held.Cleveland Police / Cleveland Police

At his daily briefing a short time later, Williams was asked about the accusation. “That will be determined in court,” he said.

Johnson’s heavily promoted flag-burning drew counter-protesters, including some members of Bikers for Trump, to a crowded intersection in downtown Cleveland. Still, police and media outnumbered the demonstrators.

Two of those arrested were charged with assaulting police; the rest were charged with incitement to violence, a misdemeanor.

Since the convention began, there have been 23 arrests, with both police and protesters displaying restraint at rallies and marches, even those without permits.

Lawyers with the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the Cleveland branch of the NAACP showed up at the Thursday afternoon to represent the arrested protesters, and were angry that many were still being held.

"Despite the fact that charges were released to the media this morning, the Court has not received the charging paperwork, and the court hearing has been delayed. These individuals were arrested over 24 hours ago and remain in custody in the City and County jails," the lawyers said in a statement. "We are concerned that individuals' First Amendment rights are being chilled, and we are prepared to file writs to have individuals released who are being illegally held in jail."

Related: Cleveland Police: 17 Arrested After Fight Over Flag Burning at RNC

Chief Williams has been present at some of the potential flashpoints, diving in to break up tense situations. At Public Square on Wednesday night, he also participated in an impromptu prayer circle with some of his officers.

“Oh, it felt great,” he said. “Donald Trump supporters holding hands with Hillary Clinton supporters, holding hands with anarchist reporters.”

On the final day of the convention, only one large-scale protest was scheduled — an afternoon march organized by the group Stand Together Against Trump, made up of physicians, health care providers, and young professionals.

Organizers said they expected 5,000 people, but only about 200 showed up to march along the official parade route about a mile from the Quicken Loans Arena. The largest protest this week drew about 500 people.

Jacob Rascon contributed.