CLEVELAND — Ayla Brown was singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” July 21, but some of the Republican National Convention’s delegates weren’t standing in silent respect. While the final night of convention proceedings began, many of the delegates sat outside with a cold drink and ignored a live video feed of the convention.
Freedom Plaza, a section set up for delegates and media outside Quicken Loans Arena, offers bars, food and souvenir shops away from the action of the convention floor.
And though a staff member urges delegates to go inside and take their seats, the plaza offers a perfect opportunity for delegates to avoid both political proceedings and the lively activists outside the convention gates.
“Why would we go inside now?” Hawaii delegate Tim Means said with a Coors Light in his hand. “There’s nobody important talking until much later tonight, we’ll wait until it gets exciting. It’s way more fun out here.”
There were six open bars under tents. “Freedom Marketplace,” set up in nearby Progressive Field, offered stands of official convention-licensed T-shirts, buttons and hats. A live band played and smothered the sound of Reverend Dr. Steve Bailey’s invocation over the video feed, which no one was watching anyway.
“Delegates, your session begins in 10 minutes,” a Quicken Loans Arena staffer said over a microphone. “Please go inside and take your seats. We would like to remind you of the possibility of inclement weather.”
The inclement weather did not deter anybody. Pennsylvania alternate delegate Mike Baker grabbed two Bud Lights.
A delegate wearing a “Boston” pin lit a cigar and started telling a story about how he spent Tuesday night playing poker in nearby Jack Casino. An Illinois delegate took off her jacket, draped it over a lawn chair and slid her feet out of her high heels.
“Delegates, your session begins in five minutes,” the arena staff member reminded the crowd. “The plaza will be closing.”
The bars were supposed to shut down when the convention started, a Marigold Catering bartender said. That policy wasn’t created until July 20 when arena staff realized how many delegates were staying outside to drink, she said.
“But I think about half the places here are still selling,” the bartender said. “Trying to funnel these people in there doesn’t really work. Those Texas delegates over there, they never leave. They’ll be out here all night.”
Two Texas delegates wearing star-spangled cowboy hats slid up to one of the bars still selling beer.
“Where did you get that pin?” one of them asked, pointing to the other’s anti-Hillary Clinton button.
“Oh, I got it from those people selling outside on the street,” the other delegate said. “It’s much cheaper than in here. But you have to walk through all those people yelling to get to them.”
Inside Freedom Plaza, the delegates are protected from convention protesters, too.
Two lines of police officers create a corridor on the intersection of East Fourth Street and Prospect Avenue so convention attendees can get inside without running into protesters or the media swarm usually surrounding them.
The distance from the convention perimeter gate to Freedom Plaza is long enough the shouts of protesters, T-shirt sellers and cameramen cannot be heard at all.
“Oh, everyone in here is awful smart,” said Kaylie Thompson, a worker with Gateway, a company helping with convention cleanup. She swept cigarette butts and napkins away from the sidewalks. “Isn’t it better being right here, away from all the loud people with the signs and all the riled-up politicians?”
Some Indiana delegates said they agreed. Susana Suarez exited the convention center in the middle of the night’s program to sit down at a picnic table.
“It can get pretty tight and stuffy on the floor,” Suarez said. “Sometimes it’s nice to get some fresh air and a drink out here instead of being with the rest of the delegation.”
The plaza smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and beer. Keith Libman, an IU alumnus who works as an accountant in Cleveland, sat with a Great Lakes Brewing Company bottle in his hand and his back turned to the video feed.
“I’m just a guest at the convention, so I don’t have to worry about any of this, really,” Libman said. “It’s the end of my work day. This is just a big old party. Who’s speaking up there right now, anyway?”
It was Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus. His words were drowned out by the live band playing the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” loudly on the outdoor stage. The forewarned inclement weather never arrived.
“It’s just my imagination running away with me,” the band sang. They kept playing into the night, through each and every convention speaker.
Inside the arena, Donald Trump took to the stage to accept the nomination for the Republican presidential candidate. Outside the convention perimeter, the religious extremists, self-proclaimed anarchists and anti-Trump activists continued yelling their statements for the cameras.
But in Freedom Plaza, two South Dakota delegates, like many others, skipped out on the convention’s final night and danced along to the band.