CLEVELAND — Kevin Cavell’s phone started going off while he was getting his credentials for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Texts from his friends back home told the retired police officer of a shooting in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“The first thought was, ‘Unreal. This is not really happening,’” Cavell said.
And when he realized that the reports were true, he started to process the information.
“Is this a terrorist group? Is this a lone wolf? What has actually happened here?”
Cavell retired in 2004 after working as a Baton Rouge police officer for 25 years. He is one of the nearly 90 delegates from Louisiana in Cleveland for what is usually an exciting and even happy occasion — the culmination of a lengthy primary and the start of the general election.
Some in the Louisiana delegation were just arriving in Cleveland and others were just leaving home when they heard the news from the state’s capital.
Just before 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, a lone gunman ambushed police officers, killing three.
Cavell still attended Sunday’s opening event at the convention. But when he returned to the silence of his hotel room, he reflected on the tragedy that claimed the lives of two Baton Rouge officers — men who wore the same uniform he once did — and a sheriff’s deputy.
“It hits you,” he said as he spooned food onto his plate at the delegation’s breakfast Monday morning, his voice trailing off.
Glenda Pollard’s voice broke as she recalled getting a call from her sister to inform her about the shooting, just as she and her husband were packing up their car to head to the airport. Pollard and her husband are Trump supporters and live a mile from where the shooting happened.
“It’s tragic,” she said, “This has got to end.”
‘Pray for healing’
The delegation gathered Monday in a banquet room at their hotel in Mayfield, Ohio, a roughly 30-minute drive from downtown Cleveland. Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, led them in prayer.
“Father, I pray for healing,” Perkins said. “ I pray, Father, this will not be something we superficially pass over, but may we deal with the issues at hand as a nation.”
Perkins said he was serving as an interim pastor in a local Baton Rouge church and preparing to baptize the son of a police officer when he heard about the Baton Rouge shooting.
He said the incident, along with the recent shooting in Dallas that left five police officers dead, signaled that the country was in need of “new leadership.”
Perkins is supporting the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, but he is at the convention as a delegate for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
The Louisiana delegation is evenly divided between Trump and Cruz delegates, with a handful pledging support for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Asked if Trump could address the divisions in the country, Perkins said, “Better so than the alternative” — a reference to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
“I think people have taken what [Trump] has said and tried to use it to stoke division. Can he be more artful? Maybe.” Perkins said. “But that’s what makes him attractive to people. The problem is so profound that we just need somebody who’s going to address it honestly.”
‘Blue lives matter’
Louisiana Rep. Ralph Abraham was also at the breakfast, but he planned to return home Monday afternoon.
There, the freshman Republican said he would reach out to fellow GOP Rep. Garrett Graves, who represents parts of Baton Rouge. Graves was expected to attend the convention, but remained in the state capital after the shooting.
Abraham was sporting a “Blue Lives Matter” pin on his suit jacket to show his support for the police.
He echoed other members of the delegation, who said a straight-talking Trump could better address some of the tensions in the country.
“He understands the heartbeat of America right now and he understands the frustration, the anger, the disappointment with the current administration,” Abraham said.
Despite the tragedy, the Louisiana delegates still tried to enjoy the moment. They had some help from Willie Robertson , a member of the duck hunting family that stars in the A&E television show “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson is expected to address the convention Monday night.
The reality TV star entered the banquet room, and asked the attendees if they could use a laugh. He entertained the delegation with stories about attending the 2008 GOP convention and being pulled on stage at a Trump rally. But he reflected on the shooting at the end of his speech.
“I don’t have any answers,” Robertson said. “I think there’s a sin problem and there’s certainly evil living among us. … It’s up to Christians to change the hearts and minds of people, to give them hope, and something better.”