Denver’s Civic Center Park, surrounded by vistas of rising skyscrapers, a beautiful public library, an art center, the Capitol building and the state courthouse, is a wonderful little spot in the heart of the city. It would seem to be the perfect place to generate buzz for whatever cause you might have. And the activist alliance Recreate ’68 has promised an eventful Democratic National Convention. But as I stand on the fringes of the park on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon, so far there hasn’t been much to remind folks of the social tumult that made that hot summer in Chicago so emblematic.
I’ve been looking for signs of dissident life, an infusion of hot blood into what has been a rather anemic convention. And on Monday night, at the 16th Street Mall (think Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade), I thought I had found it when I witnessed two lines of police in full riot gear, reinforced by a line of cops on horses, pushing back a crowd of mostly young men and women who were ... well, taking pictures and videos with their cell phone cameras of the cops. Most in the crowd didn’t seem to have much more on their agenda than gawking. A strange confrontation if it could be called that.
“Move back, move back,” the cops said in unison from under their helmets, which muffled their voices in a kind of Darth Vader way. I kept moving toward the cops for some reason, until it became clear that they meant what they were saying.
They pushed us back to the intersection on the pedestrian mall, where things just kind of came to a standstill.
I found an old, hippie-ish looking guy wearing a hat that pronounced him to be a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer. He said his name was Ron Booth and that this wasn’t his first convention. It didn’t seem like it. I asked what had gone down.
“Oh, some demonstrators, protesters — activists, I prefer to call them, the other words have such negative connotations — came out of Civic Center Park. Apparently, they were unpermitted.”
Booth told me the cops quickly surrounded the “activists” on all sides, leaving whatever passersby, including him, stuck in the middle with them. A mass arrest of about 100 people, including many bystanders, quickly took place. Booth was impressed with the cops’ speed and efficiency.
I asked if anything confrontational went down. “Oh, there were shouts and suggestions of this being a police state, but as far as anything physical, no,” Booth said. “There was some indiscriminate pepper-spraying by the police.”
He was detained, but Booth, savvy legal observer that he is, knew how to handle the situation. He explained to an officer that he was there legally, had numerous times asked to be allowed to leave, and that if they want to get a lawsuit for tear-gassing a law-abiding citizen, he’d be happy to oblige.
“A guy who seemed to be a supervisor came over and asked me if I wanted to go,” said Booth. Others weren’t so lucky. Some were detained for hours in chain-linked holding cells inside a chilly warehouse, then shackled and taken to a 2 a.m. court hearing where most were coerced into taking plea deals and paying a $141 fine so they could avoid further court appearances and costly bonds.
When I asked Booth what the police-provoking protest was about, he says, “As far as I could tell, it was a group of activists focused on a number of different causes — global warming, the war, things like that.”
There are obvious historical parallels between now and 1968 — like then, we’re confronted with an unpopular and immoral war and a Democrat-led Congress spineless in its promises to do something about it. But so far the protests have done little to live up to the hype. Last night’s arrests, however unjust, were in danger of being a tempest in a teapot.
Here at Civic Center Park the next day, however, I spot a young man with all the earmarks of the dreaded anarchists burned into our pop-culture consciousness ever since the Battle in Seattle during the World Trade Organization protests of ’99: nondescript black dickies, white bandanna around neck, white T-shirt that looks quasi-paramilitary and statement-making, Che Guevara–like facial hair.
“That was some serious bullshit last night,” he says into his cell phone. “My ribs still hurt.”
I ask him what happened last night and he tells me flatly that some cops were doing their jobs and some weren’t.
“They were doing their jobs with me, though,” he smiles, perking up. “I got arrested.”
I ask why he was arrested and he says he pulled a cop off some other protester and wasn’t overly polite in how he went about it. “I’m not going to stand for police brutality,” he says, and then takes off in a hurry.