I made my way to Civic Center Park, near the state capitol building in Denver, around midday on Tuesday, hoping to find signs of dissident life to add a bit of hot blood to what had been so far a rather anemic Democratic National Convention. It was the morning after a confrontation between police and demonstrators marching on the U.S. Mint on Colfax Avenue. That night ended with arrests and some pepper spraying of marchers. When my brother, Sean, and I arrived at the park on a burnished and sweltering day, however, we were met with few signs of protest, let alone civil disobedience.
Civic Center Park is a small city park surrounded by vistas of rising skyscrapers a beautiful public library, art center, the capitol building and the state court house. It's a wonderful little spot in the heart of the city. It would seem to be the perfect place to generate some buzz for whatever cause you might have. And Recreate '68 had promised an eventful convention, but to this point there wasn't much to remind folks of that hot summer in Chicago.
I'm not saying that's a bad thing, as I'm not entirely sure it would be helpful, but the historical parallels to that time and now are obvious – like then, we're confronted with an unpopular and immoral war and a Democrat led government spineless in its promises to do something about it. So far, though, the protests had done little to live up to the hype. The previous night was in danger of being a tempest in a teapot.
Soon after arriving I did come upon a young man talking on his cell. He had all the earmarks of the dreaded anarchists burned into the pop culture consciousness ever since the Battle In Seattle during the World Trade Organization protests of '99: young, white bandana around neck, nondescript black dickies and white t-shirt that looked quasi paramilitary and vaguely statement-making, Che Guevara-like facial hair.
“That was some serious bullshit last night,” he said into the phone. “My ribs still hurt.”
He took off in a hurry for some reason, but I chased him down and asked what happened last night. He told me flatly that some cops were doing their jobs and some weren't.
“They were doing their jobs with me, though,” he smiled, perking up. “I got arrested.”
I asked why he got arrested and he said 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 said, and then took off again for wherever he was going.
Well, that's that, I thought.
Then, a large procession began filtering in from the west side of the park. The first thing to catch my eye was a woman holding a sign announcing that “Nancy Pelosi is Judas Iscariot.” On the back, the sign said, “What Part of Get Out of Iraq Don't You Understand.” That's more like it. Following her were bands of demonstrators, a couple hundred strong, urging that we uncover the 9-11 coverup, get out of Iraq, impeach Bush, and everything in between. The march was called Procession For The Future.
A the demonstrators filed into the amphitheater, I was taken by the anomalous sight of a group of marchers carrying cardboard replicas of a bullet train. This was interesting — amidst all the no-less-true for being tired calls to stem the apocalypse here was a group advocating speedy rail transport. A capital idea, I thought. And it doesn't use fossil fuel.
I approached a woman named Carly Knudson who seemed to be one of the leaders of the light-rail brigade. Turns out she actually didn't know all that much about this particular issue, but was out here volunteering with various causes and organizations all week.
“This is such a phenomenal week to be involved and participating in democracy in action and reminding the nation and the world what democracy is really about,” said the smiling 23-year-old, whose shining teeth could possibly generate electricity themselves.
“My biggest concern,” she said, “is that what's at the center of the brain is partisan politics and not the issues. Most important is bipartisan discussion.”
At least that's what I think she said. I might have been distracted by the fact that it was becoming increasingly apparent that she was quite beautiful and also wearing a sticker on her sleeveless t-shirt that said “Make Out, Not War.”
Carly told me she was raised in a household of political activism, studied political science at Metropolitan State University in Denver and was going to grad school at New York University to study policy. I wondered, aloud, how a bright, engaged young person felt about the state of the world in the Bush era. I remember being very angry at her age back when Reagan made the White House his lair. I kept that part to myself… about who was president when I was her age, that is.
“I'm really excited,” she said, and I believed her. “I think we have a generation of really energized people. There's a lot of young passion. I'm really excited about what the future can bring. I have a lot of faith in my peers to work together. It's not just about taking to the street, we need people who are interested in making a change from within. I hope I can be one of those people.”
I was going to tell her she had my vote at Make Out Not War, but decided against it.
“It's possible to create the world we envision for ourselves,” she added.
I was feeling a little better about the future of America when a shrill platitudinous older woman started railing on the usual suspects. When I caught something about Obama representing the same old racist politics in different clothes, it was time to leave. And I would have if I wasn't confronted with the stunning sight of Tucker Carlson. Or rather, his hair, which was attached to Tucker Clarson. The know-it-all conservative pundit, I have to say, was resplendent in a crisp shirt, tie, blue blazer and tan khakis.
Superhumanly immune to the sweltering heat, Carlson, who was with his daughter, appeared ready to go on air at a moments notice. He seemed to be in a grand mood.
“I love this stuff,” said Carlson, smiling broadly. “I love street theater. But it's so small. I mean, they have one angry chick on stage. I can find five angry chicks on my block.”
We chatted for awhile about his old friend and my new best friend, the famed rural advocate Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who like Carlson hails from Virginia, but who, unlike Carlson, helped usher Mark Warner into the state's governorship and Jim Webb into the US Senate by teaching them hillbilly. (Stay tuned for more Mudcat).
Despite the smart-ass wunderkind he plays on TV, Carlson so was so cool – asking polite questions about where my brother and I lived, what we thought about all this, etc. – that my faith was shaken. Not in the rightness of my liberal-leaning politics, but, rather in whose hair would win a caged wrestling match: his or Keith Olberman's? Heretofore, I couldn't conceive of Olberman's hair being defeated.
After taking leave of Mr. Carlson, we made our way to the Food Not Bombs group, which had a prime slice of Civic Center Park real estate beneath two shade trees. Food Not Bombs in a national organization that takes grocery store and restaurant and turns them into free gourmet-adjacent meals. These guys were pulling double duty all week feeding the denizens of the park and hungry dissidents of Recreate '68, (who were apparently managing to work up an appetite if not a ruckus). Though a friendly guy with startling eyes named Josh told me they don't discriminate against squares.
“We fed delegates,” he said gleefully. “We had a delegate from Florida here yesterday.”
A source of mild controversy, and mild seems to be the flavor of the week, has been the relegation of permitted protesters — or demonstrators or whatever you want to call people who have something on their minds and wish other people would listen — to a grassy river-front patch called Cuernavaca Park which serves as a green zone between two gigantic examples of the triumphs and failures of New Urbanism in Denver's Lo-Do district.
To arrive at Tent City, as it's being called in the vernacular, one walks along the banks of the South Platte River, just past a skate park, under a bridge, and then is greeted by a forlorn collection of a dozen or so displays promoting everything from union brotherhood to hemp.
I dropped in on Amnesty International's replica of a Guantanamo Bay holding cell, a tiny, claustraphobic container in which detainees, many of whom have never been officially charged, are held in even more sweltering conditions than the 90 some degree heat of this day. A nice young woman named Ivy gave me the tour, such as it was. I asked her how it was being received. “Some people, when you tell them a prisoner spends 22 or 23 hours a day here, you can see their brains working,” she said.
We stopped by a memorial consisting of three hundred pairs of boots placed on a knoll that represented the soldiers of Colorado killed in Iraq. The names of the soldiers were written on the boots. A matronly woman named Sarah Gill, of an organization called Eyes Wide Open said that despite the apparent lack of traffic through the park, she was happy with how things were going.
“A soldier yesterday walked on and found his friend,” she said. “It was really moving.”
The biggest attraction by far in Tent City was the sign up for a raffle to give away tickets the Rage Against The Machine concert scheduled for Denver Coliseum on Wednesday night. I left the park wondering where, indeed, was the rage.