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.
Soon after, a large procession begins filtering in from the west side of the park. The first thing to catch my eye is a woman holding a sign announcing that “Nancy Pelosi is Judas Iscariot.” On the back, the sign says, “What Part of Get Out of Iraq Don’t You Understand.” That’s more like it. Following her are bands of demonstrators, a couple hundred strong, urging that we uncover the 9/11 cover-up, get out of Iraq, impeach Bush, and everything in between. The march is called Procession for the Future.
As the demonstrators file into the park’s amphitheater, I’m taken by the anomalous sight of a group of marchers carrying cardboard replicas of a bullet train. Amid all the no-less-true-for-being-tried calls to stem the apocalypse, here is a group advocating speedy rail transport. A capital idea. And it doesn’t use fossil fuel.
I approach a woman named Carly Knudson, who seems to be one of the leaders of the light-rail brigade. Turns out she actually doesn’t know all that much about this particular issue — she’s been 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,” says the smiling 23-year-old, whose shining teeth could possibly generate electricity themselves. “My biggest concern 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’s saying. I’m a little distracted by the fact that she is quite beautiful and also wearing a sticker on her sleeveless T-shirt that reads, “Make Out, Not War.”
Knudson says she was raised in a household of political activism, studied political science at Metropolitan State College in Denver and is going to grad school at New York University to study policy. “I think we have a generation of really energized people,” she says. “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. It is possible to create the world we envision for ourselves.”
Just as I’m feeling a little better about the future of America, I hear a shrill, platitudinous voice coming over a loudspeaker. The woman, closer in age to the actual 1968 protesters, is railing on the usual suspects. By the time she gets to the part about Obama representing the same old racist politics in different clothes, I figure it’s time to leave. But then I’m confronted with the stunning sight of Tucker Carlson. Or rather, his hair, which is attached to Tucker Carlson. The know-it-all conservative pundit, I have to say, looks resplendent in a crisp shirt, tie, blue blazer and tan khakis.
Superhumanly immune to the sweltering heat, Carlson, who is with his daughter, appears ready to go on air at a moment’s notice. He seems to be in a grand mood.
“I love this stuff,” says Carlson, smiling broadly. “I love street theater. But it’s so small. I mean, they have one angry chick onstage. I can find five angry chicks on my block.”
Despite the smart-ass wunderkind he plays on TV, Carlson is so cool that my faith is shaken. Not in the rightness of my liberal-leaning politics, but rather in whose hair would win a caged wrestling match: his or Keith Olbermann’s? Heretofore, I couldn’t conceive of Olbermann’s hair being defeated.
Asource 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 riverfront 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 LoDo district.
To arrive at Tent City, as it’s being called in the vernacular, you walk along the banks of the South Platte River, just past a skate park and under a bridge, where you are greeted by a forlorn collection of a dozen or so displays promoting everything from union brotherhood to hemp.
I stop by Amnesty International’s replica of a Guantanamo Bay holding cell, a tiny, claustrophobic 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 gives me the tour, such as it is. “Some people,” she says, “when you tell them a prisoner spends 22 or 23 hours a day here, you can see their brains working.”
At a memorial consisting of 300 pairs of boots placed on a knoll to 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 the organization Eyes Wide Open, says that despite the apparent lack of traffic through the park, she’s happy with how things are going.
“A soldier yesterday walked on and found his friend,” she says. “It was really moving.”
The biggest attraction by far in Tent City, though, is the sign-up for a raffle to give away tickets to the Rage Against the Machine concert, part of the Tent State Music Festival to End the War at Denver Coliseum on Wednesday afternoon. I leave the park wondering where, indeed, is the rage.
Check Election ’08 at laweekly.com for photos and more scenes from the convention.