They stood in the shade of a tree at the City Park Jazz series Sunday night. Two young men dressed in red T-shirts. Two young men dressed in black, whose low slung pants revealed flashes red underwear. The quartet didn’t appear to be acting up. They certainly weren’t bothering each other or messing with passersby.
You could say they were minding their own business.
You could say the same thing about the Denver Police officers who approached them.
It was a quiet confrontation, sparked by a display of gang colors – Bloods red – and a tip from an uncomfortable citizen. No voices rose. No tussles ensued. No weapons were drawn. However, one weapon – a white-handled knife – was confiscated. And two people – one in red and one in black – ended up listening to music in handcuffs while waiting to be picked up by squad cars when the concert ended.It made those of us picnicking nearby feel weird. You wondered how the cops could set upon people who didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong at the city’s finest public wine and cheese party.
Then you remembered that the week before, not too many blocks from where we sat munching fresh strawberries and pasta salad and sipping wine, another young man took three slugs in the back of the head because he happened to be wearing blue at a bus stop. His family said he had nothing to do with rival street gangs – the red-clad Bloods and blue-clad Crips.
Such is life in Denver’s would-be Summer of Peace.
The Bloods signature red clothes and the Crips signature blue have never been passive statements of style, especially not these days, when, apparently, even an unintended fashion faux pas can get you killed.
However quiet it occasionally appears, a battle rages for the streets and the parks of Denver. Nothing testified to that more than the flood of red-shirted Bloods who invaded the first City Park Jazz event in June, walking en masse and flashing gang signs, or the next week when the rival gang, the blue-clad Crips showed up and a fight broke out.
It wasn’t a big fight, mind you. No shots rang out. No one got cut. But even a little fight was so anachronistic at laid-back, chilled out, family-oriented City Park Jazz that the powers that be sprang to action.
It was that action that my friends and I witnessed Sunday. At first blush, it might have looked like harassment or even racism. The young men were, after all, African-American. The police officers were, after all, white. But the meaning of the encounter ran deeper than skin color. A significant portion of the crowd at every City Park Jazz event is black. There’s also plenty of Latino brown among the thousands who gather to eat dinner, chat, play with their kids and enjoy free music on Sunday nights in the summer.
So no matter how it looked on first viewing, the dynamic we witnessed in the park was decidedly more complex. It required a context. That context stretches back to 1993 when a so-called Summer of Violence gripped Denver. Gang turf battles left bodies in the streets then, too. Skirmishes between police and gangbangers were frequent then, too. Different gangs claimed different parks or at least different parts of the same park.
When I first wrote about the gang presence at this summer’s City Park Jazz, a civic activist from the neighborhood surrounding the park sent an email to thank me. Gang behavior in City Park, the activist explained, had become more brazen than it had been for years. The activist told of watching recent motorcades of red-clad Bloods driving through the park.
They fired no guns. But symbolically they busted a cap in every person trying to enjoy a normal life in Denver.
As I watched a police officer take a knife off one of the young men in red, I thought about that. Here was the price of peace this summer or any season:
Gangbangers must understand that they aren’t welcome and won’t be tolerated anywhere.
There is a war going on. But it isn’t just the Crips against the Bloods. It is really a battle between folks seeking an urban lifestyle with decent, safe public facilities and groups who thrive on a culture of crime, fear and intimidation.
In that sense, it wouldn’t have mattered if the young men we saw Sunday got along splendidly while wearing Bloods red or Crips blue. Détente among thugs won’t cure what ails us.