Activists determined to be heard, despite police efforts to contrary

Vietnam veteran and war resister Ron Kovics helps close down a Pepsi Center entrance. (Erin Rosa)
Vietnam veteran and war resister Ron Kovics helps close down a Pepsi Center entrance. (Erin Rosa)

The Democratic National Convention has just started, and Colorado’s small and intricate activist microcosm is determined to have its views heard despite months of civil rights litigation and unprecedented police efforts to compile weapons and intelligence — moves that are likely to leave a permanent mark on the state.

Although up to 50,000 protesters were expected to stage actions during the convention, so far the numbers have been only in the thousands, with few arrests. The lower numbers are partially due to a recent split among activist groups planning to demonstrate at the convention, although organizations may have overestimated the number of protesters willing to brave the overwhelming police presence.

At the anti-war march that kicked off Sunday morning, a variety of local and national speakers took the podium on the west steps of the state Capitol to assail a two-party system they said was responsible for supporting war and imperialism abroad.

Speakers included well-known anti-war mother Cindy Sheehan, Green Party candidates Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente, along with local organizers representing Recreate 68, an activist coalition of left-leaning organizations and anarcho affinity groups that helped put the event together.

It was thought that protesters would only make it to Larimer Street and Speer Boulevard, the official end of the city-designated parade route for activists, but marchers made it relatively close to the security perimeter of the Pepsi Center, shutting down an access gate for approximately an hour.

The deal to expand the route, cut between police and organizers, was decided right before the march, according to Recreate 68 group members, leaving demonstrators confused about where to go once they actually got to the gates of the convention site.

“We weren’t actually expecting to get all the way here,” said Glenn Spagnuolo, a reluctant Recreate 68 figurehead who is well-known in Denver for his actions protesting Columbus Day.

March organizers had to confer before deciding to go back the way they came in the end. At one point, when those leaving the march tried to exit through the nearby Auraria campus, Denver police in full SWAT gear immediately ran up, got into formation, and confronted the activists. Despite some heated words, the team backed down once march organizers made it clear they were not seeking a confrontation.

Radicals and reformists

Behind the scenes of demonstration organization at the convention, some activist groups have not been getting along. But the scenario is nothing new for Denver and the anti-war movement as a whole.

The city’s activists tend to break into two groups, the radicals and the reformists. The former believes that there is a fundamental problem with the political system in the United States and that it should be overthrown, while the latter is more interested in complete pacifism as well as reform of the system.

Founders of Recreate 68, from left to right, Barbra Cohen, Mark Cohen and Glenn Spagnuolo, lead a protest parade against the war. (Photo/Erin Rosa)
Founders of Recreate 68, from left to right, Barbra Cohen, Mark Cohen and Glenn Spagnuolo, lead a protest parade against the war. (Photo/Erin Rosa)

Recreate 68 was the first locally organized coalition to announce plans to protest the convention and belongs in the more radical category. Members include faces that have been involved in Denver’s small activist community for years, including Barbara and Mark Cohen, veteran activists who have been spied on by Denver police while working for variety of social justice issues in the past two decades.

On the other side is the Alliance for Real Democracy, an anti-war coalition composed of many national organizations that recently split from Recreate 68 over concerns about the group’s incendiary name and more radical beliefs. Members of the alliance include Code Pink; United for Peace and Justice; and Tent State University, an organization based in New Jersey that sets up tents at campuses and large events to talk about social justice issues.

Recreate 68 organizers have always claimed that their name was not meant to be an allusion to the violent riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, when police beat protesters. Instead, they say, it is a nostalgic title to emphasize the spirit of radical resistance in the 1960s.

The alliance, on the other hand, was concerned about the public relations impression from such a name. Some groups announced their own formation and split from Recreate 68 in late June. Other groups decided to work with both outfits.

Although the majority of protest actions in and around Denver are composed mostly of white faces, Recreate 68 has also worked with the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement and with immigration rights groups in opposing federal immigration raids and in supporting indigenous rights.

Recreate 68 has dedicated itself to supporting a variety of street actions throughout the week, including a protest at the Denver Mint on Monday and a march for immigrant rights on Thursday. The alliance will participate in fewer street actions and is instead focusing its energies on hosting concerts, such as Rage Against the Machine on Wednesday at the Denver Coliseum, and teaching sessions in Cuernavaca Park, which is near the Pepsi Center.

Law enforcement officials will release arrest reports daily during the convention.

‘Police state’ in Denver

During the Sunday anti-war event, activists were quick to denounce the “police state” in Denver. The city has composed the largest gathering of law enforcement agencies in the state’s history, according to city police officials. March organizers also believe that the lack of protesters was in part due to the prominent police presence in the city and the lack of access demonstrators have to delegates at the Pepsi Center.

An Aurora police officer, on loan to the Denver Police Department for the convention, brandishes a new pepper ball guns.
An Aurora police officer, on loan to the Denver Police Department for the convention, brandishes a new pepper ball guns.

Right now in Denver it is nearly impossible to walk downtown without running into troops of police officers from the city and neighboring suburbs. Some are decked out in full SWAT gear, while others in regular uniform carry batons.

Last week, the Denver Police Department issued a bulletin asking law enforcement officials to be on the lookout for stockpiles of supplies that could be used by “violent demonstrators” during the convention, but civil libertarians criticized the memo for containing a broad list of innocuous items including bicycles, helmets and maps.

Police reports of such “supplies” will be recorded and held for an indefinite period of time by a state “fusion” center, which will share reports of “suspicious activities” with local, federal and military officials. The “fusion center” will be increasing operations during the convention, with up to eight intelligence analysts with the Colorado State Patrol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation working 24 hours a day.

Although three lawsuits were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado before the convention, one of which challenged the creation of a caged 27,000-square-foot “free speech zone” more than 700 feet from the Pepsi Center in Parking Lot A, protesters are still being kept at a distance from the convention, with the exception of Sunday’s march, which took place before it actually opened.

The location of the zone, which sits right behind a big white media tent, makes it nearly impossible to see delegates entering and exiting the site. A Denver district judge dismissed the suit in early August. But activists with Recreate 68 are refusing to restrict their protests to the city’s caged zone, preferring to target other locations.

In St. Paul, Minn., protesters will be allowed to assemble about 100 feet from the delegates entering the Xcel Center at the Republican National Convention in September.

The Denver Police Department has also refused to disclose what weapons and equipment it is purchasing with federal tax dollars for convention security. When The Colorado Independent filed an open records request in March seeking the information, the department refused to disclose it, finding that it was “not in a public interest.”

In a subsequent and unrelated action, the American Civil Liberties also sued law enforcement officials under open records laws for failing to disclose what equipment it was buying. The ACLU later dropped the suit after police released a general and non-specific list of the equipment it was planning to purchase with the money.

Security With Advanced Technology, a company based in Louisville, Colo., and self-described as investing in the manufacturing of “non-lethal solutions,” announced in June that it had sold Denver police 88 Mark IV rifle models, guns that can fire up to 15 pepper balls filled with a super irritant powder at an approximate target range of 100 meters.

Another suit by the ACLU sought to obtain the city’s jail processing manual, for details on how demonstrators may be arrested and released during the convention. The ACLU later obtained the document and dropped the suit, but the manual was heavily redacted, including pages that were completely blacked out.

More than 400 troops with the Colorado Army National Guard are expected to be in the Denver area during the convention, but military officials won’t say what they’ll be doing.

Denver has also spent $500,000 of federal taxpayer dollars to build a makeshift warehouse prison in the event of mass arrests during the convention. The facility will be able to hold up to 400 people at one time, and guards with the Denver Sheriff’s Department will be carrying Tasers.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at