Pompous Police Presence Pervades Protests

I was outside the Democratic National Convention for the four days of its life in Denver, CO. The heavily armed, massive police presence in Denver was daunting even to convention delegates. Police on horseback, police on motorcycles, and SUVs rolling down the street with three or four helmeted police on both side running boards and on the rear bumper, squadrons of cops leaning against buildings, lurking in alleys, and poised on street corners suited in protective gear reminiscent of Star Wars, armed with gas guns, tasers, shotguns, semi-automatics, and who-knows-what gadgetry; Denver police and sheriffs, police from other jurisdictions (one afternoon I found my way blocked by mounted police from Cheyenne, Wyoming), dozens of federal police agencies and countless armed private security guards were ubiquitous.

One evening I was walking down the street past a federal courthouse talking into a cell phone when a guy pulled up and jumped out of his car to take a picture of a church across the street. Immediately, a couple of armed security guards ran out of the building and grabbed his camera. “Hey, that’s a nice church, make a nice picture,” I volunteered. “Just keep moving!” was the reply. “I’m not in your way,” I rejoined. “This is federal property, just keep moving!” I was on the city sidewalk.

Still conversing on the cell phone, describing to my friend what was happening, I moved to a bus bench at the end of the block and watched as more guards and police emerged from the courthouse. One of them (Federal Protective Police) came over to me and demanded ID. As I handed it to him I asked “What’s the problem?” “You were interfering with the officers.” “No, I wasn’t in their way at all.” “What have you been smoking?” “I don’t smoke.” “Put that cell phone down when i’m talking to you.” “I’ll just keep it on, thanks.” Wham! He grabbed the phone and shut it, and put me in handcuffs. “For your protection and mine.”

Ten minutes later, after ID checks had run their course, he let me go. This was not an uncommon experience — in the days following I heard countless similar tales.

Unlike Chicago ’68, where a peace plank had been introduced on the floor, and where Connecticut Senator Ribicoff in his nominating speech for George McGovern denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of Mayor Daley and the Chicago police, there was a great disconnect between the official Democratic Party convention agenda and protesters. Denver Mayor Hickenlooper, a Democrat, did everything he could to isolate demonstrations and make protesters invisible. Only as a result of the Iraq Veterans Against the War march was a bridge put in place between street demonstrations and the party inside.

Prior to the opening of the convention, a federal judge had ruled that security needs outweighed First Amendment considerations, and affirmed the city’s right to restrict protesters to a fenced-in area out of sight of convention attendees. The Free Speech Zone, which actually appears as such on official maps, consisted of a 50,000 square foot parking lot surrounded by a 10 foot high chain link fence and an inner rail iron fence, with no bathroom or porta-potties.

Addressing a rally Sunday prior to the convention, Ron Kovic pledged: “I gave three-fourths of my body in Vietnam and i’m not going to be put into a cage in silence.”

No demonstrations took place in the Free Speech Zone.

However, in a park far from downtown and the Pepsi (convention) Center, the mayor had permitted organizers to place tents and hold support activities but forbidden them to sleep. There a national group called Tent State University facilitated much of the organizing, including logistics for Wednesday’s IVAW-sponsored Rage Against the Machine concert at the Coliseum, and including Resurrection City Free University, a 4-day series of more than 40 colloquiums on the park lawn with presenters such as Vincent Harding, politician Cynthia McKinney, writer Vincent Bugliosi, and Professor Stephen Zunes.

Because they were forbidden to camp at Tent State, at the end of long, hot days 30 or 40 people trekked to what they called the Freedom Cage to sleep. No fires were permitted, amended to “no heat sources” after someone tried to cook breakfast on a battery-powered hot plate. Campers had to walk three or four blocks to bathrooms, harassed at police blockades coming and going. Stadium lights were kept on at all times and, as people started to retire, giant floodlights were turned on for the remainder of the night. Police in cherrypickers kept an all-night vigil over the 30 or 40 campers who woke each morning to find themselves surrounded on the ground by Secret Service among others.