Over the past three weeks a loose coalition of people have been gathering in Veterans Park, directly in front of the Colorado state capitol in downtown Denver. Calling themselves Occupy Denver, they’ve been meeting to express solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.
Under what currently passes for normal conditions in these United States, Veterans Park is a popular venue for some of Denver’s estimated 16,000 homeless people, as well as an open-air market for illegal drugs. In the past few days, as the Occupy Denver movement has picked up support, it’s been providing food (most of it donated by sympathizers) to the homeless, as well as holding two general assemblies per day to discuss what their goals ought to be. (I was told by participants that since the protests started the open drug trade has pretty much disappeared). Occupy Denver has no formal leadership or organization; its activities have been modeled on an attempt to engage in what used to be called participatory democracy.
On Monday, a few participants put up a couple of tents and spent the night in the park. By last night, the number of tents had grown to 50, filling much of the park’s space, which is about the size of a couple of large city blocks. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Hickenlooper came down to the park and informed the protestors that they were violating a state law by camping overnight in a public park. Public parks in Colorado are technically open from 5 AM until 11 PM, although it’s possible to get a permit to camp overnight. Occupy Denver had applied for a permit for overnight camping but the state refused to grant one. Later that evening leaflets were distributed, telling the protestors that if they stayed in the park past 11 PM they would be arrested.
At 3 AM a contingent of about 100 riot police arrived to enforce this threat, although apparently no arrests were made until about 6 AM. At that point about 23 protestors were arrested, the rest were forcibly removed from both the park and the sidewalk in front of it (to which the curfew law doesn’t apply) and the tents and other temporary structures put up by Occupy Denver were taken down and seized. The governor then announced that the park was being closed for the day, supposedly because it was “unsanitary” and “unsafe.”
I went down to the park this morning, and spoke to several protestors. Robert Chase, who is with a medical marijuana advocacy group, described how the temporary structures the protestors had placed on the sidewalk were destroyed. He complained bitterly about how the riot police ringing the entire perimeter of the park (when I was there the riot police outnumbered the protestors by about a two to one margin) were being used to arbitrarily interfere with freedom of speech and assembly.
Richard Bluhm, an older man holding a sign that encouraged passing motorists to honk in solidarity (many did) described himself as a “concerned grandfather” from the Denver suburbs, who had been down to the park 11 times in the past two weeks, after dropping his grandson off at the special needs school he attends in Denver. He wore a button reading “We Are the 99%” and told me “I’m here because I’m worried about my country, and this is the only game in town.”
Rachel Boice, a University of Colorado graduate student, described how the twice-daily general assemblies operated. I asked her what she thought the movement was trying to accomplish, and she said its main goal was to achieve “separation of corporation and state.”
Scott Greene, an earnest and passionate young man taking time away from his day job to participate, emphasized how non-violent everyone had been, and how therefore the protestors had been taken aback by the force that was used to remove them both from the park and even from the sidewalk in front of it. He encouraged me to return for tomorrow afternoon’s rally, which he promised would be the biggest yet (Tomorrow a group of Navy veterans have a permit to use the park, which I suspect has something to do with Gov. Hickenlooper’s sudden decision to use force to disperse the protest).
I spoke to Trooper Richard, one of the about 100 state troopers in full riot gear, asking him if they were going to be deployed around the park’s perimeter all day. He wasn’t sure; his orders were to stay at the park until further notice. I asked him if this show of force didn’t seem a bit excessive given how innocuous the protestors seemed. He asked me if I had been here early this morning, and I said I hadn’t, but that the protestors who had assured me they had been completely peaceful at all times. “We need to be prepared for every possible outcome,” he replied.