By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
The mainstream-media coverage of the so-called melee that took place Saturday, May 18, at a punk show staged at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall was, in a word, typical. The television news accounts that I saw immediately following the incident--which involved the arrests of seventeen people and the participation of more than fifty police officers, many outfitted in riot gear that left them looking like extras in Red Dawn--attempted to hype the drama of the situation via shaky-cam shots, shock edits and the juxtaposition of interview snippets that made the cops seem harried but responsible and the young attendees appear inarticulate and wild. The first several articles in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News were staid by comparison. But they failed to mention any of the acts scheduled to appear that night at the hall at 4747 W. Colfax, or to allow musicians or promoters to counter the statements made by either VFW spokesman Ron Schneider, who says that the nature of the concert came as a complete surprise to him, or representatives of the police, who insist that they did absolutely nothing wrong.
But Jason Cotter, a booker for the Raven nightclub who co-promoted the May 18 spectacle with three others, focuses the blame for what happened squarely at the VFW. Furthermore, he says the police made a bad situation worse. "It was one of the stupidest acts of judgment I've ever seen," he says. "This could have been completely prevented." George Fraska, guitarist with one of the opening acts, Four, echoes this analysis: "The kids inside were just watching the show and having fun. None of this had to happen."
The bill's headliner was Propagandhi, a Canadian act whose popularity escalated when two of its songs were included on a punk sampler released on Fat Records, a label owned by Fat Mike of the act NOFX. The group is known for the political nature of its lyrics; as Cotter puts it, "they're probably the most nonviolent band around. They're anti-barriers, anti-war, anti-sexism, anti-racism."
"They're also really against U.S. politics," Fraska says. "They came to Colorado Springs about two and a half years ago, but they've hardly been back to the United States since, because they don't like the politics and the police here. Which makes it really ironic that the police had to do all of this at one of their shows."
The Propagandhi musicians don't simply talk the talk about their beliefs; they also try to walk the walk. They're so dedicated, in fact, that they dub many of their appearances benefits, with proceeds earmarked to fund the publication of books that foster their viewpoints. The Denver date (which, in addition to Four, featured Crestfallen, Useless and the Nobodies) was such a benefit and was so identified in the contract between the VFW and the promoters. The VFW's Schneider subsequently argued that the event had been misrepresented, a charge Cotter vehemently denies. "They knew exactly what we were going to do," he asserts. "They knew we were going to have music, and they were cool with that. We were totally up front with them."
Cotter states that the contract listed capacity of the hall at 500 people, adding, "We had a verbal agreement for 300 above that, but it was only verbal. It wouldn't stand up for shit." A few more than 300 tickets were sold in advance, and sales of tickets at the door were brisk. Cotter estimates that an hour and a half after the performance's 7 p.m. start time, approximately 420 people were in the upper level of the hall--the portion of the building rented by the promoters--with another 100 or so milling around outside, apparently waiting for the headliner to take the stage. In his opinion, there were no substantial problems prior to the decision to shut down the show. The contract called for the VFW to supply security, which consisted of two off-duty police officers and a handful of others; also present were several plainclothes security types provided by the promoters. To Cotter's knowledge, no one was ejected by any of these guards.
So why the decision to abort the evening's program? In published reports, VFW representatives say that fans without tickets began trying to force their way into the hall after it was decreed that the building was at capacity--and that listeners inside began throwing objects at police following an announcement that no one else could gain access to the concert. As for the reason the VFW decided that the joint was full well before the agreed-upon number of folks had gained admittance, Cotter says, "It was really hot in there because their air conditioning was broken upstairs, and it made them really nervous. And we weren't informed about that until we got there. I mean, we'd rented a building with air conditioning. So that was the VFW's fault."
"Besides," Fraska says, "the kids didn't care how hot it was. They wanted to see the show. And there was plenty of room up there. When they shut it down, it was only about half full."
(According to Cotter, only the air conditioning in the concert zone was out; it continued to function in a downstairs area, where a wedding reception was taking place at the same time as the concert. "Fortunately," he says, "those people got out of there before the main stuff went down.")