War of the Word

Denver's Columbus Day Parade rhetoric spells out the same bumpy route.

But nothing has been resolved. In Mark Freeland's eyes, that represents "another broken treaty," and the parade is "an affront not just to indigenous people, but to all people of conscience." For Spagnuolo, it conforms to a pattern of deceit that stretches back to the "Doctrine of Discovery" itself. For Rudy Balles, part Chicano, part Native American, the entire dispute is tragic and sad. "We're crying out for some help," he said. "We're asking for anybody to come in and mediate this problem, because our children are tired of having to scream and holler for the respect that they deserve. Our people are tired of holding signs trying to prove that we're human beings. We don't want to do this every year."

For Sommer McGuire, who traces part of her heritage to the Taino people whom Columbus encountered in the Caribbean, the Columbus controversy is not a case of erroneously applying 21st-century standards to 15th-century behavior. "This is connected to everything in our lives," she said. "The Columbian legacy ripples out and manifests itself in such twisted ways. We're dealing with that right now, and we've been dealing with it as native people for hundreds of years."

Glenn Spagnuolo (left) was arrested and acquitted at 
last year's parade.
Mark Manger
Glenn Spagnuolo (left) was arrested and acquitted at last year's parade.

City Attorney Cole Finegan, who's now serving as Hickenlooper's acting chief of staff, plays it cool when asked about the annual confrontations on Columbus Day. "We have had numerous internal conversations about [the parade]," he says, "and we're trying to prepare as well as possible. The overriding concern is for everyone's safety. Our position is to protect the First Amendment rights of the parade marchers and the protesters. But I can't read the minds of other people."

What Finegan can read, though, are two new city ordinances based on established state laws that set ground rules for protests at events such as Columbus Day. Passed in June, one ordinance prohibits the disruption of a legally sanctioned event; its companion piece prohibits obstruction of a roadway. Last year, protesters blocked the route for two hours and the nearly 600 Denver cops who worked the event made 230 arrests.

In January, jurors returned acquittals for eight leaders of the protest, and Finegan's office, frustrated by the verdicts, promptly dropped charges against the other defendants. Last year's parade cost the city plenty, the mayor's office reports. Denver Police Department overtime and the erection of parade-day barricades came to $297,000, and the legal cases that followed ate up untold thousands more and put added strain on an overworked city attorney's office.

The new ordinances are "new tools that clarify the effort to maintain the peace," Finegan says. "The presumption is that if there are arrests [this year], we will be able to go forward to prosecute."

But don't look for Ward Churchill in the paddy wagon: He doesn't plan to be at the protest this year. The controversial University of Colorado ethnic studies professor and Native American advocate was arrested at last year's parade, and was one of the of eight found not guilty. Soon after that verdict, a firestorm erupted over Churchill's authorship of a 9/11 essay that labeled some of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks as "little Eichmanns."

"You know, I've been used as a lightning rod," Churchill told a group gathered at a Boulder bookstore last month for a discussion of his new book, about the abuse of children at government-run Indian schools. "If I do something [at the parade] this year, it diverts attention from what the issue is onto me, and I'm not the issue. I'm deliberately stepping out for the reason just indicated."

So, where will Ward Churchill be on Saturday? "If it all comes together," he said, he might be in Rome, participating in one of a number of European-based anti-Columbus Day events planned for the weekend. In any event, AIM activists say they're not expecting to see him in Denver this year.

Still, given all the controversy over Churchill, Vendegnia and other members of the Columbus Day Parade Committee believe protests will be smaller and less strenuous this year. "Public sentiment has turned against Churchill," Vendegnia says. "People are tired of his ideas about America, and I don't think the people who were behind him, like AIM, will rally behind him this year. The new ordinances will help, too. There will be much stiffer penalties. They will probably try and challenge us again, and that's fine. But the community is at a point that it realizes we have the right to assemble and celebrate."

Don't try telling that to Spagnuolo, one of Vendegnia's most vocal critics and one of those arrested and found not guilty last year. "No one wants to be on the jury that put Martin Luther King in jail to write his letters," Spagnuolo says. "And no one's going to want to be the jury that's ever going to stand in the way of the moral crusade that this group has taken on. When they hear the evidence, regardless of what law you put in front of them, they'll understand that it doesn't represent the values of the community, and there'll be a not-guilty verdict."

The controversy continues to boil. On Monday, Native American activists listed four conditions under which they would cancel this year's protest. In a letter to Hickenlooper and the Denver City Council, Colorado AIM demanded that celebrations of Christopher Columbus end in Denver; asked for new talks between Italian-American and Indian groups; said that city funds previously spent on parade-day police overtime and legal costs should be redirected into community projects, some benefiting Native Americans; and called for a curriculum review on how Columbus and the history of U.S. expansion is taught in Denver Public Schools. After plans for two meetings with Hickenlooper fell apart, AIM proposed that the mayor and the groups meet Wednesday night at the Four Winds Center. But the mayor had a scheduling conflict.

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