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As police — supervised by DPD chief Gerry Whitman — deployed a mini-army to arrest a total of 88 protesters, the procession of colorful floats, classic cars and flatbeds filled with elderly Sicilians and mini-beauty queens was stalled another hour.
And at the end of the day, all anyone could talk about was what would happen in Denver next year — not on Columbus Day, but at the Democratic National Convention.
With his shaved head, goatee, solemn brow and a wardrobe of dark garments with many pockets, 37-year-old Glenn Spagnuolo looks the part of a revolutionary. He is articulate, quick-witted and can make great, impassioned speeches about injustice, racism and corporate greed without sounding like some mumbling hippie or foam-spitting radical. He's put those characteristics to good use in front of cameras since January, when it was announced that Denver would host the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
The last time Denver hosted a major political convention was in 1908, when the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan — who would go on to lose his third White House bid. So the 2008 convention, slated for August 25 to 28 exactly a hundred years later, has been heralded as an opportunity for Denver to put itself on the political map. But city boosters' glee was somewhat tempered when Spagnuolo and a small group of activists from the anti-Columbus offshoot All Nations Alliance revealed that they'd commandeered several possible DNC websites, buying up domain names like DenverDNC.org and 2008Denverconvention.com for $126 each back when Denver was just one of several possible host cities.
That was embarrassing enough, but worse, the activists had linked the official-sounding domains to a protest project called Recreate '68. That's '68, as in Chicago 1968, the most infamous Democratic convention in history, which still summons a mental slide show of archetypal Vietnam-era images: tear gas, riots, young people clubbed by baton-wielding police, a Democratic Party enveloped in political chaos.
So why name a contemporary protest group after such a notorious event?
There are the obvious parallels to forty years ago: an unpopular war and an unpopular president. For the 1968 convention, a myriad of unassociated activist movements — ranging from hippies to Black Nationalists to yippies to New Leftists, pacifists and revolutionaries — came together under the same protest banner. The Recreate '68 Alliance (R-68 for short) contends that its mission is to recapture the same energy, diversity and power of the 1968 demonstrations by acting as a coordinator for the "tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of protesters" expected to converge on Denver. It's R-68's job to ensure that their collective presence has the greatest possible impact.
For elected officials and local business leaders, the Democratic convention is about more than the economic benefits of having 35,000 delegates, guests and media types dumping money in area hotels and restaurants. They see the DNC as a chance to show off the city as a forward-thinking urban metropolis to a national audience whose conception of Denver is still cobbled together from Coors commercials and ski brochures. The last thing they want associated with the Mile High City is violence in the streets. But they also don't want Denver to be known as the town that squashed dissent and stifled free speech.
Neither does R-68. The group laid out its concerns in March at the Mercury Cafe, where Spagnuolo and four other members of the R-68 organizing committee, along with their attorney, sat behind a table on the small stage. They talked about oppressed peoples, military spending, Katrina, immigration rights, solidarity with Iraqi people and police brutality. They said they hoped to host a four-day "festival for democracy" in Civic Center Park during the convention with teach-ins and poetry readings. "The city will see that it's in its best interests to work with us to make sure that things go smoothly," organizer Mark Cohen said.
When reporters asked for specifics about the protests, Spagnuolo took the microphone. R-68 members had been traveling around the country meeting with major anti-war organizations and other national protest groups, he explained. Plans were still rough, but each of the four days would be coordinated so that no one protest overlapped another. "The protests will range on topics that we consider the symptoms of the capitalist systems put in place by Republicans and Democrats," Spagnuolo said. "We don't make a distinction any longer, because we see them as two sides of the same coin."
Denver's civic leaders aren't the only ones who have something to prove next year. Colorado activists want to show their counterparts on the coasts that they have the ability to organize a successful mega-protest, networking with allies from around the country and putting Denver at the center of it. If R-68 goes well, it could establish the Front Range as a major hub for the radical and progressive movement rather than just a way station on the road to Seattle or San Francisco.
For Cohen, it's also a chance to "reinvigorate the kinds of mass movements that once existed in this country." Cohen and his wife, Barbara, are thirty-year veterans of the scene. They've founded, or helped found, dozens of organizations and campaigns, including the Colorado Progressive Coalition and Denver Copwatch. When the American Civil Liberties Union sued the DPD for illegally keeping surveillance records, the Cohens discovered that they had one of the most massive files. Even though neither has ever been arrested or charged with a crime, they were labeled "criminal extremists" by cops.