By Alan Prendergast
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R-68 has met with representatives of the DPD, the Mayor's Office and the FBI. This past June, it found a surprise supporter in then-District 7 City Councilwoman Kathleen Mackenzie. She worked with the group to draft a proposed proclamation that called for the city to respect the rights of protesters during the DNC by issuing parade permits promptly, minimizing police use of pepper spray and horses, allowing protests near the convention center, and restricting the use of four-sided barricades to pen in demonstrators.
These points were not arbitrary. R-68's aggressive public efforts are based on concerns raised by treatment of protesters at the 2004 Republican and Democratic national conventions. In New York, where the RNC was held, police rounded up thousands of protesters in the week before the convention and housed them in a bus terminal for days with little food and water. The NYPD also spied broadly on protest groups, even embedding undercover officers. At the DNC in Boston, protesters were relegated to what officials dubbed "free-speech zones" — protest pens. Spagnuolo was there, and says the area was located beneath overhead rail tracks, closed off by a ten-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire, and surrounded by police.
Federal law-enforcement agencies were doing their own reconnaissance. Before the 2004 conventions, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, working in conjunction with local law enforcement, had questioned political demonstrators across the country in an effort to forestall potential trouble. In Denver, they showed up at the door of the Derailer Bike Collective — a group of young activists who provide free bikes and bike services to children and the homeless — dressed in full SWAT gear. To Mark Silverstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the tactic seemed designed to intimidate activists and definitely violated Denver's spy-file agreement made the year before. That fall, he worked with ACLU offices in other states to file a joint request for information that revealed the feds had been keeping detailed files on this younger generation of activists.
R-68 organizers assume they're being watched by police at any given moment. So at the beginning of open-door planning meetings, Spagnuolo will often note that "it's probably pretty likely that someone in this room is an undercover cop." That's why R-68 made the preemptive move to push the city into an open discussion about protest policies during the DNC.
But other councilmembers thought Mackenzie's proclamation went too far, too fast. The city had no business bargaining with protest groups that vow to "party in the streets" while hamstringing police from using every appropriate means necessary to maintain order, they said. Corporate leaders hinted that if the proclamation passed, they might be reluctant to ante up the $40 million in donations that the city needs to host the convention. Council chairman Michael Hancock — who'd spoken at an anti-Columbus day event in 2001, back when he was a community organizer — yanked the proposal before it could be debated.
"It's one thing allowing First Amendment rights, and it's another when you try to dictate police crowd-control measures," says Councilman Charlie Brown, the proclamation's most outspoken critic. "There's no way I was going to have R-68 via Denver City Council tell our police department what tactics they can and cannot use."
Instead, councilmembers discussed security and free-speech concerns at a committee meeting on July 11, when they heard from Deputy Michael Battista, the DPD's point man for the DNC. Battista said that officers have been receiving special training in "crowd management" — a softer-sounding description than "crowd control" — but declined to go into specifics about what types of procedures will be used. "We will not discuss tactics with protest groups," Battista said. "It's a safety issue for our officers."
On hand were Spagnuolo, Mark Cohen and R-68's lawyer, Tom Cincotta of the National Lawyers Guild, who asserted that any type of free-speech zone would be "unacceptable." Battista said he had met with police departments in New York and Boston and spoken with officials in Los Angeles to see how those cities handled protests, and he noted how different Denver's setup was. Unlike Boston's Fleet Center, for example, the Pepsi Center is surrounded by open space — parking lots and boulevards that could allow for demonstrations within sight and sound of the event without resorting to protest cages.
But the city won't make any decisions on protest areas until it receives an operational security plan from the Secret Service, the lead agency in charge of all "National Special Security Events," which could come as late as January. To guard against possible terrorism, the FBI, FEMA and various bureaus of the Department of Homeland Security will be involved as well. "They'll bring in hundreds of agents over the course of the next year that will develop security for the events," explains Katherine Archuleta, who's in charge of convention coordination for the Mayor's Office.
The federal agencies will determine the perimeters around the Pepsi Center, and also certain transportation corridors for delegates and politicians. Outside of these areas, the DPD will be in command. Boston reportedly had as many as 5,000 officers and state troopers on the ground each day of the 2004 convention. Chief Whitman has said he hopes to pull together 2,000 to 2,500 officers from Denver and surrounding cities. Aurora has already offered 500 cops to augment the force — if their off-time and overtime is paid for. The steep cost of security is the reason Congress has appropriated $100 million for the Democratic and GOP conventions, which will be split between Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul.