The Protest Test

How do you transform Columbus Day? Ask Martin Luther King Jr.

We are not on trial for the DNC. I am not a member of Re-create 68," Glenn Morris told the court. "We are on trial for what happened on October 6, 2007." What happened then is still a matter of dispute — but one thing is certain: Something very like it will happen again in October 2008, and every Columbus Day after that. "Our land has been taken away from us," Morris said. "In our homeland, we are the criminals — and there's no justice in that."

Morris has been waiting for justice a long time. He's protested Colorado's Columbus Day — this state was the first to legalize the holiday, back in 1907 — for close to two decades. He's talked with different mayoral administrations, with mediators, with governors, trying to change the name and focus of the parade. And when another round of efforts "fell on deaf ears," he protested this past October. And he'll protest again.

Denver County Court Judge Claudia Jordan recognized that when she sentenced him late Tuesday afternoon. "Mr. Morris, I sat through three days of trial," she said. "You want your speech protected, but not the speech of Italian-Americans." She sentenced him to a $200 fine but no jail time, on a single guilty conviction of disrupting a lawful assembly. She also fined the other two defendants, who were found guilty of obstruction. And she talked about Martin Luther King Jr., whose name had frequently been invoked during the trial and who had been honored with a city parade the day before. Jordan, who is black, had just reread King's letter from the Birmingham jail, she said, and she did not see a lot of commonalities between what had happened in Alabama and what happens in Denver on Columbus Day.

Throughout the trial, Jordan's courtroom had been crowded — not just with physical bodies, but with references to MLK, Hitler, Mayor John Hickenlooper, who'd called the MLK marchers "administrators of democracy," and even Michael Douglas in The American President, as quoted by the city attorney. But in the end, what swayed the jury was not the specter of celebrity, but the letter of the law. The jurors went through the evidence and parsed every word of the ordinances, keeping in mind defense attorney David Lane's admonition to determine whether the annual disruption of the parade was truly "significant." Fifteen million indigenous people slaughtered between 1492 and 1890 — "that sounds significant," Lane said. But a one-hour delay to a parade to "celebrate all of those tragedies?" he asked. "That doesn't seem so significant."

Terry Smith, who was chosen as the foreman, has sat on a jury before: for the trial of James King, the Denver cop accused — and ultimately acquitted — of the Father's Day Massacre at the United Bank in 1992. That jury was sequestered and deliberated for nine days, a state record, and after that, Smith says, "I thought I'd be exempt from jury duty for life." This round, the six jurors deliberated only a few hours, but they took their job seriously. "It was our civic responsibility," Smith explains. "I would want people to spend a lot of time for me."

Next year, another group of citizens may be called on to do their civic responsibility. Not just on the almost inevitable Columbus Day cases, but on trials that could stem from protests at the upcoming Democratic National Convention — whether Morris is involved or not. "The whole world is watching to see if respect of the law is important in Denver, Colorado," the city attorney said.

But the First Amendment is, too. See you in court.

 
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