Quincy Shannon's journalism professor wanted him to capture some "action" on videotape.
Give the kid an A for effort: His video sparked the town's hottest story last summer. Not that Shannon got any credit for his work. No, all he got was a misdemeanor rioting charge -- and a date in Denver County Court next week.
Home from Lincoln University last June, with an assignment to film interesting stories, Shannon reached LoDo in time for Let Out, when the bars close and everyone in town knows you can find action, all kinds of action. Shannon was in a club when he heard that some kids were going to fight, so he grabbed his video camera -- he never leaves home without it -- and went outside. "They fought maybe four times that night," he remembers.
Heading home to Park Hill with a friend, he stumbled on more action: a hostage situation at Church's Fried Chicken. "Passing by Colorado Boulevard, we saw a whole bunch of police lights," Shannon says. "At first we were just using the camera to zoom in to see what was going on. We heard a single shot, then the ambulance comes, the guy's put on a sheet and everything. I remember thinking, ŒWow, that was really good video.'"
His friend thought maybe 9News would want it.
How right he was.
The next night, Shannon returned to LoDo. And in the early hours of Sunday, June 13, he found all the action he could want, and then some -- a half-dozen kids, one of whom he knew, pounding on cars and people. "On the video, you can see I'm running," he says. "I began capturing different things going on, probably two fights, then people throwing beer bottles out of their car. After that, the police finally come down and break up the scene."
Friends who'd been at the movies and had arranged to give Shannon a ride home pulled up in front of Club Bash; Shannon jumped in the back. The car didn't even get a block before a cop stopped it; someone had said one of the troublemakers was inside. The driver and his girlfriend were told to lie on the ground, spread; an officer pulled Shannon out, then took the video camera off the back seat. When Shannon protested, the officer threw down the camera and kept the tape. By then, Shannon was done protesting. They all just wanted to go home, and did, once a set of parents arrived to escort them safely out of LoDo. "It was normal police overreacting," Shannon says. "We didn't think it was going to blow up."
Two weeks later, Shannon was packing to return to school when the calls started coming. "Snitches get stitches," warned one caller. That was Shannon's first clue that portions of his videotape were now being broadcast on a couple of local news outlets, including 9News. This was the infamous "wilding" tape that so colored last summer, giving the impression that black hooligans were running wild in the streets of Denver. The cops were asking victims to come forward, asking anyone who recognized people to identify them. "It's a pretty damning piece of evidence," DPD chief Gerry Whitman said.
If a cop had taken a video camera from a 9News employee, confiscated the videotape inside and then leaked it to a competitor (officially, the DPD refused to release the "wilding" footage to the media, although it did provide stills), the station would be screaming to high heaven. And to its lawyers, assuming they were located elsewhere.
But Shannon, a black kid from Denver, wasn't thinking First Amendment. "I was just concerned with not being in trouble," he says. He needed to convince the homeboys that he was no snitch, but after a detective came around, he realized he also needed to convince the cops that he was the choirboy he actually was. So when he went down to police headquarters, he had his stepfather and a lawyer recommended by his church with him. An officer suggested that Shannon be interviewed upstairs while his lawyer and stepfather remain below, "but I'd watched enough TV to know that one," Shannon says. He left.
No reporters ever talked to budding journalist Shannon about his tape. "The news had a field day with it," he says. "The different stories were humorous -- but scary. You can see how it evolved from an altercation downtown to kids are going crazy downtown to it's a racial thing downtown, and then how the police responded to it."
The police were out in force in LoDo every weekend last summer, executing a zero-tolerance-for-violence policy during Let Out. And Shannon again showed his Zelig-like propensity for getting a piece of the action early August 7, when he was back outside Bash, dialing 911. "I'd like to report officers spraying stuff into my car," he told the operator. Shannon had been sitting in the back seat of a friend's car when police started sweeping the parking lot, making everyone leave. As he and his friends got out of the car, the pepper spray started flying -- and this time, Shannon grabbed his phone rather than a video camera. "Are you going to stay there?" the operator asked. "Yes, ma'am," Shannon responded. "This was not cool. I want to report as much as I can."
Shannon asked a cop for his badge number; instead, the cop told him he was "a serious pain in my ass." Serious enough that Shannon wound up in jail for failure to obey a lawful order, with a trial set for November 23. He came to municipal court with his pastor as well as a new lawyer, David Suro, who brought a copy of the 911 tape that contradicted the cop's account on his police report. After she heard the tape, the prosecutor dismissed the charges.
That night, Shannon finally got his say in front of the media. And the next day, he learned that there was a $10,000 warrant out for his arrest -- for rioting, or "engaging in a public disturbance by tumultuous behavior."
A half-dozen people he'd captured on his videotape back in June were charged with assault; one news account erroneously reported that Shannon had been charged with assault, too. "The only thing on the tape that's anything close to bad on my part is the one time a security guard hits me and I say 'Wow,'" Shannon says. But the cops told him that "because I had a video camera downtown, I egged people on and made them fight. It went from that to 'You're a gang member.'"
Shannon knows gang members; you don't grow up in Park Hill and attend public high school and not know gang members. But he's never been a gang member, he says, nor has he sold drugs or smoked (he has a bad heart). In fact, he's a licensed minister. And the honors student was recently elected Mr. Lincoln University -- making him a very big man on his campus in Jefferson City, Missouri.
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"The whole thing astounds me," says Mark Nordstrom, the communications professor who'd suggested that Shannon use his video camera to capture assorted sides of life. "That police can behave that badly. That prosecutors can behave that badly. That media outlets can behave this badly."
Shannon still wants to become a journalist. He still has faith in facts. "I'm hoping that the truth will be able to come out in the end," he says.
The end could come as early as May 17, when Shannon is scheduled for a jury trial on the rioting charge. If he's guilty, you might as well lock up 9News's newsroom, too, and reporters across the country who've gone where the action is. But Suro isn't focusing on the First Amendment aspects of the case. He's starting with the Fourth, arguing that the seizure of the video camera was illegal -- and never mind what was inside it.
But anyone who's seen the clips of those nights in LoDo would find the tape impossible to forget. "It's a learning experience," Shannon says. "To say that film was out of context is the understatement of the century. It was times a million. You can see how one small thing, on an out-of-the-ordinary night, has still affected downtown nightlife."