The organizers of the Denver 420 Rally are preparing to formally appeal a decision by the City of Denver to ban them from applying for any event permit during the next three years and rescind the priority status that's allowed them to regularly stage the annual gathering at Civic Center Park on or around April 20. They say that while some minor errors were made at this year's edition, Denver officials have either greatly exaggerated or completely invented violations in a conscious effort to destroy an enormously popular, tourist-friendly festival that appears to embarrass them.
"My opinion is that Denver was looking for a way out of this rally," says producer Santino Walter. "And after successfully executing numerous events, we gave them the perfect photo opportunity they needed to push this through" — one that involved piles of trash scattered throughout the park the next morning. Walter traces the mess to a mix-up that resulted in cleanup crews arriving late, thereby giving local media the chance to document the scene, to widespread community outrage.
In Walter's view, "Reducing the last four years of production and execution of this event, which includes more than $2 million being spent and 300,000 people being safely processed, to a $1,200 scheduling mistake is offensive — and I also think it's a cop-out. We haven't had a single violation before this year. Not one. Zero."
Adds rally attorney Rob Cory, "These violations are of such a technical and petty nature that I think any reasonable person would realize that none of them even remotely rises to the level of revoking the event. And we don't have to speculate about why. Mayor [Michael] Hancock went on record as wanting to prohibit this event as early as 2013, and he recently said he hates the plume of smoke at 4:20. That sentiment is echoed throughout the city's power structure, and while we understand that they object to our message, we've got a right to express that message in the United States, under the First Amendment. So we will appeal this vigorously."
In a group interview with Westword, Walter, Corry, permit-holder Miguel Lopez and event adviser and historian Larisa Bolivar previewed the appeal, which is expected to be filed in the coming days. In it, they plan to offer point-by-point refutations of the five alleged violations with which they've been charged.
The first mentioned in the city's letter to the rally organizers, on view below, was related noise. Corry calls it "one of their weakest claims."
Why? As Corry points out, the city's letter acknowledges that the rally's sound system, which pumped out music by headliner 2 Chainz and other assorted musical acts and DJs, didn't exceed a previously agreed upon decibel standard. Moreover, Walter notes that the officials didn't contact the stage manager during the event to complain about sound levels. Instead, the letter cites complaints from people at the nearby Denver courthouse submitted after the festival was over.
"There's no way that can constitute a violation," Corry maintains. "They got these complaints from the courthouse, allegedly, but they didn't give us an opportunity to cure what they claimed was the problem."
The second alleged violation involved the trash — and here's where things get tricky. Corry, Walter and Lopez point out that their agreement with the city gave them until 5 p.m. on the 21st to complete the cleanup, and the job was done by noon. As such, they don't believe they violated the permit. But Walter still expresses regret over what went wrong.
"We ran our cleaning process the way we've done it the past two years," he says. "We had two phases of teams. The first team was supposed to come in and consolidate all the trash — put it in trash bags, 160 to 180 of them — and then put those bags into about twelve piles. At that point, the second team was scheduled to come in and pick up that trash and put it in roll-aways. But instead of being at the park at 2 a.m., the second team didn't come until 8 a.m., six hours later. And during that time, the natural inhabitants of the park started going through the trash."
Recent rumors suggest that those "natural inhabitants" — around thirty to forty people who Walter says have been living at Civic Center during recent months — tore open the bags in search of marijuana. To Walter, that notion is ridiculous. According to him, "Most of them were looking for food to eat, aluminum cans to recycle and clothing they could wear to stay warm."
On top of that, Lopez says a knife-wielding man also delayed the clean-up. The city's letter asserts that such actions never happened based on a review of security camera footage. Corry scoffs at this particular piece of supposed evidence, pointing out that video didn't result in an arrest of the person or persons who fired shots at the 2013 event, wounding three people, even though the gun play took place during broad daylight. The knife incident, meanwhile, happened at night, Lopez maintains — and he showed yours truly the call to the DPD that was registered on his cell phone as proof.
By noon on the 21st, the park had been power-washed "and we literally did the most you can do in order for us to hand if off to Earth Day — and they ran the March for Science the next day," Walter points out. The price tag for these efforts topped $12,000, and all of that money came from the rally organizers, he notes: "It didn't cost the taxpayers of Denver one penny."
Don't think Walter is shrugging off the trash issue, though. "We were within the permit," he stresses. "But we're still embarrassed, and we apologize."
The third claimed violation focuses on safety and security. The city says the organizers didn't supply the number of staffers at each of four entrances that had been promised; a minimum of two people, and a maximum of four, were supposed to wand people before letting them enter. Corry insists that more than enough people were hired and suggests that the city has produced no evidence to prove otherwise. And while Walter acknowledges that one of the entrances didn't open until 10:30 a.m., a half hour after the announced start time, he stresses that the crowds were very thin around then and no one was unduly delayed.
The city also complains about the length of the lines to get into the park and the fact that impatient attendees broke down a fence as 4:20 p.m. neared. Corry, Walter and Lopez counter that the fence was fixed in minutes — and they say that the situation would have been much better if the city had closed portions of Colfax and Broadway in order to accommodate more entrances, as they were asked to do on multiple occasions. The city rejected all of these requests, they insist.
The fourth violation pertains to health codes, and on this count, even more than the one involving trash, Walter acknowledges that the city is on solid ground. Of 177 vendors at the rally, he says seven of them didn't have proper Denver business licenses. The organizers contracted out the responsibility of keeping the paperwork straight, and because the folks hired for this task didn't manage to do so correctly, Walter says he and his associates see a fine as appropriate despite the lack of reports that anyone actually got sick.
They feel differently about the fifth category of violations, involving random ordinances. The city complains about sidewalks being blocked by port-a-potties (the company that was supposed to pick them up temporarily overlooked three units) and vehicles (a photo of a 7News van in such a location was actually taken on April 21, Walter says). As Corry sees it, these alleged issues were trumped up simply to bring the total number of violations to five — the number at which the ban was triggered.
Why would the city go to so much trouble to eliminate the rally? Bolivar has theories that involve race and class. Among other things, she believes city leaders are made uncomfortable by the kind of crowds attracted by the hip-hop headliners that have appeared at the event in recent years. "When I see them attack the Denver 420 Rally, it's almost like they're saying, 'You people,'" she argues.
"They talk about gangsta music and talk about thugs," Lopez interjects. "And thug is the new N-word."
Rather than joining in on this line of discussion, Walter takes a more conciliatory approach, talking about how much he's enjoyed working with members of city departments in recent years — one reason why he was surprised at the way they attacked the festival in the wake of this year's problems. But when it comes to defending the charges made against him and the other rally organizers, he makes it clear that none of them will back down.
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"Here are the facts," he begins. "The Denver 420 Rally will take place, whether or not we get a permit at Civic Center Park. A company that produces events at the level we produce events will not be held hostage by this. We've already had numerous venues reach out to us. So the rally will happen. And if somebody else gets a permit instead of us, which we don't think will happen, because we think we're going to win this case, that event won't be the Denver 420 Rally."
Corry seconds these thoughts: "We are a strong and valuable part of Denver's culture, and we want to be part of Denver for many years to come. We hope we will have that happen, but if not, the rally will live on with our without Denver's permit. But I'd rather it be with it."
Here's the decision letter from the City of Denver.