Denver DNC Protestors Get Punked
The flier sent to a handful of activists in early June was far from subtle. The screaming slogan "WE BEAT YOU THEN! WE'LL BEAT YOU AGAIN!" appeared over two images — one of a police officer outfitted in riot gear (he looks like an extra from Rollerball), the other featuring footage of helmeted cops facing off with a crowd at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Re-create 68's Glenn Spagnuolo and Denver CopWatch volunteer Evan Herzoff both received copies of the flier, and they took it seriously, scheduling a July 10 press conference to decry what they took to be a threat against them and other activists by a rogue cop. Turns out it was no such thing, however. The creator of the flier and an accompanying e-mail is an area artist — he spoke to Westword on the condition of anonymity — who wanted to inspire conversation, not violence.
The artist hoped the stunt would raise the topic of potential violence at the DNC in a provocative way. "I definitely appreciate the roving spotlight being shown on the police as a way of saying, 'Look, here's what's possible,'" he maintained prior to the news conference, which was held outside the office of Richard Rosenthal, Denver's Independent Monitor; as IM, Rosenthal is charged with overseeing the internal-affairs bureaus for the Denver police and sheriff's departments, among other duties. But he also liked the idea of tweaking protesters-in-waiting from a prankishly artistic point of view. "It struck me as something that was kind of funny; it plays into my sense of humor," he says.
Neither Spagnuolo nor Herzoff found it particularly funny when they learned from Westword about the background and motivation of the flier's creator in the hour or so before the 11:15 a.m. press conference was scheduled to begin. "We'll still be filing a complaint with the police," Spagnuolo declared. "I find nothing artistic about threatening violence against me." Added Herzoff: "It angers me that this person did this — and it's quite the opposite of what he intended to do. I don't see how something like this makes violence less likely. To me, it looks like they were trying to provoke people — police or protesters."
The scheme "started innocuously," the artist insisted. He enjoys fiddling about in the communications and media fields, and he felt that activist groups such as Re-create 68 and Tent State University were ripe for his style of gamesmanship. "They have my sympathies politically; I would maybe agree with their objectives. But the way they do things is kind of a throwback way of protesting," he said. "I come from the perspective of being a Utopian anarchist, and to me, that doesn't mean a counterpoint to a point. It means generating some kind of critical thinking, and doing it with misinformation and subterfuge."
He also liked the idea of making art in character — in this instance, taking on the mindset of a policeman set on cracking heads. He said he was careful not to cross the line into impersonation, never explicitly claiming to be an officer. Rather, he tried to imagine what such a cop would be like and express himself in that manner — hence the overuse of capitalization, not to mention frequent misspellings and purposefully terrible grammar.
By the end of May, the artist had assembled a MySpace page, at www.myspace.com/wellbeatyouagain, based on this persona, complete with several videos: brutal footage from the Chicago DNC, an interview clip of Spagnuolo and the "Go ahead, make my day" scene from the Dirty Harry vehicle Sudden Impact. He also printed up a batch of fliers, leaving a stack in a cafe where he'd been told Re-create 68 sometimes meets and posting them in the neighborhood nearby. Then, on June 5, he sent e-mails to a handful of Denver activists, including Spagnuolo and Herzoff, plus several of their peers in the Pacific Northwest. The communiqués included the flier plus a message that read in part, "THERE IS LOTS OF SISSY TALK FROM THE DENVER POLICE BRASS AND THE SISSY DEMOCRATIC POLITICOS ABOUT ACCOMODATING THE HIPPYS. WERE PUTTING OUT THIS FLYER TO LET YOU KNOW WHATS "GOING DOWN IN THE UNDERGROUND" ON THIS SIDE OF THE NIGHT STICK!... WERE CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF BEATDOWN!!"
The reaction to this broadside was far from overwhelming. The artist received a few replies from recipients — and unbeknownst to him, the blogger behind the Fire Witch Rising site (at www.FireWitchRising.blogspot.com) posted an amusing diatribe correctly predicting that the person behind the mailing was "about as much a part of the Occupation police forces as I am." After that, silence — and the artist admitted that he more or less forgot about the whole thing and moved on to other projects.
Others did not. Herzoff said the recipients were all worried about the fliers and e-mails but were so busy that they couldn't get around to responding for a month or so. By then, other matters had arisen that sparked their concern, including the city's continuing refusal to reveal what it planned to buy with a $50 million federal grant provided for DNC security and a Denver Post revelation that "some police teams have been dispatched to Alabama for up to twenty hours of specialized 'homeland security' training."
Such developments made Herzoff fear that DNC protests could deteriorate into the sort of chaos that took place around World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle circa 1999, not to mention the most recent Columbus Day parade in Denver. At the latter event, Herzoff argued, "police used pain-compliance holds and dressed in riot gear to intimidate us in advance of the Democratic National Convention. They were flexing their muscles to show what they were going to do at the DNC."
Herzoff and Spagnuolo planned to link such concerns to the flier and e-mail at the July 10 press conference — but learning at the last minute that an artist, not a cop, had been behind them threw a kink in their plans. Westword staff writer Jared Jacang Maher attended the get-together along with representatives of several TV stations, including channels 4 and 31, and a man carrying a whirligig mounted on a broomstick that depicted two policemen beating someone whenever the wind blew. According to Maher, Herzoff gave an opening address focusing on concerns about brutality at the DNC before mentioning that yours truly had told him that an artist claimed to be behind the mailing. But he called for an investigation anyway to confirm the perpetrator's identity, as did Spagnuolo, who blamed the city of Denver for creating an atmosphere in which something like the flier incident could happen.
This information proved far less interesting to the media attending the press conference than did the idea of an avenging boy in blue. None of the TV stations ran stories afterward, and the Rocky Mountain News, the only print outlet to cover the gathering, zeroed in on the revelation about the artist, not the prospect of DNC pandemonium. An investigation also seems like a non-starter. Rosenthal said his office wouldn't take further action because "there was no reasonable evidence to show a police officer was involved" and he has no jurisdiction over criminal allegations. He referred the complainants to the Denver district attorney, but a week after the incident, spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said DA personnel weren't working the case.
For his part, the artist said he came forward when he did to save law enforcement the trouble of investigating the police when he was actually responsible: "It could have very easily become a situation where some poor FBI agent had to waste two hours of his afternoon figuring out that I'm just some kook, and that goes into my file — and I don't need that. I don't need to have a conversation with the police about why I did what I did."
If he avoids such a chat (and it looks like he will), he'll look back on his artistic shenanigans with some measure of pride. "Honestly, I didn't expect them to take it as seriously as they did," he admitted. "But I like it when my projects take on a life of their own. And in that regard, this one has been really quite successful."
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