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Mall Rats

This weekend the kids will head to the mall--where else?
But when several dozen members of Students for Justice drop by the new Denver Pavilions at noon Saturday, it won't be to do any Christmas shopping. Instead, they plan to protest the $24 million in "corporate welfare" sucked from taxpayers to build the swanky shopping center and to lure one of its incoming tenants: NikeTown.

Their rallying cry: "Do It Just."
This won't be their first trip to the mall. While Denver's dailies gushed over the Pavilions' November 5 grand opening, Students for Justice gathered to protest the lavish, invitation-only party that honored local pols, developers and business-friendly VIPs. The students didn't get much response, they say, except from a Hard Rock Cafe waitress who came outside to make fun of their demonstration.

Although many of the Pavilions' key renters cater to the youth market--the Gap, Hard Rock Cafe, the fifteen-screen United Artists movie theater--the student group has focused its efforts on the Virgin Megastore and the new Nike store, scheduled to open next summer and designed to make shoppers feel like they've just stepped into a high-tech footwear commercial.

"You look at the people who own those companies--they're billionaires. They don't need that money, especially from us," says Janet Damon, a Metropolitan State College senior who visits local high schools to recruit Students for Justice members. "That money could have been funding schools and teachers. Kids are in classes where there aren't enough desks in the classroom. Or the heater doesn't work. Or the books have copyright dates that are, like, 1983. We're talking basic, basic necessities."

Maria Macias, a West High sophomore whose adolescent energy bounces across a room like a pair of Air Jordans with springs, first got the activist bug this fall while registering voters with Rock the Vote. Then she got to thinking about the need for repairs and equipment in her own school, where the ratio of students to computers is more than 150 to one and kids can't take textbooks home because there aren't enough to go around. The blinds in one of her classrooms were so dilapidated that students plastered Diana DeGette campaign signs over the windows to block out the glare. "We call them 'de ghetto' blinds," she laughs.

Now Macias, an intern with Students for Justice, and other members of the group are polling West High teachers about what repairs and supplies their classrooms need. The group also supports a Corporate Responsibility Ordinance, requiring businesses that receive "economic incentives" to pay workers at least $7.73 an hour, the minimum to keep a family of four above the poverty level, and plans to ask Denver City Council and Mayor Wellington Webb to sign off on it. (A measure to raise Denver's minimum wage to $7.15 was defeated by three-fourths of local voters in 1996.)

Even more optimistic, the group will ask stores at Denver Pavilions to return 5 to 10 percent of their profits to the community for schools or youth programs and to offer school groups and students free or reduced admission prices for special events.

Like the Broadway Marketplace on South Broadway and the old Denver Dry Goods Building on the 16th Street Mall housing Mediaplay and TJ Maxx, the Pavilions was built on land declared a "tax increment finance district" by the city. For the Pavilions project, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority gave its blessing for the sale of $24 million in bonds, which helped pay for land acquisition, a parking garage and other specific features of the $107 million project, says Pavilions general manager Susan Spencer. Bondholders will be repaid through the sales and property taxes generated by the stores, which pay rents comparable to other downtown tenants.

"It's not like they took money from the schools" to build the complex, says Spencer. "Once the bonds are paid off, those taxes will go to the city." And that could ultimately help the schools, she points out.

"That's years down the road," says Carolyn Siegel of ACORN, a national nonprofit group that will join Students for Justice at its Pavilions protest. In the meantime, the tax dollars going to pay off bonds will not be going into city coffers--and that's a form of corporate welfare, says Siegel. "We have no issue with the city investing in economic development," she adds, but encouraging businesses that create more low-wage service-sector jobs is not the way to get there.

"Corporate welfare" has become a political buzzword across the country; according to a series in Time last month, the federal government spends $125 billion a year to give business a break. And Denver-area teenagers don't have to look far for examples: Their parents just added to the tally by voting to help pay for a new Broncos stadium (despite an anti-stadium campaign that labeled the tax "corporate welfare").

It's a complex, real-world economics lesson for students like Macias. But even as minors and non-voters, she says, "we do know we have a strong and powerful voice."

Students for Justice grew out of the Colorado Progressive Coalition (www.freespeech.org/CPC), a nonprofit consortium of fifty progressive organizations founded two and a half years ago. In 1997 several Jefferson County teenagers approached CPC and asked about forming a group for high school students. Today Students for Justice draws many of its 100-plus members from black, Hispanic and Asian high school student alliances and advertises internships "to get school credit just for raisin' hell!"

"There are many traditional opportunities for students who show conventional leadership skills," says CPC organizer Soyun Park, who trains the students in organizing, non-partisan voter education and media relations. "What we work for is to open some space primarily for students of color to have those opportunities."

When your entire age group has been labeled Generation X-ploitation, it can take a lot of gumption to be a fifteen-year-old activist. "We're constantly taught to seek instant gratification," Damon says. "We're trained from childhood to consume Disney, consume McDonald's, consume Nike. It takes time to become sensitized to these issues. But in three or four years [Students For Justice] will be voters and will be able to educate and sensitize other people."

For the moment, their aim is to swat the swoosh. Nike is a brand students can relate to. "It's a good hook," Park explains.

Nike has hung on to nearly half the athletic-shoe business in the U.S. and rang up $3.77 billion in sales last year, despite bad press about low wages, poor working conditions in its Asian factories and megastar endorsers encouraging young people and their minimum-wage paychecks to come in for a $120 pair of sports shoes. (In the past year, Nike has raised wages and the minimum age for workers in its Asian plants, a Nike spokesperson says.) "They're paying these college-educated white executives in suits to go into the Bronx, into the inner cities, to see what's cool," Park says. "And they extract these bits of inner-city culture, mark it up 500 times and sell it back."

"That's how something becomes un-cool," says Maraina Montgomery, who promotes Students for Justice among her classmates at East High. "If you wear your Nikes to school and your friends are like, 'Dang, you know what that company's about?'"

The company has succumbed to public pressure before in Colorado. Earlier this year Nike dropped South Table Mountain in Golden as a site for its proposed 5,000-employee "campus," after residents there complained about development on the Jefferson County landmark. The Denver store will be the company's thirteenth and final U.S. NikeTown; others are planned abroad.

"If we start spreading the word through our community and our friends, that's going to have some impact on the growth and the income of the company," Montgomery says. "If we get enough children to protest and not buy those products, it'll have an effect on what they put into the stores."

But plenty of kids have already bought the corporate message, says Damon. The former counselor for juvenile girl offenders now works part-time at the East High library, where she tries to spread the word. Although many are intrigued, she says, "I still meet kids who say, 'What? I couldn't live with-out my Nike Air Jordans and my Nike jumpsuit.'"

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