Last December, a group of activists with the Denver Justice and Peace Committee staged a protest outside the Kohl's department store in Golden. As part of a nationwide day of action against the store chain, they chanted mock Christmas carols about the evils of sweatshop labor and human-rights abuses in Nicaragua.
But then the Santas came to town.
As the protest continued outside, a quartet of activists dressed in Santa costumes stormed into the menswear department and ran up and down the aisles singing the protest carols. At least one Santa spray-painted clothes that the protesters claim were made in the Nicaraguan sweatshop. The spree lasted only a couple of minutes before a security guard chased out the Santas.
DJPC members say the officers who arrived on the scene seemed nonchalant about the incident. But the massive FBI-aided investigation that followed -- including a sweeping search warrant executed on DJPC headquarters, the confiscation of membership lists and protest materials and the interrogation of fifty DJPC activists and donors -- appears to them to be a witch-hunt intended to discourage social activism in Jefferson County.
"It's way out of balance," says Ben Scribner of the Free Speech Defense Committee, a support group formed in May to raise awareness of the case and money to help defend the activists. "The activist community is being investigated like organized crime."
Last summer, Jefferson County Deputy District Attorney Dennis Hall, who in one court hearing compared the Santas to Timothy McVeigh, took the unusual step of bringing the case before a grand jury, which can force a witness to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution. But two of the activists refused to testify. One is Doug Bohm, accused of being one of the vandals and of driving the Santa-stuffed Geo Metro getaway car. The second is David Martin, the former DJPC director who organized the peaceful part of the protest and was outside Kohl's when the vandalism took place.
"[Using a] grand jury is very unusual, and it indicates the economic clout Kohl's has as one of the largest taxpayers in Golden," says high-profile Denver attorney Walter Gerash, who is representing Martin pro bono. "In my 45 years, I've never seen a grand jury impaneled for malicious mischief."
Jefferson County District Court Judge Thomas Woodford ordered the two men to either be held in jail until they talked, or for six months -- the maximum time allowed by Colorado law for a contempt-of-court charge. Rather than testify, both men served their terms and were released in the past few weeks.
But Jefferson County isn't finished with them yet.
Bohm was pulled over for a traffic violation and rearrested. Just after his release, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office had charged him with two felonies and issued a warrant for his arrest. Hall explains that he'd intended to slap Bohm with the indictment at the end of his contempt-of-court sentence but was surprised to learn that he'd been set free. "[Sheriff John Stone] apparently can't count," he says. "He let him out five days early."
Bohm is charged with one count of criminal mischief resulting in more than $15,000 in damages, plus one count of conspiracy. Hall says the amount of property damage justifies the scope and intensity of the investigation. "The monetary loss suffered by Kohl's is about $46,000, and that's a big vandalism case," he says. If he is convicted, Bohm could face four to twelve years in prison. (A fundraiser organized by Bohm's friends and supporters to celebrate his release and offset legal expenses went on as planned last week at the Mercury Cafe.)
Hall refused to say whether he's making a list of more indictments.
Martin, who was released on November 30, is also concerned about being indicted. On his final night in the Jefferson County jail (which happens to be located just west of Kohl's on Sixth Avenue), he talked about why he elected to stay in a cell for six months.
An activist who considers himself a political prisoner for his refusal to testify, Martin said he has toured Central America and has met sweatshop laborers; his perseverance is fueled by compassion for the workers, who earn as little as 24 cents per hour making department-store consumer goods. The Kohl's protest, he says, was part of a campaign against the Chentex factory in Nicaragua, which has been investigated by the National Labor Committee for exploitation and union-busting. Activist groups claim Kohl's purchases more clothes made by Chentex than any other retail chain. (A Kohl's spokesman, noting that the Santa vandal investigation is ongoing, declined to comment.)
"In some ways, I'm proud to stand up for what I consider our rights to free speech and free association," Martin said. "On the other hand, I think it's unfortunate to spend so much money on the pursuit of a property-damage crime and so little on the cause of labor rights. If people understood their role as consumers, then we could improve the living situation for everybody around the world."
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Martin's role in the Kohl's incident is unclear, but all sides agree that he was not one of the Santas. Hall claims that Martin spoke to one of the Santas prior to the protest and knows their identities. Martin wouldn't specify what information he is withholding except to say that he didn't condone the vandalism and that committing property damage was beyond the scope of the guidelines he had set for the protest. "People acting like this makes it more difficult to get the message out," he said.
Martin feels conflicted about the other Kohl's protesters, none of whom came forward to release him from his silence and his cell. "I definitely have spent many months wishing people who chose those tactics would take responsibility," he said, choosing his words carefully. "It puts a burden on the movement itself."
At the Free Speech Defense Committee fundraiser held in Bohm's honor, activists uniformly denied knowing the identity of the Santa vandals. Yet one noted that the question of whether the vandals should have come forward on Martin's behalf has been a point of debate in the group.
"No one is responsible for an unjust police reaction, and no one is responsible for unjust laws that carry such heavy penalties for property damage," Scribner said. "If they ever find the person who did the damage, they're going to pay a very heavy penalty."