The mood was charged from the beginning. Even before City Council voted nine to four to approve Denver's new urban camping ordinance, one audience member made a point during the Pledge of Allegiance. During its conclusion of "peace and justice for all," he shouted "ALL!" in protest against the measure councilmen Paul Lopez and Albus Brooks later refered to as developing along the lines of a "class war." Throughout the ninety minutes council members discussed the ban, shouts against it from outside the City and County Building underscored the debate .
And when the vote on the concept Brooks launched nine months ago was concluded, protesters drowned out the announcement with shouts of "Shame!" Many turned their backs on the council to symbolize their discontent, with some of those backs bearing the same message, "SHAME," as drawn in Sharpie on white T-shirts. They taped dollar bills to their mouths in protest.
Only council members Debbie Ortega, Paul Lopez, Susan Shepherd and Robin Kniech voted against the ban, which will go into effect on May 29 after it is signed by Mayor Michael Hancock within the next day.
All four opposing voters addressed the packed council chambers with concerns regarding enforcement and the city's shelter capacity. In her message, Ortega said 425 homeless individuals have died on Denver's streets in the past seven years, and she criticized the ordinance for not having the "balance" of its sit-lie predecessor. She earned the night's first standing ovation among many. The eruptions frequently compelled council president Chris Nevitt to bang his gavel and threaten audience members with expulsion if they did not quiet.
Shepherd, who delivered her statement through choked breath, called the ban a "great injustice and tragedy" and reminded the audience that those who voted in favor of it will be up for re-election in 2015. When asked by Nevitt to present it to the gathering, she refused the task. "One thing I've learned in nine months is that I lead with my heart, and tonight my heart is very heavy," she said. "My heart is broken." In the meantime, she told the congregation, "You have the power to hold the proponents of this bill accountable. You better watch these suckers like a hawk."
In response to Shepherd, councilman Herndon reiterated the ban's improvements over similar ordinances across the state and pointed to the one in Colorado Springs as proof of success. "My logic is fact-based," he said. Brooks blended the two ideas, saying he has lead with his head and his heart across nine months and more than seventy meetings with citizens and stakeholders.
To stress once again the Denver Police Department's stated intention not to cite or arrest anyone for violating the ban unless in an emergency situation, Brooks read from the new protocol officers will use to train for it, which urges them not to make any arrests if shelter is unavailable -- although that suggestion does not appear in the ordinance as written. Kniech congratulated the department on the addition, but said it was not enough of a change to earn her vote. Click through for additional photos and information from last night's emotional council meeting.
Before approving the ban, the council voted unanimously to amend it, narrowing its language to a more streamlined definition of camping activities and the terms of shelter so that "there is no ambiguity in it," Brooks said. Although Kniech previously debated whether to ask for an amendment to further clarify its language regarding enforcement, she opted not to after city attorneys told her the addition would bring legal complications.
Amid facts and figures -- about shelter beds, sit-lie citations, sister bans -- Lopez returned to his gut, criticizing the ban for "punishing the poor for being poor." He told the room, "I don't even have the words to express disappointment at this level. I came to council happy in the past, and I don't anymore."
As the meeting drew close to a vote, councilman Charlie Brown, who voted in favor of the bill, read messages from three residents who see the presence of the homeless as destructive to the community. "This is a fight for the sanity of our city," he called the ban. "It's time we fight this culture of chaos."
With the vote finished, audience members trickled into the lobby, where their continued shouts resounded over the council proceedings, forcing its members to take a recess and drawing more than thirty police officers to monitor the protesters. Although ban opponents, many of whom are part of Occupy Denver, linked arms to stage a sit-in, they left the fourth floor after a verbal warning promising arrests if they continued.
But they didn't move far: Outside the building, roughly forty protesters regrouped next to the cars of the city council members, where they positioned picket signs around the parking spots of all those who voted in favor of the ordinance. They shouted out what they said was the home address of Brooks and san the "Imperial March" from Star Wars at the officers around them. As council members left the building, they did so with police escorts as protesters shouted out lines like, "See you in hell!"
Assisted by a police blockade, Brooks vacated the area on a scooter, at which point Lopez and Kniech addressed the crowd and urged a calm response. "He has three babies, and this is terrifying," Kniech told protesters, while Lopez spoke in solidarity and encouraged supporters to maintain their cool in future protests. "Our movement has to be one of dignity and we have to take the high road," Lopez said. "We don't play like the one percent." Click through for additional photos from last night's events.
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More from our Politics archive: "Urban camping: Occupy Denver protests precede council vote on ban."