Be thankful to your ancestors that got on that boat, landed here, and created the life you have today." Those are the words of Mickie Lava Clayton, a longtime leader in Denver's Italian community who passed away last November, less than a month after the 2010 Columbus Day Parade and all its attendant controversy. But those could be the words of a leader of almost any group in this country — any group whose ancestors came to this country by boat, that is.
In 1907, Colorado became the first state in the nation to make Columbus Day an official holiday. It was a major coup for a nationality that had suffered much oppression in this country — but also a cynical legislative move designed as much to secure a bloc of votes as to salute Italian heritage. "Italians were below the blacks and the Irish in the local pecking order," explained Tom Noel, a professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver, during one of the regular flare-ups over the holiday. "They were at the bottom of the immigrant ladder, doing the most dangerous and least-paid work. If a mule's leg was injured, they'd fix it, but if an Italian was injured, they'd just fire him."
In the ensuing decades, Coloradans didn't just celebrate Columbus Day; they celebrated it big, with parades and festivals. Although those had faded away by the middle of the twentieth century, in 1990 the Federation of Italian American Organizations announced plans to revive the parade. They recognized that Columbus had become an increasingly controversial figure over the years, and even tried to involve the American Indian Movement of Colorado — offering to let protesters march at the front of the parade, carrying anti-Columbus banners. But that deal fell through, setting the Columbus Day Parade on its two-decade collision course with anti-Columbus protesters: with the descendants of the group that was already here when Columbus sailed from Europe.
In 1991, four AIM members — including Ward Churchill, then an instructor at the University of Colorado; Glenn Morris, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Denver; and national AIM leader Russell Means — were arrested after blocking the route; they were later acquitted. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage to America, the Italian Federation canceled the parade after a half-dozen mediation sessions involving everyone from then-mayor Wellington Webb to the U.S. Department of Justice failed to find a compromise. After an eight-year hiatus, the parade returned in October 2000, with a new generation of Italian leaders in charge; this time, 150 protesters were arrested after blockading the route. Parades were held regularly through the next decade, and just as regularly, protesters were arrested — and the charges later dropped. In 2007, on the hundredth anniversary of the holiday, then-mayor John Hickenlooper sent a note to both sides, noting that he was "sick and tired of this entire costly, frustrating and potentially dangerous situation that does nothing but generate ill will." Eighty-eight protesters were arrested that year.
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This past Saturday had even more potential for a mash-up of parades and protests. While the Columbus Day Parade participants were lining up in LoDo that morning, the anti-Columbus Day protesters were gathering outside the Capitol, right by Occupy Denver, which was planning its own march through downtown at noon. An emissary from Colorado AIM had already stopped off to see if Occupy Denver, which has been slow to define itself, would sign off on AIM's platform. But while the group declined to do so, many Occupy Denver protesters "did participate with us in our protest of the Columbus Hate Speech Parade," reports Morris, the protest's lead spokesman in the absence of Churchill, the lightning rod who is now spending much of his time out of state, and Means, who is gravely ill. And somehow, it all came off without a hitch...or an arrest.
Morris was back at the camp Sunday, to again ask the group to sign off on the Colorado AIM-initiated indigenous platform. "As indigenous peoples, we welcome the awakening of those who are relatively new to our homeland," it begins. "We are thankful, and rejoice, for the emergence of a movement that is mindful of its place in the environment, that seeks economic and social justice, that strives for an end to oppression in all its forms, that demands an adequate standard of food, employment, shelter and health care for all, and that calls for envisioning a new, respectful and honorable society. We have been waiting for 519 years for such a movement, ever since that fateful day in October 1492 when a different worldview arrived — one of greed, hierarchy, destruction and genocide." And after an hour of discussion and debate, the Occupy Denver General Assembly unanimously endorsed all ten points, which range from freeing Leonard Peltier to "a repeal of the Columbus Day holiday as a Colorado and United States holiday."
On Monday, Occupy Denver was finally working on its own list of demands. At the same time, New York City's Occupy Wall Street General Assembly was considering an endorsement of indigenous rights, borrowed liberally from the AIM Colorado proposal. Another Colorado first, executed peacefully.
Where's Ward Churchill when you don't need him?