War of the Word

He said his name was Columbus,

And I just said, "Good luck." -- "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"

Gun control. Iraq. Charles Darwin. Social Security. Affirmative action. Left. Right. FEMA. Gay marriage. Al-Qaeda. Racism. George W. Bush. Gas prices.

There. That should do it. Anybody reading that list who doesn't feel his blood starting to boil? Anyone still sitting on the couch with a blissful smile and a fifty-beat-per-minute heart rate? And if those fightin' words don't get you, try this one: Columbus.

While there might be more politically charged concepts at large in this seriously divided land of ours, words that contain more powerful explosives, the three syllables comprised by Columbus remain hotly provocative -- at least in Denver, on the eve of the annual Columbus Day parade. Some Italian-Americans here blame the ruin of longstanding friendships on recent bickering over the parade, while others hold fast to the history they were taught back in grade school. And aggrieved Native Americans still can't believe the moment in 1992 when a parade organizer barked at Indian activist Glenn Morris: "This isn't your country anymore; this is our country now, so get with the program."

It has been exactly 100 years since the first Columbus Day parade was held in Pueblo -- in 1907, Colorado became the first state to make Columbus Day an official holiday -- and the people who decorate the floats and gas up the classic cars and unfurl the red, white and green marching banners aren't ready to say "Goodbye, Columbus" anytime soon. But those who wish the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria had never dropped anchor on Caribbean shores see the holiday as a pep rally for exploitation, murder and unprotected hate speech, and once again are planning their own counter-protest.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, mindful of the past, last week sent a letter to leaders on both sides of the controversy, noting that he was "sick and tired of this entire costly, frustrating and potentially dangerous situation that does nothing but generate ill will."

The overture was loudly and publicly rebuffed by both sides.

"We will celebrate Columbus Day. This letter totally embarrasses me and my committee," says George Vendegnia, the Italian-American car-wash owner who revived the parade here five years ago after an eight-year hiatus. He sees Columbus as a visionary navigator of the late fifteenth century, and Columbus Day as an opportunity to honor his own family's heritage. It's a celebration, he says, "as important as my grandfather's name."

The parade is "a convoy of conquest that openly endorses imperialism and violence," counters Mark Freeland, an Ojibwa and member of the American Indian Movement in Colorado. "Christopher Columbus is personally responsible for murder and genocide of the people of Hispaniola. And that is not just a legend; that is not something we just suggest." Columbus, he charges, set into motion a cycle of disease, war, cultural dislocation and land theft that led to the deaths of countless Taino Indians over eight years.

In an open letter sent to Hickenlooper last Friday, the Transform Columbus Day Alliance -- a collection of more than eighty groups ranging from the All African People's Revolutionary Party to the Colorado Medical Committee for Human Rights, a collection of dissidents called Progressive Italians to Transform the Columbus Holiday (PITCH), the New Jewish Agenda and Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism -- agreed with the mayor's assertion that the event "inspires community anguish," and it called upon him to "take the next logical step by publicly denouncing the parade and asking the organizers to end this offensive celebration, and by supporting legislation at the state level to end the Columbus Day holiday."

But to Denver police lieutenant Lisa Fair, parade day is just another shift at work -- even though it might require, as it did last year, clearing 250 protesters from the pavements of downtown Denver in the morning sun. "In this job," she says, "you may face trouble any day you go to work." What she advises is patience -- lots of patience -- for everyone on or near the parade route when marchers step off around 10 a.m. this Saturday, October 8.

Somewhere along the route, between 2,000 and 5,000 Columbus Day marchers and an unknown number of protesters will meet in the street. Once more, Vendegnia will wear his bulletproof vest, but he won't be packing a pistol. Never has, he says, despite accusations to the contrary. In 2004, the grand marshal of the parade was contentious U.S. congressman Tom Tancredo, whose controversial views on immigration reform have polarized Coloradans. This year, Tancredo says he will ride his motorcycle in the parade alongside Denver talk-show host Peter Boyles.

AIM activists and members of the Transform Columbus Day Alliance are not interested in outlining the specifics of the action that may be taken Saturday. "The convoy of conquest is still going to launch down the road -- we haven't heard about any cancellation plans -- so we'll be there," says Colorado AIM member Sommer McGuire. A rumor has been floating around about street theater.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo