Where the Wilding Things Are
It was one in the morning on July 4, and LoDo felt like a fuse that had just been lit. The bars and clubs of lower downtown were about to let out thousands of patrons at closing time. Waiting in the streets and on the sidewalks were more than fifty police officers, including members of the Denver SWAT team in tactical gear. Soon the night would reek of puke, piss and pepper spray.
July 4 marked the second weekend of the Denver Police Department's LoDo crackdown at Let Out, the witching hour after last call at the clubs. Three weekends before, around 1:30 a.m. on June 14, eleven young black men had run amok on the 1900 block of Market Street during Let Out, smashing car windows, sucker-punching innocent bystanders, hooting, hollering and videotaping themselves doing it. None of the hooligans were arrested that night, and none have been arrested since -- but the next day, an investigator seized a video camera from a suspect in a separate case. Two local TV stations broadcast excerpts of the rampage, which was characterized on-air and in headlines as a "wilding."
The DPD's reaction was swift and forceful. Police Chief Gerry Whitman declared a zero-tolerance policy on street crime in LoDo and ordered a massive increase in the number of officers stationed there on Friday and Saturday nights, transforming the nightclub district into an occupied zone.
Until last month, it was routine for only two or three officers to patrol LoDo on weekend nights, in addition to the dozen-plus off-duty cops hired by clubs to bolster security, according to DPD District 6 Commander Deborah Dilley. On some weekends, only one on-duty officer was stationed in LoDo. On others there were none.
"That needed to change," Dilley says. "The problem was, we're dealing with very large crowds, and if a fight breaks out in the middle of the crowd, it's just not safe for a single officer to wade into that fight. We did not have enough officers to make the appropriate arrests."
In the first weeks of the crackdown, police made between twenty and forty arrests per weekend at Let Out. Most of those arrested -- more than two-thirds -- have been black or Hispanic males. Almost half the arrests have been for public fighting. Other charges include disturbing the peace, disobeying a lawful order, interference with police authority, and owning a pit bull.
Dilley says LoDo is no more dangerous than similar entertainment districts in other cities where a large number of bars and clubs are concentrated in a small area, such as Sixth Street in Austin or the Gaslight district in San Diego. "Anywhere you have a lot of bars in one place, you're going to have fights and you're going to have crowd-control issues," she says.
Club owners say the June 14 wilding was an aberration. "The media is over-amplifying one isolated act of senseless violence," says George Manning, a managing partner in the LoDo Restaurant Group, which operates LoDo's and two other clubs. "It's not like hoodlums are roving the streets in large numbers."
Even so, every Friday and Saturday night in LoDo, the air crackles with menace. It's sketchy down there at Let Out, and it's gotten sketchier over the past year, as the drink specials have gotten cheaper, and some clubs have switched from a top-40 dance format to hip-hop.
These days, LoDo at Let Out is not for the squeamish. The stumblebums and urban pioneers who drank in the warehouse district in lower downtown's decrepit days of old could hold their liquor. Now, every Friday and Saturday when the clubs close, it's amateur hour. Vomit splatters the sidewalks. Most of the club-goers who flood the area on weekends do not live in Denver. They are the Mile High City's Bridge and Tunnel crowd, coming from the suburbs to guzzle penny-a-drink-before-11 p.m. cocktails and beers, mixing their booze like crazed alchemists outfitted in the latest mega-mall fashions. Their sub-species include the backward baseball capsters, the hoochie-skirted "woo" girls, the shiny-shirt mafia. There are also the poseur thugs who show up looking for trouble. Jacked up on energy drinks, testosterone and illegal powders, they act like they've got something to prove but don't know what, casting hard stares, trying to catch a fight. Brawls are common.
"When I lived above the Wynkoop, the biggest complaint issue at closing time was people being loud, yelling things like, 'I'll meet you at Racines tomorrow at ten for breakfast!'" says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who's lived in LoDo for ten years, the first eight of them above his Wynkoop Brewing Co. "Now it's quite different. The complaints are about people getting punched in the face. What I've noticed over the years is this increasing sense of energy at Let Out from the small number of kids who are down there looking to fight. I don't understand why they do that, but I want to make sure it doesn't escalate. The increased police presence is necessary. Long-term, it's good for business and good for Denver."
Before midnight on July 3, only a handful of police were out in LoDo, most of them off-duty officers hired by club owners. Two officers in uniform shared a pizza and a laugh with a black-shirted bouncer on the deck outside Market 41, a popular dance club in the 1900 block of Market. Around the corner, on 19th Street, a pair of taggers spray-painted gang signs on two white, undercover cop cars. The streets were peaceful -- but then, LoDo in the hours before Let Out can be deceptively calm, with the sweaty, drunken throngs still inside the clubs, waiting to be disgorged after last call.
The police began rolling up in force between midnight and one, using patrol cars with flashing lights to set up roadblocks at all intersections surrounding Market and Blake between 18th and 20th streets, LoDo's four-square-block, throbbing heart. The roadblocks channeled all vehicle traffic onto Market. Officers on foot patrolled alleyways and sidewalks, ordering pedestrians to keep walking.
"Let's get it moving, people," one cop shouted. "Get to your cars; no standing around; let's call it a night. Thank you for your cooperation."
Only a lone saxophone player and the ubiquitous street-corner burrito vendors were allowed to stand in one place for more than a few seconds without being prodded by a police officer to get their feet in gear. This played hell with attempts to get a new acquaintance's phone number, but anyone who argued was threatened with arrest for loitering.
At 1:15 a.m., the clubs began announcing last call. At 1:30, they let out, and five minutes later a huge fight broke out on the sidewalk outside Market 41. Police reports show that the intersection of 19th and Market is ground zero for public fighting in LoDo; eleven people were arrested there after police broke up three separate brawls early the following Sunday.
When the first punch was thrown outside Market 41 on July 4, the block was in gridlock, and the sidewalks were jam-packed. Dozens of people ran away from the violence. Dozens more ran toward it.
The central figure in the fracas was a huge, bald-headed guy, bleeding from wounds on his scalp and a jagged slash across his back. Police and bouncers wrestled him to the ground, yelling, "Chill out, dude, relax!" as combatants kicked and punched all around, howling curses. A mob formed within seconds. A female officer unholstered a can of pepper spray the size of a kitchen fire extinguisher and blasted the crowd. Enraged by the sudden pain, onlookers who got a face full of cayenne surged toward the police officers. A woman in a halter-top punched one cop in the ribs.
"Did you just hit a police officer?" he shouted.
"No," she replied, suddenly meek.
"Yes, you did, and you're going to jail!" The cop wrenched her arms behind her, cuffed her, and sat her down, then waded back into the fray.
"I'm sorry," she said after him, her apology lost in the tumult.
A cop pointed a rubber-pellet gun at the front line of the swarm and shouted, "Get back!" Another officer began spraying mace in wide arcs. Four young men who got hit ran blind into the street. Onlookers suffered violent coughing fits and pounding headaches that lasted well into the next day.
One of the many who got maced was Market 41 co-owner Kirk Scheitler, who'd walked outside the club to see what the ruckus was just in time to get nailed. "Yeah, I got a good dose of it," he says. "The police have been trying to make sure their presence is felt down there, and I certainly felt it."
Scheitler says he supports the crackdown in general, but questions the police strategy of funneling all vehicle traffic onto his club's block and cordoning off the surrounding streets and alleys.
"It's like they're creating an arena," he says. "I've been down here for eight years, and it seems like every summer we have some kind of problem and the police try some different approach. I appreciate their help, but I'm not convinced this new approach is the best one."
Last summer, Scheitler recalls, the police bagged the parking meters on the 1900 block of Market, blocked the street to all cars, and brought in mounted police at Let Out. "That seemed to work the best of all," he says. "Horses are good crowd-control devices. They were nice to have around at closing time."
Even without the horses, the cops broke up the Independence Day melee outside Market 41 with impressive efficiency. A few minutes after the first punch was thrown, the police had three men and one woman in cuffs, the crowd more or less dispersed and ambulances on the way. Within ten minutes, the only evidence of trouble was a pool of blood on the sidewalk, and a shoeless man leaning against a nearby wall, complaining that someone had stolen his expensive basketball shoes after he'd been soaked with mace and had fallen to the pavement.
"They took my kicks right off my feet, man," he moaned. "Can you believe that shit?"
In addition to the stolen shoes, at least three mobile phones were ripped out of people's hands in the confusion, according to police reports. "I was in front of Market 41 waiting for friends when my friend got in a confrontation with someone else. I got in the middle and got pepper sprayed. I could not see," reads the witness statement of a 22-year-old Aurora man whose phone was ripped off. "There were a lot of people coming up to me and trying to help me not go into the street, and after fifteen minutes I realized one of them had stolen my phone."
On the corner next to the shoeless theft victim, a burrito vender wrapped a bandanna soaked in water around his mouth and nose to guard against the residual mace and pepper spray in the air. He then continued to dispense foil-wrapped snacks from a plastic cooler. A drunken man with swollen red eyes leaned against a blue Sheriff's Department van, yelling nonsense. Inside the van, two female deputies wearing latex gloves laughed at him. In the distance, the sax player jammed on the James Bond theme.
And then -- pop, pop, pop. A series of sharp percussive explosions cut through the crowd chatter. Startled drivers gunned their engines and pedestrians dove for cover, believing that bullets were flying. But as the explosions continued, picking up in pace, people came up from their crouches, laughing, relieved and realizing that it was just a string of firecrackers on the Fourth of July. Witnesses to gun battles often report that at first they believed the gunshots were firecrackers. But in LoDo, the clubgoers mistake firecrackers for gunshots.
"You hear that sound at Let Out -- I'm sorry, you better duck," said Erin Kyosho, who had just exited Rise, a huge techno club at 19th and Blake. "There are retards everywhere, and their aim is not good." Kyosho used to be a cocktail server in the VIP room at Rise; she quit in part because she became afraid to walk to her car after Let Out.
"I lived on the streets in LoDo seven or eight years ago, when I was fifteen, sixteen, and I had no problems at all. But there wasn't such an idiot-per-capita scene back then. It doesn't feel safe here anymore. It's not like there are muggers everywhere, just more like too many people who are stupid and wasted, and too many of them have guns."
According to police records, there have been more than twenty reports of shots fired downtown during Let Out in the past two years, and three shooting deaths. The first fatality occurred during a gun battle in September 2002, when a 25-year-old man was killed in a parking lot near Larimer Square. The most recent death occurred January 14, when a man was shot to death in a vehicle on Blake between 21st and 22nd streets, just after last call.
Most of the shots are fired in the air -- more macho posturing, say club owners, and a lot of it by interlopers who come to LoDo to make trouble and don't even patronize the clubs whose business they threaten with their antics.
"If you stay to last call, and you go walking up and down Market or Blake, it's pretty ominous," says Mike Bertinelli, owner of Bash, an eighteen-and-over club at 19th and Blake. "But a lot of it is these guys who don't even have ten dollars in their pocket to spend in the clubs, who are just waiting around to see what's going to happen, and if nothing happens, they incite it."
Kostas Kouremenos, entertainment director for Lotus, an electronic dance music club located in Union Station on the periphery of the hot zone, believes a lot of the troublemakers are drawn to LoDo by clubs that are banging hardcore hip-hop. "I don't want to be racist about it, but 95 percent of the trouble I see is because of the hip-hop issue," he says.
Four years ago, there was only one club in lower downtown that catered to a hip-hop crowd. F-Stop, located in the 1800 block of Wazee, shut down in November 2000 under intense pressure from loft dwellers complaining about noise.
But these days, a lot of LoDo clubs spin hip-hop at least one night a week. And the flavor of this hip-hop is heavier on the thug-oriented, "Get Rich or Die Trying" side than the cerebral, conscious hip-hop favored by the more peaceful, backpack set. There is a good reason for this: The crowd that responds to aggressive hip-hop spends a lot more on drinks than the backpackers.
"It's all in how you market your club," says Kouremenos. "If you market your club to troublemakers, you're going to bring trouble, and trouble is bad for everyone's business."
Not that business in LoDo is all that bad.
"We still have lines on Friday and Saturday nights," says LoDo's George Manning. "The police have been making arrests down there for decades. The only reason they're making more arrests right now is there are more police officers right now. When you get every person over 21 from all over the metro area, consuming adult beverages, you wind up with a small, small percentage who are foolish and wind up in steel bracelets."
Manning and other LoDo club owners agree that their profits took a dip the first weekend after the wilding, when the police first showed up in serious force, but their numbers have since recovered. "Over the course of time, this will blow over," Manning says. "Right now, the police are our partners in making LoDo a fun, safe place."
Bash owner Bertinelli agrees. "I was skeptical at first about what they're doing, but now I don't feel like they're working against us in any way," he says. "It only helps business if the customers feel safe, and I think they're making people feel more safe."
His only concern now, Bertinelli adds, is the complaints he's receiving from customers about police threatening to arrest them for loitering unless they rush to their cars. Bash plays hip-hop on Friday and Saturday nights. Many of his customers are black, and he worries the police may be profiling them.
"I understand the police are trying to clear the area of the element that comes in around midnight, looking to instigate, but I think they're walking a fine line," he says. "How do you draw the difference between the white guy who's walking to his condo and the black kid who's hanging out downtown, and maybe he's looking to cause a problem, maybe he's not?"
Early on the morning of July 18, a police helicopter flew in noisy circles over LoDo, while a SWAT officer armed with an assault rifle ordered two men sitting on a window ledge outside Bash to stand up and move. "If you guys haven't got those phone numbers by now, you're not going to get 'em," the cop said.
"I got three in my pocket already," one of them replied.
"Well, go call 'em them. But do it from your car. We need to clear these streets."
Across the road, a group of rappers hawking a local hip-hop compilation CD titled Pimpmatic mocked the SWAT guy's automatic rifle -- from a safe distance. "I hope that damn thing's not loaded," said one, who identified himself as MC Chill. "What the fuck does he need to be carrying that around all these clubs for? This isn't Iraq. The police are trippin', man."
But the show of force seems to be working. Last weekend's Let Outs were the calmest in recent months. Only five arrests were made Friday night and eight on Saturday, a marked decrease from weeks past. There were fewer fights, and fewer people argued with police about breaking up the Let Out street party.
But the city can't afford this show of force much longer. "We're going to have to scale back," Commander Dilley says. "We're pulling officers from other districts, and over time, that does a disservice to those districts."
Last week, a group of LoDo club owners, managers and entertainment directors met with police officials at District Six headquarters. Beyond sheer force, crowd-control strategies discussed at the meeting included bagging the meters on Market and Blake, bringing back the horse patrols, and installing airport runway lights, timed to ignite at Let Out, that would bathe the departing masses in a harsh white glare.
"We're thinking about going for the cockroach effect," Bertinelli says.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.