With Occupy Denver protester Corey Donahue, nothing is ever easy
The last time Corey Donahue landed in jail, it took his friends four days to decide to bail him out. Given the number of times they've had to make this decision over the two months and two weeks of Occupy Denver's brief life downtown — four, to be exact — it should be easy by now. But with Donahue, nothing ever is.
Occupy Denver's loudest and most well-documented protester is a tattooed former MMA fighter, an outspoken marijuana activist, a vehement anarchist, the Don Quixote of the local occupation (if Quixote's windmills were state troopers) and the single biggest drain on its legal funds to date. Donahue has been arrested four times in two months, for eight charges in all, ranging from unlawful conduct on state property to inciting a riot to unlawful sexual contact. These come at the tail end of a criminal record that includes 21 total charges, starting when he was nineteen and continuing through his ripe and raucous late twenties. The man's rap sheet alone puts him at the ironic forefront of an aggressively leaderless movement — whether he or anyone else wants him to be there. Corey Donahue has become a minor martyr by being a major nuisance.
"His actions speak for themselves. I spend my time making an effort not to worry about his activities," says Mason Tvert, a proponent of the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign, who takes a convoluted — but common — approach to dealing with Donahue. "There are a lot more effective activists."
But there are few more passionate. By the time Donahue was finally released from jail on November 16, it had taken all of the protesters' combined resources to get him out. With two charges of failing to appear already on his record and a potential felony charge for inciting a riot and obstruction of justice in connection with this most recent arrest on November 13, Donahue's $5,000 bond — his highest yet — looked like a risky investment to some protesters. While he sat in a holding cell, Occupy Denver discussed whether to use its collective resources to bail him out during one of its daily general-assembly meetings; the vote ended quickly in his favor. The group earmarked $2,500 for the cause, matching the amount coming from its internal legal team, which was then supported by the Denver Anarchist Black Cross.
"People can have their reservations about Corey, but the fact of the matter is that he's trying to help people," says Cat Keffer, a representative of Occupy Denver's legal team and one of a dozen members of the DABC, a collective that defends the rights of those involved in mass political and social movements. "If he gets arrested again, it could mean that we can no longer help him. He has so many bonds in his name that it's to the point now that we need an intense amount of collateral in order to be able to bond him out at all."
Donahue's initial Occupy Denver arrest, on October 14, came after he set up the occupation's first tent — and then attempted to stop Colorado State Patrol officers from removing other structures. While cameras rolled, he tried to feed bread to riot police as they tore down the Thunderdome, the kitchen tent; he'd launched fruit and cheese at the same group of officers the day before. He later ordered pizza to be delivered to the protesters on the steps of the State Capitol, and a lawful order to leave found him escorted out of the same building — and under arrest, because of an outstanding warrant — after protesters occupied the governor's office on November 8. He currently has three restraining orders against him — one from his sexual-misconduct case and an additional two from state troopers. As a result, it will be difficult for Donahue to enter the Capitol again in the near future.
"We're all aware of who he is," says state trooper C.J. Valdez. "We've had experience with him."
That experience includes the day Donahue stood in front of a Denver cop car as it advanced toward Civic Center Park and he grinned on camera while doing so. He helped rebuild the Thunderdome six times, reacting with glee when its consistent destruction made it a symbol of the movement. (The Thunderdome has since separated itself from Occupy Denver and become a sister movement.) When Donahue also became a symbol, his reaction was less warm but more resolved.
"I would never in a million years say I'm a leader here, but if they want to see me as one, I can see why," he says. "And I'll let them. There's nothing I wouldn't do to tear the system down, burn it and start the fuck over."
Although Don Quixote may seem an unlikely role model for a successful career in political activism, Donahue compares himself to the crazy Cervantes character, who spends almost 1,000 pages traveling through sixteenth-century Spain, distorting reality and creating a minor or major mess of every situation he encounters before eventually renouncing his antics and dying in the same small village from which he dramatically departed at the novel's beginning. "Don Quixote just left his house and got the shit kicked out of him, again and again and again, and he loved it," says Donahue, who plans to have Quixote's image tattooed on his forearm. "If I get two more people to think, 'Well, Corey might be crazy as shit, but he has a point,' that's really all it takes."
But it's starting to take money, too — and lots of it.
"The legal line will shut down for the holidays," Keffer says. "I really hope Corey doesn't get arrested again."
Denver's Don Quixote is a Sagittarius rising. He was born Michael Corey Donahue on December 11, 1982, at Boulder Community Hospital, the same facility where, 28 years later, his mother, Toni, was wrongly diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Instead, she died from mesothelioma only six months later, in May 2011. During her illness, Donahue lived with his mother in Boulder so that he could care for her. The constant exposure to her painful reality drove him to aggressively pursue his passion for the marijuana community in particular and political activism in general.
His future role in Denver was, in many ways, born from his mother's death.
"When you're watching your mom die, you need something to take your mind off of it," Donahue says with an almost-straight face. As he talks, he's interrupted by a protester who asks if he has weed. He doesn't, not this time. "I started with the mindset that if I was inside the system, I could change things, but I later learned I have to work outside of it," he continues. "I'm of the opinion that you regret the things that you don't do more than the things that you do."
This last admission explains more than he lets on: Donahue belongs to a family of devout Irish and Italian Catholics (the only Saturday Occupy Denver protest that he's missed fell on the same day as a family reunion honoring deceased great-grandmother Lizzie Dionigi), but he's spent much of his adult life away from that family. After earning his bachelor's in political science at Colorado State University in 2005, he spent a year in South America, where he stayed briefly with an uncle who's a Catholic priest in Torijo, Bolivia, and befriended a girl whose foot was gnawed off by a pig.
"My uncle helps handicapped people and drinks and smokes and tells dirty jokes," Donahue says. "When I was with him, a beautiful woman came up to me, and he said she was pretty. I told him, 'You can't say that, because you're a priest,' and he said, 'I'm still a man.' He taught me a lot."
After a brief return to Colorado, Donahue went abroad again and earned a master's degree in international law and international relations at the University of New South Wales in 2007. The internship he spent with Amnesty International in Australia propelled an interest in political activism already fueled by the cost of his degree: $57,000 in student-loan debt, which he has no intention of ever paying back. "I refuse to be penalized for my education," he says.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Donahue moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as the program manager for Center for a Free Cuba and in a handful of temp jobs, until news reached him of his mother's illness. (Donahue and his younger sister, Emmy, have since hired a lawyer who specializes in mesothelioma cases to look into whether her illness was caused by asbestos in the workplace.) It was Toni who encouraged him to work only his hardest throughout his life, he says.
Donahue's mother followed her own advice, but she wasn't always successful. Tensions between Donahue's father, Tom, who worked as an appraiser, and his mother, who worked as a house cleaner and babysitter, drove her to an attempt on her own life. Although she survived, she was absent from her young children's lives for close to a year. After their parents divorced, when Donahue was six, the kids spent a year and a half living on the streets and in shelters with Toni.
"You didn't know where she was a lot, and we couldn't really do anything," says Patty Auernhamer, Toni's youngest sister. "Later, the kids would go out and sleep in the car because Tom wouldn't turn on the heat. It was tough for them."
Donahue's own experience with homelessness comes up frequently in discussions of why the homeless — a large faction at Occupy Denver — are welcome within the movement.
"I don't remember a lot of the details, but I remember sleeping wherever we could and not always caring about the consequences," Donahue says. "Even that was a luxury, and I'm not going to turn people away because they don't have it, either. If homeless people aren't part of the 99 percent, who is?"
Before structures were removed from Occupy Denver, Donahue donated that first, six-person tent he'd pitched to a homeless family. In the action, he saw himself.
"His passion is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness," Donahue's aunt says. "He throws his whole body into something. But he doesn't care what that actually means."
Occasionally, it means he literally throws his whole body into something. For Donahue, standing up for his beliefs comes with an ease earned from years of mixed martial arts training, for which he won a cut above his left eyebrow. He'd played football in high school and during his first year of college, and was watching an MTV special on kickboxing when he decided he liked what he was seeing. But Donahue's first MMA lesson at IMATA, the Integrated Martial Arts Training Academy in Fort Collins, was painful. "I thought it would be light conditioning, but my trainer was a 240-pound Iranian, and I threw up," Donahue says. "But I hadn't finished the practice, and I told him, 'I'm not done.' He liked me ever since."
As Donahue shaped up, the routines grew harder — and so did the eventual fights. In D.C., he says, he'd train for competitions at Northern Virginia Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness from 5 to 8 a.m., then work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., then train again from 5 to 10 p.m. every day.
"You learn a lot about a person's inner character when they're getting the crap kicked out of them," Donahue says. "You'll never know more about another person than when you agree to put on gloves, get in the ring, and hit and kick the shit out of him without destroying each other. I just wanted to see what kind of person that would make me."
The political world has yet to produce a struggle in which Donahue cannot mentally place himself. He remembers that his mother took pride in her role as the children's cook, and he took up that role at the Thunderdome. That's where his real rise to infamy started. Any able-bodied male who's had the combined fortune and misfortune of entering one of the incarnations of the Thunderdome knows to expect a nut tap from its prankster chefs; their female counterparts just earn R-rated flirting. To know Corey Donahue is to be sexually harassed by the man — and possibly press charges against him.
One Channel 4 news reporter did just that after a large police altercation at Civic Center Park on October 15, when, he claims, Donahue assaulted him sexually. Released from jail a few hours after his second Occupy Denver arrest, Donahue was already grinning wildly in response to a charge of unlawful sexual conduct — which could label him a sexual predator for life if he's found guilty. "It was just a bad nut-tap joke gone wrong," he told Westword at the time, describing how the fingers of his right hand "almost" touched the fully covered genitals of another man.
To this day, it's the only action that Donahue admits he wishes he could undo — not that he says he did it. "I feigned a nut tap at the photographer, and I was accused of groping him," he explains. "If you ask anyone who was around me, they will tell you that they never saw me do that — because it didn't happen."
The alleged nut tap wasn't the only charge involved in this arrest; Donahue was also charged with petty larceny (in connection with some paperwork he'd taken from the state's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division in July) and disturbing the peace. Handcuffed, he was taken along with 25 others to the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, where he was arraigned the next morning. But the alleged nut tap cemented Donahue's image as an unofficial leader of both the local Occupy chapter and its anarchist kitchen. The title is not one of his choosing, but it is one of his own making.
"Everyone needs a scapegoat," Donahue says. "It's the cops' idea that the movement has a leader — that if I'm in jail, nobody's going to be out here doing anything important. Well, that's wrong to begin with, and I was still working on the occupation from jail."
Auernhamer hides the newspapers in her Longmont home from her father, Ron Sutherland, to avoid distressing the 77-year-old and guaranteeing another tense lecture on the subject of his grandson.
"I know it's his passion and he believes in it, but what do you do?" Auernhamer says. "He thinks Corey should have a regular job and should have an income and live a normal life. I just try to text him at least once or twice a week and say, 'I love you, and I hope you're not in jail.'"
Donahue says that his father has been upset with him on and off since his first occupation arrest, and right now it's on. "I don't want to get into the Corey situation with you," Tom Donahue says when the subject of his son is broached. "I have to go unload the back of my truck now. Goodbye." He does not answer the phone again.
The first time Corey Donahue ever smoked pot, it was set against the 8-bit background music of Super Mario Bros. 2. He and a few friends had just finished playing basketball up the street from his dad's house in Boulder; he was eleven.
"It was beautiful, and I loved it immediately," Donahue remembers. His second memory of marijuana was the discovery of his parents' one-hitter. In the years that followed, Donahue remained categorically unimpressed by lectures from visitors to his elementary school, DARE representatives who challenged his class to a life without marijuana or any other drug.
"There was this guy, at my school, telling me marijuana will kill you, will make your mother cry, whatever," Donahue recalls. "I went out to the playground and felt like I had been lied to. I hated to hear my mom coughing up a lung in the morning, and I knew that was so much worse."
His aunt says she became aware of her nephew's fondness for marijuana only two years ago, when he came home for Christmas. She saw the pipe, didn't approve, and has yet to change her mind. From her perspective, the hash oil that Donahue and his sister gave their mother didn't help Toni's condition. "You could tell the day she started taking it that she started to get worse," Auernhamer says. "There's a time and a place for that, and that wasn't it."
Still, she admits, Donahue's pot smoking is better than his drinking.
Donahue's criminal record includes four arrests for driving under the influence: three in 2004 and one in 2005. "I was stupid when I was drunk," he says. "I always used marijuana, but my primary drug was alcohol for a long time. Weed is easy, I don't get a hangover, and the worst thing that could happen to me is that I fall asleep."
So today, Donahue has exchanged his former alcohol abuse for a balls-out (no pun intended) push to fully legalize its replacement. He is a staunch no-tax, no-regulation, no-rules marijuana activist, and his campaign, Crazy for Justice, has taken the same form: Donahue plays around the rules to prove that they're neither welcome nor necessary.
"It should be 100 percent legal," Donahue says. "Fuck you — let's go to the Supreme Court. If I have to do things in a very flamboyant way to get the message across that we're all being royally screwed, so be it. No one cares about the ends; they care about the means."
When Donahue decided to take an active role in Denver's marijuana community after his mother's death last year, he found himself in the right state at the right time. But while part of that community embraced his brazen antics — at once righteous and self-righteous — another faction denounced them for bringing the wrong kind of attention at the worst possible time.
In June, at the Great Legalization Debate, Donahue lit a joint — on stage. Soon after, he filed thirty open-records requests with the Department of Revenue, the governing body for the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. A big pile of records was printed and ready when Donahue showed up to view them on July 22. After he learned that he'd have to pay for the paperwork, Donahue refused to ante up...and simply took the documents with him. That act led to an arrest warrant being issued in August for petty theft — but Donahue's last name was misspelled on the warrant, and it didn't catch up with him until October.
"My first impression is that he had energy, which I liked, because we need people with that kind of energy," says Kathleen Chippi, a dispensary owner and marijuana activist. "He has made a lot of people aware that there's an issue. I've met a lot of people at both hearings and rallies who are there because Corey mentioned it, and he has a lot of people who follow what he's doing."
The first word that comes to mind when she hears Donahue's name? "Gonzo." While Chippi admits that she would have handled the MMED records requests differently, she points out that Donahue has also displayed an ability to work within the same system he publicly denounces. For example, he's frequently credited for helping to kill House Bill 1261, which would have established a marijuana-impairment standard for Colorado drivers. (Westword pot critic William Breathes tested at a rate almost three times above the proposed limit — while he was sober.) With Crazy for Justice, Donahue even followed the proper procedure to draft an initiative that would make 4/20 a holiday called Cannabis Freedom Day.
When Tim Martin first met Donahue, he was dressed in a double-sided sandwich board and shouting insults about one of the groups Martin respects most in the world: the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In typical fashion, Donahue was doing this immediately outside of a NORML conference. "He was talking about his message, how much he hates NORML, that we're corrupt, whatever, and I told him how pointless I think it is for us to be infighting, this division and separation," says Martin, who hosts the John Doe Radio Show to support the use of marijuana. "Corey isn't a great face for the community. He's a really fiery person, but that plays to the exact opposite of what we're trying to do in this community: logical, rational, in-depth conversation."
The problem, very often, is that even other activists have a tough time knowing what Donahue wants to achieve through his efforts. "All I get from him is that he's angry," Martin says.
The easy answer is that Donahue wants everything. Starting with the complete legalization of pot.
"If it's legalized, I don't have to do any of this jackassery anymore," Donahue says. He adjusts his Army jacket, pauses and sighs, then begins again. "People think I'm a jackass, but my only retort is to go do it yourself. I don't want to fight this year in and year out for the rest of my life."
Corey Donahue is fearless and charming, in an occasionally unhinged kind of way. He "doesn't give a shit" about anything that "doesn't matter," he says, which means his tunnel vision is well developed and his hygiene is not. At 6' 1", with the large frame of someone who once learned MMA from a 240-pound Iranian, he would be imposing even if his brown hair were brushed, trimmed, and tucked neatly behind his ears with the stems of his new glasses. But it isn't. Instead, it's usually wrapped inside a red-and-white keffiyeh, with which he covers his head — never his face — during cold weather and any altercations with the police.
By this point, his face is ubiquitous. His lawyers would like for it to be less so.
On July 19, Donahue managed to get arrested for trespassing at a place with "public" capitalized in its name: the Boulder Public Library, where proponents of the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol act were meeting. A charge of "fighting words" was soon added.
"That's pretty rare," says Adam Platt, Donahue's lawyer in the pending case. "You just don't get charged with fighting words anymore."
Donahue acquired that distinction while he was handcuffed and in the back of a cop car outside the library. "He proceeds to inform the police officer that he is now a party to the violation of his First Amendment rights," Platt recounts. "He called the officer an 'ass clown,' and the officer said something to the effect of 'That hurt my feelings, and if you say it again, I'll charge you with fighting words.'"
When Donahue tells this story, the actual phrase is "fucking no-talent ass clown." But either way, it ends the same. "Corey, being Corey, said it again," Platt says, "because that's what he does."
And Corey being Corey, this particular case has been marred by a series of slip-ups. He hired Platt only a day before the lawyer needed to appear in court, and then Donahue missed the first trial date because it fell during the four days he was jailed in Denver on charges of inciting a riot at the occupation. "I had just sent an e-mail to him on Monday saying, 'Hey, no more getting arrested,' but apparently I should have sent it earlier," Platt says. If Donahue actually makes it to his rescheduled court date on December 15 and the charges are dropped, he plans to file a countersuit against the City of Boulder for violating his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
"He is important, because if they can arrest him for trespassing at a public meeting in a public library because he disagrees with something and wants to debate the matter reasonably, what First Amendment rights do we really have?" Platt asks. "We have a right to criticize the police, and it's ludicrous and frankly dangerous to go down the path of asserting it might be possibly, even plausibly okay to say a police officer can initiate a breach of the peace because he had been called an 'ass clown' twice. When they tried to make him leave for a reason he saw as unjust, Corey said no."
And he always will.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Donahue had a message to get out. He sent it via a mass text: "gov hickenpooper and mayor handcock will be the honorary hosts of the great thanksgiving banquet at the denver rescue mission ... and they have repeatadlly distroyed the thunderdome for feeding people lets hold their feet to the flame and stand up against this bullshit photo op wich will only allow these criminals to lie and pretend they give a shit about houseleness." One day before Thanksgiving, he took action.
Donahue arrived an hour late for his own event, holding an enormous pot of soup that he and four others had spent the night cooking. He then proceeded to argue with a line of homeless people waiting to instead be served an eight-piece Thanksgiving meal inside the Denver Rescue Mission by local celebrities, including Governor John Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock. It was a classic case of trying to help people who don't want the help, although eventually Donahue and about fifty Thunderdome supporters did manage to share their soup with six particularly adventurous homeless people.
And then, the holy grail — or at least a sip from it. As the governor slipped out the side entrance of the building and headed to a waiting vehicle, Donahue shouted, "What don't you like about people's First Amendment rights?" For about ten seconds, Hickenlooper looked directly at Donahue, then slid into the passenger seat of his white SUV.
At least Donahue got to exercise his own rights. Some days, that's barely enough. That day, it was exactly enough.
If there is a single best way for Donahue to right the wrongs he sees in this world, it is as an example. Regardless of whether you agree with him — or can even stand him — Donahue earnestly believes that he is acting in your best interest, and any attempts you might make to dissuade him could result in him labeling you an "ass clown." Although he is open about his plans to cease and desist all operations once he gets his way, there's no end date in sight for either the war on drugs or the social war that is the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The space that stretches forward, then, is an endless staring contest of sorts between Donahue and the powers-that-be until someone blinks and the 28-year-old goes to jail again. And perhaps stays there. "He is an incredible person, but no one controls him," says Kerri Kellerman, one of Donahue's closest colleagues in the Thunderdome. "Sometimes, that means not even him. It's like the only path left is martyrdom."
And there are plenty of windmills along that path for Donahue to take on. He is unpredictable and he is personal. Everything directly affects him — or at least someone he cares about. And he will not let go of any issue he values, even if he's holding on to it as he's handcuffed.
"To me, the most patriotic thing to do as an American is to be untethered like Corey is," Chippi says. "It's the American way."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.