John Sexton turned 33 this morning, and his birthday gifts have so far been slim: He was released from prison a couple hours ago, and his first birthday wish was from someone in a nearby holding cell. After a tense conversation with his mother, she, too, wished him a happy one. Perhaps his greatest present yet is the lack of a parking ticket on his car, parked near Civic Center Park at a one-hour meter since before he was arrested for felony assault of a police officer Saturday afternoon. It's been a tough 32 hours.
Fourteen of those hours were spent in isolation -- which is where Sexton learned of the class four felony investigation targeting him. Of the two felony cases the Denver Police Department has said resulted from Saturday's altercation, Sexton's is the only one to be made public so far, and he was alone at his felony arraignment Sunday morning. When he walked into court at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, with cuts on his wrists and cheek, his charge was still a shock to him.
It still is now. "I wasn't notified of their allegation that I had assaulted a police officer until I was in jail," he says. "Before that, when I was still in custody, they took me outside the paddy wagon and read me my charge on camera. The only charge then was disobeying a lawful order, and that was completely replaced with the other charge later on."
The events leading to his confusion technically began around 11 a.m. Saturday, when he parked his still-ticketless car and walked to the park for Occupy Denver's Saturday rally. By 3 p.m., things had gotten heated. When police converged on protesters occupying the right side of the park, Sexton says he met them, hands raised in the air, and began shouting in defense of the occupation.
"I said we weren't doing anything wrong, that we were peaceful, and the next thing I remember I'm on the ground with my face in the grass and all I can see out of my side vision is boots, so many boots," Sexton recalls. "From there, I was put into a chokehold for a while before I was handcuffed and taken to the paddy wagon. A lot of people became upset in response to me being arrested, and I was still shouting on the ground and then again as they took me away."
The firsthand vision of Sexton writhing on the ground on Saturday was one of the earliest divisive moments of the demonstration, along with the sight of another protester being shot out of a tree with pepper bullets. Photos of Sexton have crossed the Internet with a speed faster than even the charge he is being held for. Police currently have 72 hours to collect enough evidence to charge him with the crime by Thursday or drop it permanently. "I'm falsely accused, so my expectation, and my hope, is that they'll realize they don't have anything on me and let me off," Sexton says. In the meantime, how exactly Sexton was released remains a mystery: He says his only two options were his mother and the Denver Anarchist Black Cross, but both have denied paying his $20,000 bond. "Whoever it was is a nice person," he says. "I was expecting to stay in there for a while. I put in a call to the DABC and knew they didn't have $20,000, so I started to get comfortable." Sexton's bail remains the highest rate applied to anyone arrested in relation to the occupation so far, a fact due at least in part to his prior record. At age seventeen, he was charged with the same crime, felony assault of a police officer, though the charge was later dropped to a misdemeanor. The 33-year-old works an eight-to-five job selling car and home insurance and is the proud owner of a black lab named Whiskey, but his life from 6 to 11 p.m. revolves around the occupation.
The two jobs are occasionally difficult to rectify: Beneath a friendly demeanor perfect for sales is a tattoo of an American flag he describes as "ironic." Sexton has worn the same clothes for more than 48 hours, and the elbows of his white undershirt are covered in dried mud. He has spent more than a year and a half of his life in the Colombian jungle, in addition to stints in other areas of South America and Asia, and he is currently wearing a shirt depicting Uncle Sam under the phrase "Violent Society: I Want You."
"It's always been me against the world," he says, "and now there's an entire movement of people with me getting off their couches and trying to change the world. Even if we don't succeed, the point is that we try -- that we keep on trying no matter what."
Although he has the day after his birthday off work, his return to his job on Wednesday could be interesting. After all, his face was spread across the mainstream media. "I could lose my insurance license because one of the stipulations is that you not be arrested," Sexton says. "On Wednesday, I could walk into work and get fired before I get coffee."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver: Biggest riot squad presence to date, pepper bullets, multiple arrests (PHOTOS)."