On Sunday, May 5, days before the municipal election, more than 100 musicians, artists and activists gathered downtown to make noise, jamming against the anti-busker policies of the Denver Performing Arts Complex and the taxpayer-funded nonprofit Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The DCPA donated $50,000 to No on 300 groups, which are campaigning against the Right to Survive Initiative.
Driven by a corps of percussionists on drum kits, the protesters included members of dozens of Denver bands, including Flobots, Rubedo, Wheelchair Sports Camp, Rare Byrd$, the Other Black, the Milk Blossoms, Church Fire, Don Chicharrón, Brothers of Brass and many more. Also in the crowd: representatives of Youth on Record, Cabal Gallery, the Denver Foundation and Denver Homeless Out Loud.
The protest was organized by mayoral candidate Kalyn Heffernan, the MC who heads up Wheelchair Sports Camp, as a last campaign hurrah. The candidate is no stranger to using her platform as an artist to shine light on injustice. She has toured prisons, teaches music education at Youth on Record, and has long championed people experiencing homelessness at protests organized by Occupy Denver, Denver Homeless Out Loud and other groups. In June 2017, she was arrested along with other members of the disability-rights group ADAPT for participating in a multi-day sit-in in Senator Cory Gardner's office, demanding that he vote against the Republican-led attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
When it comes to her thoughts on the leadership of the DCPA and the city, she sums it up like so: "They're motherfuckers."
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As she tells it, the DCPA is using its power and money to undermine the most powerless people in society — those who have no shelter. She questions why taxpayers are funding the DCPA through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which distributes money to cultural groups. If the DCPA has money to spend on lobbying, does it really need taxpayer support? she asks.
She also objects to how the city has mobilized police against musicians playing outside the DCPA, particularly the Brothers of Brass, a popular busker band. After a long mediation with the city through much of 2018, the band — which regularly draws a huge crowd of enthusiastic theater-goers and has became a cultural hallmark in its own right — wound up being threatened with tickets if it ever played outside the complex at volumes greater than 70 decibels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and up to 75 decibels after that.
"DCPA was monitoring these levels themselves. When the agreement failed [between Brothers of Brass and the DCPA], public health came out and issued us warnings via city ordinance, which states that noise originating on public property and measured on private property cannot exceed 65 decibels as measured at the property line," says Jake Herman of Brothers of Brass. "Since we played right at DCPA's property line, they measured us from about twenty feet away. This is the standard that will be enforced on buskers there henceforth, which essentially bans busking at that spot. A loud conversation could register 65 decibels from twenty feet away. A single solo horn could easily clock at 80 decibels measured from twenty feet away."
Members of the group were threatened with $1,000 tickets and ultimately decided not to return to the spot.
"I wouldn’t characterize policies at the performing arts complex as 'anti-busking,'" says Brian Kitts of Denver Arts & Venues in a statement. "Arts & Venues has tried to balance the realities of operating a venue that may have more than 6,000 patrons in it at any one time with the wants other performers. Ingress/egress, security, sound bleed into the concert halls, and other issues make that balance tricky. We try to be respectful of the needs of our patrons as well as all artists, including those on stage, and hope others in ours arts community will do the same.
"Brothers of Brass haven’t been prevented from busking in front of the complex," he adds. "We and they worked with a mediator to find reasonable solutions that included the decibel levels, time limits, etc., that respect what’s going on in the venues and the needs of local residents."
Brothers of Brass member Armando Lopez points toward the DCPA's socially conscious plays like Sweat, which look at the struggles of workers, and wonders why the institution that champions social justice on stage throws its weight behind policies that he says will hurt people experiencing homelessness.
Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud who attended the protest, says in the weeks before the election, there has been an escalation of police attacks on homeless encampments. She says many homeless people have been forced to the outskirts of the city and have gone into hiding.
Initiative 300, which would overturn the urban camping ban, has the backing of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Democratic Party of Denver and the National Coalition for the Homeless, but has taken hits in recent weeks as the No on 300 campaign has received more than $1,500,000 in funding from groups like the National Association of Realtors and the Downtown Denver Partnership, a longtime proponent of the urban camping ban.
Drummer Gregg Ziemba, who plays in Heffernan's band and Rubedo, says his father was a musician who frequently played at the performing arts complex. Ziemba spent much of his childhood at the venue and even played there. Learning that the city has used its resources to police fellow musicians outside the complex and that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts supports an initiative that he says criminalizes homelessness has disturbed him. He hopes the arts leaders behind these institutions shift their policies before the city "loses more of its soul."
This protest, he says, is a taste of what's to come, as musicians rally together to organize for social justice. He says there's even been talk of unionizing musicians.
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The Denver Center for the Performing Arts declined to comment on this story. Denver Arts and Venues, the city agency that runs the Denver Performing Arts Complex, has not responded to requests for comment.
Organizers described the rally as a success in showing some of the city's arts leaders that artists themselves oppose the direction in which some of our cultural institutions are heading.
"I feel so good about it," says Heffernan. "We've thrown the most adorable, perfect show."
Update: This story has been updated with a statement from Denver Arts & Venues and a correction about how the city handled the Brothers of Brass.