Occupy Denver at six months: How relations between police and protesters soured

Tomorrow, Occupy Denver turns six months old -- and sometimes it feels as though protest years are like dog years. In the first in two posts marking the date, we look back through our notebooks to track the relationship between police and protesters, which has gone from overwhelmingly supportive (on both sides) to noticeably aggressive (on both sides) in a matter of months. Continue through for a look at how that devolved. September: For roughly its first three weeks, Occupy Denver lived, cooked and slept at Lincoln Park -- which meant the occupation was briefly a state issue, not a city one. During this time, state troopers and Denver police officers frequented the site, which early on experienced minor fights within its homeless community, although its members' presence was welcome. In the early days, police officers could be seen dropping off food and monetary donations -- both in uniform and in plain clothes -- and protesters worked with law enforcement to organize the camp. Troopers regularly visited the site to monitor health and safety, but the camp's tent city had not become a problem -- yet. October: On October 7, Westword wrote this: "Because the New York faction of the occupation has attracted police attention, its Denver peers emphasize the care with which they approach a relationship with the Denver Police Department. So far, that relationship seems excellent, marked by a long list of reliable DPD contacts on the wall inside the group's security tent, and they hope to keep it that way. ("There are definitely still people who feel very uncomfortable with a police presence," Michelle Lessans says.)"

Exactly one week later, Occupy Denver faced its first in a long line of evictions, leading to the arrests of 27 protesters, its largest mass round-up to that point. The event played a heavy role in turning internal sentiment against law enforcement, though the two continued to maintain a partnership. Since this night, pepper spray and riot gear have made consistent appearances during altercations.

On October 29, the occupation faced its first investigation for felony assault on a police officer: John Sexton lost his job as a result of the charge, which has since been commuted to interference and resisting. Photos of Sexton placed in a chokehold by a police officer circulated the Internet and became evidence in a federal hearing. At the time, Sexton told us, "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. 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."

November: Nineteen arrests took place during a Saturday protest, but the month's greatest change in pace was its prevalence of tickets. At the time, the $750 charge represented the highest bond rate to date, though it's by now taken a backseat to number as high as $50,000. After being ticketed for honking in support of the occupation during those arrests, law student Daniel Garcia told Westword, "I feel like I was harassed unnecessarily." In the same month as his story went viral, six people were ticketed for other municipal violations surrounding Occupy Denver, including pulling over in front of Civic Center Park to drop off food donations.

December: Early in the month, news came that Denver police officers created a fake Twitter account with the sole purpose of harassing occupiers. The revelation came during a hearing for an attempted federal injunction to protect Occupy Denver from police intervention with a temporary restraining order. During the same week, text messages between officers were released to the public, labeling the protesters "treehuggers" and calling them "pathetic." Some showed the other side, with one stating, "in the last two days no less than one hundred people, at protest and other places, have screamed obscenities and directed demeaning remarks at me, and i am not allowed to respond in any way. what a great system."

On December 19, protesters set fire to their shelters inside Civic Center Park as police approached to clear them. During their evacuation from the park, a handful shouted obscenities at officers, who shouted them back. Speaking on the issue later, Mayor Michael Hancock cited the event to support his suggestion that the public no longer cares about the protest.

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple

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