At the time of the convention, Sidwell says, "I was a student at the Art Institute of Colorado -- and I thought the DNC might be a very good opportunity to practice some of my documentary skills. I've always had an interest in all different forms of activism and the methods people use to protest. I was more interested in documenting the things happening on the streets as opposed to the fancy events of the DNC itself."Sidwell was hardly the only AIC student with such thoughts. "The school had a big group meeting before the convention. They said, 'This quarter is going to be interesting with the DNC going on.' After all, the Art Institute is only about two blocks from the Capitol. They told us we needed to be aware that security was going to be tight, and then the head of the photography department spoke. He acknowledged that a lot of us would want to photograph this, and that it was an amazing opportunity to practice our skills. Then, after telling us to be careful, he passed out a box of business cards. He said he'd spoken to someone in the police department -- I think he said the Chief of Police, although I'm not positive -- and he said if you provide a copy of the card in combination with a student ID, we would be treated as press."
Armed with these cards, Sidwell dove in to the DNC: "I covered almost every protest there, including the Iraq veterans against the war march." She was also on hand at Civic Center Park during the early evening of August 25, the convention's second day, when a large number of people began gathering for a rally reportedly intended to disrupt the convention.
"The crowd began to march," Sidwell recalls, "at which point a line of police officers just sort of cut them off and wouldn't let them proceed. Then, after a few moments, the crowd turned on itself and reversed directions, cutting through Civic Center Park and heading toward the 16th Street Mall. A lot of them crossed the street without waiting for the light to change, and the police blocked off the road ahead of them.
"At this point, I was trying to stay ahead of the crowd -- trying to get to the 16th Street Mall and find a more elevated place to stand. I think I was on Court Street when a line of police on horses prevented me from continuing down that way. And long story short, we all got corralled in, hundreds of us. They circled us and kept everybody inside the circle -- and not all of them were part of the protest. Some of them were just people walking by. I saw some sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls coming from the 16th Street Mall in flip-flops and spaghetti straps, worried that their parents were going to be mad at them."Although Sidwell wasn't technically a journalist, she was acting as one -- "but the police didn't seem to care. I saw somebody holding a press badge go up to a riot officer. He was saying, 'Press, press, press,' but they sprayed him with whatever chemical they were using at the time." Not that she sensed a great deal of risk from her fellow confinees. "I didn't see the crowd as being violent," she allows. "I felt safer in there with the protesters than I did going near the police. They were treating everyone in that circle as the enemy regardless of the truth." Those who asked questions of the officers received the same reply, Sidwell maintains: "They kept saying they were just following orders. Then they divided the crowd in half, and for some reason, they let half go, and took the rest of us. It was absolutely arbitrary. It was just what side you happened to be on. As they were arresting me, I asked what I was being arrested for, and why they weren't reading me my rights, and they said they didn't need to, because this was the DNC, and it was a special occasion." Shortly thereafter, Sidwell was among those transported to a booking facility popularly known as "Gitmo on the Platte." That's where she spent the night before being released just prior to the break of dawn the next morning.
The ACLU of Colorado and the People's Law Project provided attorneys for those protesters, like Sidwell, who didn't accept a plea agreement. The trial took place during the early months of 2009, and she describes the proceeding as more upsetting to her than "them arresting me and charging me with crimes I didn't commit, and detaining us without access to lawyers."
Why? "Because I had to sit there listening to officers lying under oath," she says. "And after it was shown that the officers were lying, nothing happened to them. There was no punishment."
In the end, Sidwell was acquitted. But this verdict didn't squelch her frustration. She soon decided to take part in an ACLU lawsuit over the incident. "I just felt, I can't not do anything," she says.
Now, the City and County of Denver has agreed to a $200,000 pay-out over the mass arrest. This sum must be approved by City Council, but most observers expect it to sail through. In addition, the ACLU says the Denver Police Department has pledged to make changes in police policy and training.
Today, Sidwell is a professional photographer, but she continues to cover protests and rallies ranging from Tea Party events to a march about the death of prisoner Marvin Booker; she's also working on a documentary project that should be announced soon on her Facebook page. The settlement offered her and the seven other plaintiffs is relatively modest compared to the $795,000 paid to police brutality victim Alexander Landau. But for her, the suit has always been more about the message than the money.
As she puts it, "I'm just hoping things like this don't happen in the future -- that we can make improvements in some of our polices and bring attention to the fact that our police department could use some reform."
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