Recreate '68 Plans to Do Just That

The throng of demonstrators — 500 according to police, 1,500 according to protest organizers — had taken over the intersection of 15th and Stout streets, unfurling banners and emptying a bucket filled with fake blood and dismembered baby dolls. As dozens of officers in full riot gear approached and camera crews jockeyed for shots, drums and Native American chants steeled the resolve of the protesters. Glenn Morris, who's been leading efforts against Denver's annual Columbus Day Parade for almost twenty years, urged everyone who was "prepared to be arrested" to stay close, while supporters cheered from the sidewalks.

But this direct action wasn't going quite the way the other lead organizer, Glenn Spagnuolo, had envisioned. The original Transform Columbus Day plan had called for as many as a hundred protesters to burst through barricades along the parade route. After this first group of less-resistant individuals — the elderly, the handicapped, people not as willing to risk bodily harm — was swept up by police, a second wave of activists would enter the street and use what Spagnuolo had described as "more hard-core sitting lockdown maneuvers" to stall the parade even longer. But the demonstrators had moved too early; the parade was still three blocks away. Anticipating such a display, officers quickly sealed off a one-block radius and surrounded the protesters with a wall of uniforms.

Now about fifty activists sank to the street in three sit-down circles, using the proper hand grips and leg locks they'd been taught in training sessions. Earlier in the week, Spagnuolo had declared that "the time to talk is over," since many Native Americans and their supporters consider a celebration of Columbus deeply, unredeemably offensive. But his expression changed from determined to strained as he watched police efficiently dismantle each of the circles and haul the demonstrators off to nearby Denver County Sheriff's Department buses. If this kept up, their blockade would be over before it even started. Standing near the police, Morris and Spagnuolo — or "the Glenns," as they're often referred to by associates — consulted with Russell Means. Even at 68, Means still commands attention as the man who led the American Indian Movement's militant occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973. But AIM of Colorado is just a tiny, and disavowed, splinter of that original organization.

"What should we do?" Morris asked. They tried to speak softly, but the screams of a female protester whose leg was in a police pressure hold made talking difficult.

"I say we just rush them," said Means. "All of us at once. Just like we did back in the old days."

The Glenns looked at the three-deep line of police, some of them armed with black paintball guns loaded with pellets that release pepper spray. Designing a large protest is never an exact science, and this is especially true among radical groups whose general distrust of centralized authority often makes such efforts an exercise in guided chaos. There are advantages to this model, including adaptability and quick recovery from law-enforcement responses. But it also makes it difficult for those involved in the action to know what the hell is going on.

"What the hell is going on?" one protester, a young woman, shouted at Spagnuolo.

He didn't answer. Instead, he moved to the sidewalk. "Don't stand near me," he whispered to his wife, Barbara. A police sergeant had pointed Spagnuolo out to other officers, who were keeping a close watch on a group of young men who'd wrapped their faces in bandannas. Spagnuolo had a white bandanna hanging around his neck, ready for tear gas. This was one of the precautions he'd urged at a planning meeting; other suggestions including packing a granola bar for a snack during arrest-processing and a credit card to secure bond quickly. He paced nervously along the sidelines. The second wave couldn't make it into the street without pushing through some cops.

From the 2004 Columbus Day Parade protest, Spagnuolo knew that anyone who instigated contact with an officer, even a bump with a shoulder, would be looking at a much more serious charge than a misdemeanor for refusing to vacate. That year, he and 238 others were taken into custody as part of the orchestrated arrests they'd worked out beforehand with the Denver Police Department. As they peacefully entered the parade right-of-way, they were escorted off and given a citation. The deal was designed to walk the thin line between free speech and illegal behavior. If you scream "Columbus was a murderer!" from the sidewalk, you're protected under the First Amendment. But if you scream it in the street, are you breaking the law? That was the question that led to Spagnuolo and seven others being acquitted at trial, after which charges were dropped in the 231 other cases. Protesters declared it a major victory. Denver City Council responded by closing the loophole, passing an ordinance that makes it illegal to obstruct lawful events after a police order to move.

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Jared Jacang Maher