War of the Word

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He said his name was Columbus,

And I just said, "Good luck." -- "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"

Gun control. Iraq. Charles Darwin. Social Security. Affirmative action. Left. Right. FEMA. Gay marriage. Al-Qaeda. Racism. George W. Bush. Gas prices.


Columbus Day Parade

There. That should do it. Anybody reading that list who doesn't feel his blood starting to boil? Anyone still sitting on the couch with a blissful smile and a fifty-beat-per-minute heart rate? And if those fightin' words don't get you, try this one: Columbus.

While there might be more politically charged concepts at large in this seriously divided land of ours, words that contain more powerful explosives, the three syllables comprised by Columbus remain hotly provocative -- at least in Denver, on the eve of the annual Columbus Day parade. Some Italian-Americans here blame the ruin of longstanding friendships on recent bickering over the parade, while others hold fast to the history they were taught back in grade school. And aggrieved Native Americans still can't believe the moment in 1992 when a parade organizer barked at Indian activist Glenn Morris: "This isn't your country anymore; this is our country now, so get with the program."

It has been exactly 100 years since the first Columbus Day parade was held in Pueblo -- in 1907, Colorado became the first state to make Columbus Day an official holiday -- and the people who decorate the floats and gas up the classic cars and unfurl the red, white and green marching banners aren't ready to say "Goodbye, Columbus" anytime soon. But those who wish the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria had never dropped anchor on Caribbean shores see the holiday as a pep rally for exploitation, murder and unprotected hate speech, and once again are planning their own counter-protest.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, mindful of the past, last week sent a letter to leaders on both sides of the controversy, noting that he was "sick and tired of this entire costly, frustrating and potentially dangerous situation that does nothing but generate ill will."

The overture was loudly and publicly rebuffed by both sides.

"We will celebrate Columbus Day. This letter totally embarrasses me and my committee," says George Vendegnia, the Italian-American car-wash owner who revived the parade here five years ago after an eight-year hiatus. He sees Columbus as a visionary navigator of the late fifteenth century, and Columbus Day as an opportunity to honor his own family's heritage. It's a celebration, he says, "as important as my grandfather's name."

The parade is "a convoy of conquest that openly endorses imperialism and violence," counters Mark Freeland, an Ojibwa and member of the American Indian Movement in Colorado. "Christopher Columbus is personally responsible for murder and genocide of the people of Hispaniola. And that is not just a legend; that is not something we just suggest." Columbus, he charges, set into motion a cycle of disease, war, cultural dislocation and land theft that led to the deaths of countless Taino Indians over eight years.

In an open letter sent to Hickenlooper last Friday, the Transform Columbus Day Alliance -- a collection of more than eighty groups ranging from the All African People's Revolutionary Party to the Colorado Medical Committee for Human Rights, a collection of dissidents called Progressive Italians to Transform the Columbus Holiday (PITCH), the New Jewish Agenda and Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism -- agreed with the mayor's assertion that the event "inspires community anguish," and it called upon him to "take the next logical step by publicly denouncing the parade and asking the organizers to end this offensive celebration, and by supporting legislation at the state level to end the Columbus Day holiday."

But to Denver police lieutenant Lisa Fair, parade day is just another shift at work -- even though it might require, as it did last year, clearing 250 protesters from the pavements of downtown Denver in the morning sun. "In this job," she says, "you may face trouble any day you go to work." What she advises is patience -- lots of patience -- for everyone on or near the parade route when marchers step off around 10 a.m. this Saturday, October 8.

Somewhere along the route, between 2,000 and 5,000 Columbus Day marchers and an unknown number of protesters will meet in the street. Once more, Vendegnia will wear his bulletproof vest, but he won't be packing a pistol. Never has, he says, despite accusations to the contrary. In 2004, the grand marshal of the parade was contentious U.S. congressman Tom Tancredo, whose controversial views on immigration reform have polarized Coloradans. This year, Tancredo says he will ride his motorcycle in the parade alongside Denver talk-show host Peter Boyles.

AIM activists and members of the Transform Columbus Day Alliance are not interested in outlining the specifics of the action that may be taken Saturday. "The convoy of conquest is still going to launch down the road -- we haven't heard about any cancellation plans -- so we'll be there," says Colorado AIM member Sommer McGuire. A rumor has been floating around about street theater.

But there's already been plenty of theater just getting to this point.

Denver's Columbus Day dispute reaches back five centuries -- or, depending on your point of view, to 1990. That year, the Federation of Italian American Organizations announced plans to revive the march after three decades. But talks between the Federation and Colorado AIM about the name and orientation of the parade failed -- the first of many communication breakdowns between the antagonists -- despite an offer by event planners to let protesters march at the front of the parade, carrying counter-Columbus banners.

At the 1991 parade, four AIM members -- Ward Churchill, Glenn Morris, Margaret Martinez and Russell Means -- were arrested after blocking the route; they were later acquitted. In 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage to America), half a dozen mediation sessions involving the U.S. Department of Justice, Mayor Wellington Webb, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the warring parties came to little, but at the last minute, the Italian Federation canceled the parade when more than 3,500 activists supporting the Native Americans gathered to confront the marchers.

And there the flap might have ended, but for George Vendegnia and his associate, C.M. Mangiaracina. In 1995, Vendegnia formed a new chapter of the Sons of Italy, called New Generation, with an eye to reviving Columbus Day here for the second time in the decade. So fixed were they on the idea that Vendegnia and other Sons of Italy members camped outside a city office for more than a month to obtain a parade permit.

Once more, talks about the focus of the holiday failed -- Vendegnia broke an agreement to rename the parade, Indian activists say -- and after an eight-year hiatus, another parade was finally held in October 2000. That year, 150 protesters were arrested after blockading the route; the charges were later dropped.

Plans for a 2001 parade were curtailed after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington -- as it happened, twenty schoolchildren recited a rosary in honor of the dead and quietly went home. But in 2003 and 2004, tempers rose again as the two sides renewed their debate over the symbolism of Columbus Day, the constitutional rights of the parties and the tides of history.

At bottom, the entire battle still turns on one word: Columbus. It's the name of cities in Ohio and Georgia, a major artery in San Francisco, a traffic-clogged thoroughfare in Manhattan and countless other sites, large and small. It's the name that President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 asked the 48 United States to celebrate each October, and the name that compelled Richard Nixon to declare Columbus Day a full-fledged federal holiday in 1971. But Christopher Columbus is also the name of a monster, Native Americans say -- a man who slaughtered and enslaved their people, pioneered Western chauvinism and fomented a bogus "Doctrine of Discovery" that survives to this day. Since the 1970s, many historians have sharply altered traditional schoolroom teachings on Columbus's legacy as the man who "discovered" America, and seventeen states have passed laws changing the name (and concept) of Columbus Day.

But that revisionism falls on deaf ears where Denver's Columbus Day Parade Committee is concerned. "I don't care how they want to rewrite history," Vendegnia says. "Columbus was just a great navigator, and I'll debate that with anybody."

One Thursday night last month, members of the Columbus Day Parade Committee, representing eight Italian-American organizations, gathered for their weekly meeting at the vintage Valente's Italian Restaurant in Wheat Ridge. In a modest yet attractive dining room decorated with bunches-of-grapes wallpaper, they discussed such matters as a $1 million liability insurance policy for parade day, the polite refusal of a Shriners group to appear in this year's event "after some heated debate," the cost of Italian-flag lapel pins at 79 cents or 97 cents per pin. (Since this isn't a big-budget organization, one man volunteered to have his company donate several hundred of them.)

Then came the suggestion, from a voice in the back of the room, that while Denver police "are not willing to beat protesters into submission" on parade day, maybe dogs and tear gas will be okay. After that, someone else muttered that Patrol Division Chief Steve Cooper, who has met with the committee, is "a putz." From there the agenda sailed on into a complaint that the Denver Catholic Register has refused to publicize the parade and that marchers may be delayed even longer this year than last because of an increased number of arrests. On the other hand, someone offered, the ongoing Ward Churchill affair has so divided the Indian activist community that there may not be any protests.

"Of course," another voice said, "people like Glenn Morris and Ward Churchill aren't real Indians, anyway. They're Indian wannabes."

Following the regular business of the meeting, parade organizers willingly submitted to questions. The tone of their answers ranged from proud to aggrieved to angry, but one sentiment was unanimous. Asked if anyone present -- seventeen or eighteen people -- would be willing to compromise on the name of the Columbus Day parade, committee members flooded the room with a collective, sustained "No!"

Mickie Lava Clayton, an Italian-American from Brooklyn, New York, who has lived in Denver since 1953 and serves as the state manager of the National Italian American Council, was as combative as anyone in her defense of the holiday. "A bunch of radicals started to make up these stories about Columbus," she said. "He was no better and no worse than anybody in his era, and to judge Columbus by the standards of today is the most ridiculous thing. It gives meaning to the notion that we've educated people way beyond their own intelligence."

To committeeman Frank Frenquelli, the attacks on Columbus Day represent the vanguard of a war on Western civilization itself. "They're trying to do a rewrite of history," he said. "In the colleges, Western civilization is being removed very slowly." He recalled a lecture he attended in Washington, D.C., delivered by Judge Robert Bork, during which the one-time U.S. Supreme Court nominee described a conga line at a California college where civil rights leader Jesse Jackson joined the dancers' chant of "Ho! Ho! Ho! Western Civ has got to go!"

"What's going on," Frenquelli said, "is that they're focusing on the Italians here in Denver because we're a weak community. They're not protesting in New York or Chicago, because they'd get dragged off to jail. All of this is really a big front. And the other nationalities -- the Irish, the Polish, many others -- may be next in line. The Italians are just being conveniently used first."

Vendegnia insisted that the opposition will never use him. "There's no way they'll ever get me to change the parade's name," he said. "Impossible." Is he principled, or merely stubborn on the issue? "Both," he answered. "And they know that."

No racism is implied by the Columbus Day parade, insisted committeewoman Patty LaBriola, adding that the furthest thing from the marchers' minds is any kind of ethnic intimidation. "We have nothing against [the protesters]," she said. "We just want to have our day."

And if that day happens to be her last on earth, Clayton declared with a touch of melodrama, then so be it. "There's no way a bunch of bullies are going to stop me," she announced. "I'm four feet, eleven and a half inches tall, and there's no big son of a gun that's going to scare me. Because I'm a firm believer that the day you're born, God put a day when you're going. So if I'm going to go in the Columbus Day parade, that's fine. I'll have a great Italian funeral."

Columbus himself appears to be in no immediate danger of extinction -- not in Denver, anyway. Witness Paul MacDonald, the beefy Army veteran and former small-town cop who's assembled a ten- to fifteen-member security force for this year's parade. He explained his take on the endurance of Chistopher Columbus quite bluntly. "History," MacDonald said, "is always written by the winner."

In a basement meeting hall at the Four Winds Survival Project, a Native American community center at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street, the tone was no less contentious, but the physical atmosphere was markedly different. On the wall overlooking a scarred wooden conference table, a grainy, black-and-white photo mural revealed a hundred or so Native American warriors with an American flag in their teeming midst. Clearly, they have captured the Stars and Stripes in battle, and there isn't a bluecoat in sight, dead or alive.

"Lakota?" one Colorado AIM activist asked. "Probably," another answered. "They look like Lakota."

To the people who were in this room, Christopher Columbus is a mass murderer in a black slouch hat, a figure who has tormented their people's cultural memory for 500 years, especially through the reputation he's enjoyed in white-run schools. No one invoked it, but what came to mind was Ambrose Bierce's acid-etched definition of a saint: "a dead sinner, edited and revised."

The Colorado AIM members and supporters who'd gathered for the interview had wary concerns of their own: They'd brought their own pair of microcassette recorders to tape the proceedings, and some of them took copious notes. Obviously, you can't be too careful when the press is on hand -- not when so many lies have been told over the course of so many centuries.

In the view of Glenn Spagnuolo, an AIM supporter and a member of PITCH, the Italian-American anti-Columbus Day group, the dark terror of Columbus is no matter for debate. Neither is the intent of Denver's Columbus Day parade. "This parade is distinctly designed to celebrate colonialism, to celebrate Columbus," he said. "It's the hundredth anniversary of the parade here in Colorado. This is the birthplace of the celebration of Columbus -- that's why we're [taking a stand] here. This parade is all about Columbus, all about the conquering of indigenous people. It's all about the subjugation of Indian people now."

Call the celebration something like "Italian-American Pride Day," "Transform Columbus Day," these activists say, and they would embrace the moment, too. "Speaking as an Italian-American, AIM and the indigenous people I align myself with would probably march in an Italian heritage parade," Spagnuolo said. "This isn't about Italian-Indian relations; this is about celebrating genocide."

Vendegnia and the parade committee argue that it's also about First Amendment rights, but AIM has always insisted that the parade constitutes "hate speech" and thus is not protected under the U.S. Constitution. That's another argument not likely to subside, particularly in light of failed parade-day agreements over the years. "AIM has always been the force that goes to the city and says, 'Let's resolve this,'" said AIM member Leslie Andrews. "We've gone to the Italians and said, 'Let's resolve this.'"

But nothing has been resolved. In Mark Freeland's eyes, that represents "another broken treaty," and the parade is "an affront not just to indigenous people, but to all people of conscience." For Spagnuolo, it conforms to a pattern of deceit that stretches back to the "Doctrine of Discovery" itself. For Rudy Balles, part Chicano, part Native American, the entire dispute is tragic and sad. "We're crying out for some help," he said. "We're asking for anybody to come in and mediate this problem, because our children are tired of having to scream and holler for the respect that they deserve. Our people are tired of holding signs trying to prove that we're human beings. We don't want to do this every year."

For Sommer McGuire, who traces part of her heritage to the Taino people whom Columbus encountered in the Caribbean, the Columbus controversy is not a case of erroneously applying 21st-century standards to 15th-century behavior. "This is connected to everything in our lives," she said. "The Columbian legacy ripples out and manifests itself in such twisted ways. We're dealing with that right now, and we've been dealing with it as native people for hundreds of years."

City Attorney Cole Finegan, who's now serving as Hickenlooper's acting chief of staff, plays it cool when asked about the annual confrontations on Columbus Day. "We have had numerous internal conversations about [the parade]," he says, "and we're trying to prepare as well as possible. The overriding concern is for everyone's safety. Our position is to protect the First Amendment rights of the parade marchers and the protesters. But I can't read the minds of other people."

What Finegan can read, though, are two new city ordinances based on established state laws that set ground rules for protests at events such as Columbus Day. Passed in June, one ordinance prohibits the disruption of a legally sanctioned event; its companion piece prohibits obstruction of a roadway. Last year, protesters blocked the route for two hours and the nearly 600 Denver cops who worked the event made 230 arrests.

In January, jurors returned acquittals for eight leaders of the protest, and Finegan's office, frustrated by the verdicts, promptly dropped charges against the other defendants. Last year's parade cost the city plenty, the mayor's office reports. Denver Police Department overtime and the erection of parade-day barricades came to $297,000, and the legal cases that followed ate up untold thousands more and put added strain on an overworked city attorney's office.

The new ordinances are "new tools that clarify the effort to maintain the peace," Finegan says. "The presumption is that if there are arrests [this year], we will be able to go forward to prosecute."

But don't look for Ward Churchill in the paddy wagon: He doesn't plan to be at the protest this year. The controversial University of Colorado ethnic studies professor and Native American advocate was arrested at last year's parade, and was one of the of eight found not guilty. Soon after that verdict, a firestorm erupted over Churchill's authorship of a 9/11 essay that labeled some of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks as "little Eichmanns."

"You know, I've been used as a lightning rod," Churchill told a group gathered at a Boulder bookstore last month for a discussion of his new book, about the abuse of children at government-run Indian schools. "If I do something [at the parade] this year, it diverts attention from what the issue is onto me, and I'm not the issue. I'm deliberately stepping out for the reason just indicated."

So, where will Ward Churchill be on Saturday? "If it all comes together," he said, he might be in Rome, participating in one of a number of European-based anti-Columbus Day events planned for the weekend. In any event, AIM activists say they're not expecting to see him in Denver this year.

Still, given all the controversy over Churchill, Vendegnia and other members of the Columbus Day Parade Committee believe protests will be smaller and less strenuous this year. "Public sentiment has turned against Churchill," Vendegnia says. "People are tired of his ideas about America, and I don't think the people who were behind him, like AIM, will rally behind him this year. The new ordinances will help, too. There will be much stiffer penalties. They will probably try and challenge us again, and that's fine. But the community is at a point that it realizes we have the right to assemble and celebrate."

Don't try telling that to Spagnuolo, one of Vendegnia's most vocal critics and one of those arrested and found not guilty last year. "No one wants to be on the jury that put Martin Luther King in jail to write his letters," Spagnuolo says. "And no one's going to want to be the jury that's ever going to stand in the way of the moral crusade that this group has taken on. When they hear the evidence, regardless of what law you put in front of them, they'll understand that it doesn't represent the values of the community, and there'll be a not-guilty verdict."

The controversy continues to boil. On Monday, Native American activists listed four conditions under which they would cancel this year's protest. In a letter to Hickenlooper and the Denver City Council, Colorado AIM demanded that celebrations of Christopher Columbus end in Denver; asked for new talks between Italian-American and Indian groups; said that city funds previously spent on parade-day police overtime and legal costs should be redirected into community projects, some benefiting Native Americans; and called for a curriculum review on how Columbus and the history of U.S. expansion is taught in Denver Public Schools. After plans for two meetings with Hickenlooper fell apart, AIM proposed that the mayor and the groups meet Wednesday night at the Four Winds Center. But the mayor had a scheduling conflict.

"Our primary focus remains the protection of public safety and First Amendment rights," Hickenlooper wrote in his response to AIM. "We appreciate your suggestions and your willingness to continue discussions. We think it does not encourage free speech and the free exchange of ideas for local government to dictate what is appropriate for local organizations of long standing to support or to celebrate."

So on Friday night, the Red Earth Women's Alliance will again stage a parade of its own -- the Four Directions All Nations March -- in which marchers will converge on Cuernavaca Park from four directions in the form of a sacred medicine wheel, a symbol of healing for Native Americans. Last year, between 3,000 and 4,000 people took part, and many of them showed up again the following morning to confront Vendegnia and the Columbus Italians.

"It's willfulness," Spagnuolo charges. "Ignorance is when you don't know the facts. Vendegnia and Tom Tancredo know the facts; they refuse to accept them. That's when you become prejudiced and become a racist. Ignorance isn't an excuse anymore. We know what the facts are."

George Vendegnia remains unmoved. "This holiday goes back to our ancestors," he says. "We celebrate for them. They're the ones who had to come over, who had to work in the coal mines, the laundries and the factories. They went off to war when they weren't even American citizens -- and this was given to them. And we will not give it up."

Neither will the Native American activists.

The war over one word continues.

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