Longform

With Occupy Denver protester Corey Donahue, nothing is ever easy

The last time Corey Donahue landed in jail, it took his friends four days to decide to bail him out. Given the number of times they've had to make this decision over the two months and two weeks of Occupy Denver's brief life downtown — four, to be exact — it should be easy by now. But with Donahue, nothing ever is.

Occupy Denver's loudest and most well-documented protester is a tattooed former MMA fighter, an outspoken marijuana activist, a vehement anarchist, the Don Quixote of the local occupation (if Quixote's windmills were state troopers) and the single biggest drain on its legal funds to date. Donahue has been arrested four times in two months, for eight charges in all, ranging from unlawful conduct on state property to inciting a riot to unlawful sexual contact. These come at the tail end of a criminal record that includes 21 total charges, starting when he was nineteen and continuing through his ripe and raucous late twenties. The man's rap sheet alone puts him at the ironic forefront of an aggressively leaderless movement — whether he or anyone else wants him to be there. Corey Donahue has become a minor martyr by being a major nuisance.

"His actions speak for themselves. I spend my time making an effort not to worry about his activities," says Mason Tvert, a proponent of the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign, who takes a convoluted — but common — approach to dealing with Donahue. "There are a lot more effective activists."

But there are few more passionate. By the time Donahue was finally released from jail on November 16, it had taken all of the protesters' combined resources to get him out. With two charges of failing to appear already on his record and a potential felony charge for inciting a riot and obstruction of justice in connection with this most recent arrest on November 13, Donahue's $5,000 bond — his highest yet — looked like a risky investment to some protesters. While he sat in a holding cell, Occupy Denver discussed whether to use its collective resources to bail him out during one of its daily general-assembly meetings; the vote ended quickly in his favor. The group earmarked $2,500 for the cause, matching the amount coming from its internal legal team, which was then supported by the Denver Anarchist Black Cross.

"People can have their reservations about Corey, but the fact of the matter is that he's trying to help people," says Cat Keffer, a representative of Occupy Denver's legal team and one of a dozen members of the DABC, a collective that defends the rights of those involved in mass political and social movements. "If he gets arrested again, it could mean that we can no longer help him. He has so many bonds in his name that it's to the point now that we need an intense amount of collateral in order to be able to bond him out at all."

Donahue's initial Occupy Denver arrest, on October 14, came after he set up the occupation's first tent — and then attempted to stop Colorado State Patrol officers from removing other structures. While cameras rolled, he tried to feed bread to riot police as they tore down the Thunderdome, the kitchen tent; he'd launched fruit and cheese at the same group of officers the day before. He later ordered pizza to be delivered to the protesters on the steps of the State Capitol, and a lawful order to leave found him escorted out of the same building — and under arrest, because of an outstanding warrant — after protesters occupied the governor's office on November 8. He currently has three restraining orders against him — one from his sexual-misconduct case and an additional two from state troopers. As a result, it will be difficult for Donahue to enter the Capitol again in the near future.

"We're all aware of who he is," says state trooper C.J. Valdez. "We've had experience with him."

That experience includes the day Donahue stood in front of a Denver cop car as it advanced toward Civic Center Park and he grinned on camera while doing so. He helped rebuild the Thunderdome six times, reacting with glee when its consistent destruction made it a symbol of the movement. (The Thunderdome has since separated itself from Occupy Denver and become a sister movement.) When Donahue also became a symbol, his reaction was less warm but more resolved.

"I would never in a million years say I'm a leader here, but if they want to see me as one, I can see why," he says. "And I'll let them. There's nothing I wouldn't do to tear the system down, burn it and start the fuck over."

Although Don Quixote may seem an unlikely role model for a successful career in political activism, Donahue compares himself to the crazy Cervantes character, who spends almost 1,000 pages traveling through sixteenth-century Spain, distorting reality and creating a minor or major mess of every situation he encounters before eventually renouncing his antics and dying in the same small village from which he dramatically departed at the novel's beginning. "Don Quixote just left his house and got the shit kicked out of him, again and again and again, and he loved it," says Donahue, who plans to have Quixote's image tattooed on his forearm. "If I get two more people to think, 'Well, Corey might be crazy as shit, but he has a point,' that's really all it takes."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple