Confrontation turns violent with police, Occupy Denver

The Colorado Statesman

Police arrested 20 demonstrators Saturday afternoon and evening in the shadow of the state Capitol during the most chaotic day yet of the month-long Occupy Denver movement.

What began as one of the protest group’s regular Saturday marches through downtown Denver turned tense after a confrontation near the steps of the State Capitol and another over tents set up in Civic Center Park. It quickly escalated to a standoff on both sides of a shuttered Broadway as law enforcement officials demanded demonstrators take down tents erected earlier that day and eventually donned gas masks before moving in to take the structures down themselves.

Denver police stand guard in riot gear on Broadway in front of the state Capitol on the afternoon of Oct. 29 after officials shut down the street amid a tense standoff with Occupy Denver protesters.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Most of the arrests were for “disobedience to a lawful order,” a misdemeanor charge, but a police spokesman said two suspects face felony charges for assault on a police officer. By press time, only one suspect remained in jail.

A spokesman for the Denver Police Department said officers handled themselves well and only reacted to a situation which was “obviously escalated to physical violence by protesters.”

“Denver’s police officers demonstrated great restraint and professionalism as they were taunted and even physically assaulted,” said Lt. Matt Murray. He added, “The Denver Police Department respects, and will defend the right of peaceful protests, however, also remain charged with enforcing the laws and maintaining the peace and safety of all citizens.”

The Denver attorney coordinating a legal defense team for arrested demonstrators said he is concerned that police response to the movement has been excessive and worries that the violence seen Saturday could escalate as the Occupy Denver protests continue.

“The way they went in there, it doesn’t seem they had thought it through at all,” said Charles Nadler, president of Colorado’s National Lawyers Guild, who is heading up a growing team of some 45 local attorneys affiliated with the organization.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, center, meets with Occupy Denver protesters on Oct. 29 in Civic Center Park after tensions grew between the demonstrators and law enforcement officials, who used chemical sprays and non-lethal projectiles against protesters earlier that afternoon. The Democratic congressman said he ventured alone into the crowd in an attempt to calm things down before more people got hurt.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

He added that he is concerned police actions toward the ongoing demonstration — a spin-off of the Occupy Wall Street movement with cohorts in hundreds of locations across the country — could run afoul of a recent court order that stemmed from police activity during the Democratic National Convention three summers ago.

“At this point, people are gathering information and it’s being looked at to see if something has gone over the top,” he said, noting that lawyers and investigators are examining “tons” of video recordings of the events. “We have impressions at this point, but now there are some lawyers looking at this in more detail to see if an injunction is something we want to go after.”

Most of all, Nadler said, “There is the concern — if this keeps up, somebody’s going to get killed, and if we can avoid that, it would be a good thing. The more chaotic it is, the more likely that’s going to happen.”

Police fired pepper spray and non-lethal pepper-ball projectiles at members of the protest movement after word went out that a demonstrator had knocked an officer off a motorcycle and others had kicked officers near the tent encampment.

Immediately, Denver police issued an “all-city” call for backup and dozens of state patrol, sheriff’s department and even Auraria police hurried to the scene and quickly cordoned off Broadway between 14th Avenue and Colfax. Police and SWAT officers in riot gear lined the street on both sides as some demonstrators jeered and others struck up friendly conversations with the officers.

But mostly there was plenty of confusion.

Police said the downtown demonstration — boasting an estimated 2,000 marchers — took a turn toward the unlawful when protesters attempted to “occupy the state Capitol,” massing near the west steps of the building. Several officers pushed the crowd back and soon things grew out of hand.

But the Occupy movement’s allies said the police had it wrong, that in fact a group that holds a permit to demonstrate on the Capitol steps was attempting to exercise its right and officers over-reacted when faced with a large crowd.

Occupy Denver protesters, right, face off against a line of police in riot gear along Broadway on the afternoon of Oct. 29 after police shut down the street after a spokesman said protesters turned violent.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

A group supporting medical marijuana has a standing permit for the last Saturday of every month, Capitol sources confirmed, and a man with the permit waved it at officers as the crowd gathered. But, Nadler noted, troopers refused to let them stage the demonstration because the permit estimated only 35 people would be in attendance, and there were a lot more than 35 people heading for the steps.

“The number of people you put on the permit is really irrelevant,” Nadler said. “They don’t hold you to it,” he added, noting that there are plenty of Capitol demonstrations whose crowd sizes exceed organizers’ estimates. “Now we have a case of content-based discrimination, it looks like to me,” he said, since officers seemed to object to who was planning on demonstrating even though a permit existed.

A Denver police spokesman said officers responded when state troopers at the Capitol asked for help and that problems didn’t start at the steps but instead down the hill and across the street, where protesters were trying to set up illegal tents.

“We only responded when (protesters) began to commit illegal acts,” said Murray, who added that the confrontation might have heated up on the steps but that’s not where things got out of hand.

“Nobody got arrested there, we just pushed them back,” Murray said. Down the hill, however, he said, “the officers got attacked and we responded.”

As tension heightened on Saturday afternoon, a suburban congressman waded into the crowds hoping to calm things down and avert any more injuries, but he came away frustrated and, at least for a time, concerned for his own safety.

“I’m trying to see if I can get these people to talk to each other and step back,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Golden Democrat, who had been attending a state party function a few blocks away when his iPad lit up with news the demonstration was turning violent.

Perlmutter roamed the scene by himself — with just a tiny congressional lapel pin to differentiate him in the crowd — and at a few points was surrounded by angry protesters, including one particularly rambunctious man who grabbed at the congressman.

“That shook him,” said Perlmutter spokeswoman Leslie Oliver after the events. Perlmutter declined to comment on the record about his experience at the park other than to acknowledge it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do to plunge in all alone.

“I’m here, and I’m an idiot to be in a suit here,” Perlmutter told a handful of demonstrators who gathered around him soon before he left the park.

“We’re glad you’re here,” several of the demonstrators replied. “Just give us some place safe to go to,” said one as Perlmutter headed back toward the line of police in riot gear. Another thanked Perlmutter for being “the only elected official” to venture into the park that day.

“He just decided that’s where he needed to be,” Oliver said, adding that her boss was “trying to de-escalate things. He’s concerned — he wanted to make sure it was peaceful and nobody was getting hurt. And he wants to know what it’s all about, what are their gripes. He feels, as an elected official — and, frankly, as Ed Perlmutter, personally — feels he has some responsibility to hear people and listen to them and know what’s on their minds.”

Another lawyer who is part of Nadler’s group defending protesters said he was frustrated trying to communicate with the police after he went to the park Saturday in an attempt to de-escalate the rising tension.

“If police recognized that I was a lawyer, if protesters recognized I was already representing some of their comrades, maybe I could have some influence,” said John Buckley, an attorney who was recently elected chairman of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party. But his attempts to communicate with law enforcement were stymied, he said.

“I think it’s kind of shocking that after asking numerous patrol officers where the incident commander was, nobody was able to answer that question. The best response I got was to look for stars or bars on someone,” he said.

Buckley returned to the Occupy Denver demonstration the next day and said he told the demonstrators to be clear about the difference between civil disobedience and causing trouble.

“I went to reinforce the idea you can’t cross the lines and lay hands on the police, they’re there to do a job and it diminishes the message when you cross the line from civil disobedience to something else,” Buckley said.

He added, “The overwhelming majority of the people who are out there are committed to the protest and if they feel their first amendment rights are being infringed upon, we’re only too happy to defend them, but we, the lawyers, would like to see things remain peaceful.”

As for suggestions that colder weather might drive demonstrators from the park, Buckley said that’s wishful thinking on the part of officials who would rather not have to deal with the protests.

“The actions (authorities) have taken have only emboldened the people to knuckle down and maintain their commitment to maintaining their presence there in the park,” Buckley said.

A spokesman for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock dismissed concerns that there weren’t clear lines of communication during the ruckus on Saturday, saying that officials are in constant contact with key Occupy Denver protesters.

“The mayor continues to track everything that’s going on with Occupy Denver very closely,” said Hancock press secretary Amber Miller. “We continue to communicate with them that there is a balance. We will continue to respect their First Amendment rights and ask them to operate within the bounds of the law.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com