Denver protests more subdued than authorities had anticipated

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2008 - 11:46 PM

The Democratic National Convention's host city had braced for groups as large as 25,000 people, but numbers haven't been nearly that high. That doesn't mean, however, that the pattern will be repeated in St. Paul.

Ron Kovic, center, was saluted on Wednesday by members of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War after a march at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Kovic wrote the book “Born on the 4th of July,” which was later made into a film starring Tom Cruise.

Photo: MATT ROURKE, Star Tribune

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DENVER - Originally, the antiwar march that started after an afternoon concert at Denver's Coliseum on Wednesday wasn't a permitted parade.

But when police got word that thousands were expected to take to the streets in what had the potential to be the largest protest of the Democratic National Convention so far, they struck a deal with protest leaders.

Two officers in a golf-cart-like vehicle found themselves leading the march of an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 protesters, a sign on the back of the police cart flashing "Welcome to Denver. Follow us."

It was an example of a join-them-instead-of-beat-them tactic being used here in what so far has turned out to be a mostly peaceful week, despite predictions of anarchy.

Low protester numbers have helped, too. Authorities had prepared for more than 25,000 marchers based on permits and Internet blogs, but Wednesday's protest was the largest, and it, too, remained peaceful, with no reported arrests related to it.

Several marchers, including Bruce Berry of Minneapolis, predicted far bigger crowds in the Twin Cities next week.

"I think it'll be 10 times more," Berry said, because Republicans are "the part of the machine that's running the motor right now."

All told, there have been 141 convention-related arrests since Saturday, authorities reported Wednesday evening. The bulk of those arrests came Monday evening, when a group of about 300 protesters blocked traffic, refused to disperse, then rushed a police line. Officers used what they called a limited amount of pepper spray. Courts stayed open through the night Monday to process the arrestees.

"Things have been going fairly smoothly," said Denver Police Lt. Ron Saunier.

It would be hard to predict if the situation will be similar in St. Paul for next week's Republican National Convention, authorities in the Twin Cities and Denver said.

Twin Cities police may use tactics similar to those seen in Denver, Assistant St. Paul Police Chief Matt Bostrom said.

"If you have to permit on the fly ... it's not preferred," Bostrom said. "But we'll do our best to make it happen."

It helps when marchers stress nonviolence. Before marching away from the Coliseum on Wednesday, leaders of Iraq Veterans Against the War called for a peaceful protest.

Denver Police Capt. J.C. Padilla, the passenger in the lead golf cart, told marchers over a loudspeaker; "We're here to assist you in facilitating your First Amendment rights ... follow us, please."

Nearly 40 police officers on bicycles began riding alongside the group. Protesters, led by a small contingent of uniformed soldiers marching in formation, carried signs and shouted their messages under a scorching sun: "Troops out now!" As they marched, officers dressed in riot gear stood at several points along the way.

"We don't want anybody to get hurt," Padilla said when asked why police were escorting a nonpermitted march. "So what we'll do is we'll just go ahead and make some allowances."

When protesters reached the perimeter of Denver's Pepsi Center, officers calmly stood by. When they moved to a perimeter entrance, asking who among them was willing to get arrested, officers moved closer but stayed calm.

Soon, group leaders announced that they'd received word that a staffer of Barack Obama's would meet with a Marine marcher who was trying to deliver a letter to the convention. Protesters marched away in formation, one of their commanders yelled, "Stand down," and they erupted in cheers.

It was just after 8 p.m. As the crowd dispersed, Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic -- author of the book "Born on the Fourth of July" -- approached the riot-geared police sitting nearby and thanked them for their reactions. They shook hands, and officers, some of whom said they were veterans themselves, asked to have their picture taken with Kovic.

"We're real proud of you," Kovic told them.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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