Protesters were in a tense standoff with riot police when we arrived at what had been the Occupy Denver campsite.
I was with eight other journalists from East Asia (including Mongolia, PNG and East Timor). We’d touched down in Denver, Colorado, just two hours earlier.
Silently, police cars flashed around the site.
Riot police stood in a line between the protesters and Denver’s capitol building. Pepper spray residue hung heavy in the air, and many people were coughing and sneezing.
‘Today we went up to the Capitol,’ he began, ‘but they stopped us going up the steps. We came back down peaceably.’
‘Soon afterwards, some police arrived (at the campsite) and started taking down the tents. People were asking them to stop, saying they had a right to peacefully assemble under the first amendment of the constitution. Then there was some confrontation between one civilian and the cops. That’s when they charged the crowd.’
According to several eyewitnesses, police then pepper sprayed and shot rubber bullets or pellets into the crowd. One man had a wound between his eyes. He said a policeman had shot him in the face. He was still wearing his hospital tag.
The New York Times reports that two protesters were charged with assaulting an officer, and 20 people were arrested.
A small group sang Hare Krishna in the background, and protesters tried to engage the police. ‘Why did you attack us? We have a right to be here. We were peaceful, and you attacked us.’ The police stood silent, batons raised across their chests.
I saw only one policeman reply. ‘You do have a right to be here. And when we leave, you’ll still be here.’ While most were standing peacefully, a small contingent were verbally abusive towards the police, and clearly agitating for a fight.
The 50-something told me he’d called a friend at Occupy LA, who described a very different relationship with police. ‘In LA, the cops actually provided them with port-a-potties. They even let them into City Hall to use the bathroom.’
‘And I heard that when the weather got bad in Cleveland, the cops actually donated tents.’
I’d heard similar positive stories about police from people at Occupy DC (or Occupy K St). People there said police hadn’t bothered them, and had even escorted their marches through the city, stopping traffic to let them pass. The Parks Authority had also granted them permission to camp in the park, as long as they didn’t hurt the trees. Starbucks was even letting them use its bathroom.
In Denver, however, the community’s relationship with the police has long been strained. ‘Denver police has a decades-long legacy of police brutality. But I’ve never seen a show of force like what we’ve seen today. This is something else,’ he said, looking over toward the riot police, shaking his head.
‘We had a food tent – literally just a table with a tarp over it. But the police tore it down, because they said it was a ‘structure’, and you can’t have a structure in the park.’
Indeed, just hours before the confrontation, the new Denver police chief had pledged to lessen the rift between police and the community.
In front of the police line, yoga instructor and media liaison for Occupy Denver, Jeannie Hartley, was urging protesters to upload their photos and videos. ‘Upload them everywhere you can. Send it to iReport at CNN. Post them on Twitter and Facebook. Send them to (CNN anchor) Anderson Cooper.’
‘I’ve been defending the police from day one, but after what I’ve seen today, I’m through defending law enforcement,’ she shouted, her words repeated by the crowd (a common technique at occupy protests called ‘mic check’ – in most cities, microphones and loudspeakers are prohibited).
Standing on the pavement at the end of the police line was a man dressed entirely in black, leaning against a bicycle. His hat read ‘Copwatch’.
‘We’re here to watch the cops,’ he said. ‘We don’t have weapons – we have cameras.’
Copwatch is a national network of groups that observe police activity, documenting incidents of police brutality. This man was in his 40s – he asked not to be named. He said he’d started working with Copwatch after a policeman pulled a gun on him and threatened to ‘blow my head off’. ‘He made a mistake, because I was a private investigator,’ he said. ‘I sued him, and I won.’
Denver’s Copwatchers are trained legal observers, he said, and provide know-your-rights training to protesters. There are five different Copwatch units in Denver. ‘All Copwatchers are uniformed, and have cameras and (two-way) radios,’ he explained.
Standing behind him, was a boy who was barely old enough to be in high school. ‘This is Shawn – he’s fourteen,’ the Copwatcher said. Shawn had joined the group when a policeman had stormed and arrested people in his house. It was unclear whether people in the house were involved in criminal activity, but Shawn said that since the policeman had no search warrant, and had entered a closed house, he had acted unlawfully. Shawn’s mother sued the policeman, and won. He was taken off the force.
‘My aunty is a writer at the Denver Post,’ said Shawn, referring to the local newspaper whose offices were barely 50 metres from where we were standing. ‘My family is very supportive of me.’
‘There have been changes for the better,’ Shawn explained. ‘The police are scared of cameras. They’re scared of being taken off the task force. There was an incident here today: a lady was pregnant, and a cop shot her with rubber bullets. She is two weeks from labour, and she was shot. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital.’
As we were speaking, the riot police began retreating away from the park, back towards the Capitol. Several cars tooted their horns in support as they drove past the park, raising cheers from the occupiers.
Twenty-year-old Seth Van Der Vorst had also been at the protest for the past month. I asked him if he thought people would come back. ‘If they kick us out, we’ll be right back here tomorrow with new signs, new tents. We’ll be back to occupy.’
Walking back up the pedestrian mall, tuk-tuk drivers in Halloween costumes cycled at breakneck speed, picking up passengers in wild costumes. A breakaway contingent from the park was also marching up the mall, shouting slogans about non-violence and police brutatity.
I caught two cyclists having a break, and asked them what they thought of the protest.
‘I have mixed feelings about it,’ said one of them, a man in his late 20s. I think it’s great that people are standing up for their rights and calling for change. But I was down in the park on the first night they tried to close down the camp. There was a group of people chanting about non-violence. But then there was another group yelling, ‘Fuck tha police.’
We kept our distance from the marchers, and so did the police. Four police cars trailed silently, lights flashing.
Most people on the mall ignored them both.