Over the last few months, we’ve watched a drama unfold surrounding the Democratic National Convention. The plot has nothing to do with President-elect Barack Obama or even the Democratic Party. Rather, it centers on how the City and County of Denver has treated the peace and justice activists who took to the streets during August’s convention. More than 100 activists were arrested on August 25, and since then their cases have dragged on in the courts. Denver has been relentless in pursuing the dozens of individuals who didn’t immediately plead guilty. But prosecutors aren’t racking up many convictions. One snapshot: Of 10 cases that had recently gone to trial, there was just one conviction, according to this Rocky Mountain News tally. As defense lawyers ask in vain what Denver is spending on the prosecutions, there is a less quantifiable issue: What effect are these cases having on Denver’s image? After all, each week seems to bring new negative headlines. Here are four reasons the city’s handling of the DNC protesters is not good for Denver.
A HEFTY PRICE TAG Denver prosecutors and Mayor John Hickenlooper so far refuse to reveal the price tag for these lengthy cases. The fiscally conservative blog Face the State estimates the figure at about $500,000 but doesn’t provide evidence to back that up, leading to criticisms from Hickenlooper. One defense attorney has formally filed a request asking for the dollar amount. Meanwhile, defense attorneys accuse prosecutors of trying to muzzle them from offering their opinions about the soundness of the cases against their clients, according to The Denver Post. A judge has twice denied prosecutors’ requests. But the damage to Denver’s reputation is done if you agree with Robert Corry, an attorney for several protesters. “They want to stop me from criticizing them and telling the public about this,” Corry told the Post. “I thought it was remarkable they would try this in a First Amendment case.” QUESTIONABLE POLICE TACTICS One major disclosure from recent weeks involves two detectives who posed as protesters in the crowd on August 25. According to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado to Denver’s independent police monitor, the detectives tried to get out of the crowd by staging a confrontation with a commander, but they were pepper-sprayed by a deputy who obviously wasn’t in on the rouse. The ACLU wants to know whether the detectives’ behavior escalated the confrontation with protesters. As prosecutions continue, the stories of August 25 remain under constant review, including the perpetual replay of the Alicia Forrest video. The anti-war demonstrator, with a popular national group called Code Pink, was shoved to the ground near Civic Center Park by an officer as she protested. Police then decided to pursue charges against her. EMBARRASSING COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWNS The DNC put Denver in the national spotlight, and the city promoted itself as a hip, moderately liberal, Western haven–overall, a relaxed place that appreciates diversity. But the city, raising security concerns, also battled bitterly with activists over how close they could come to the Pepsi Center. Then activists discovered the city was secretly building a detainment camp, indicating a predisposition to make arrests rather than tolerate protests. As the trials go on, criticisms about those actions persist. Moreover, as police are pulled into court to testify, the city opens itself to all sorts of foot-in-mouth possibilities. One officer quoted in the Rocky characterized the activists as “a violent, uncontrolled mob” bent on getting to the 16th Street Mall–the kind of description that only serves to deepen the rift between police, who were dressed in riot gear during the DNC, and the activists Denver is now prosecuting. A NEW CHAPTER IN A NEGATIVE HISTORY The trials add to Denver’s already regrettable legacy when it comes to the treatment of activists. Two words: Spy files. The files, first revealed in 2002, showed that the Denver Police Department’s intelligence officers, who are sworn to battle organized crime and terrorism, also were amassing information on political, social, ethnic, and religious groups. The problem with collecting information on such groups, according to critics, is that it may lead people who have no intention of breaking the law to fear exercising their right to freedom of speech. The city purged individuals and organizations wrongly contained in the files after a lengthy legal battle with the ACLU. There are plenty other skeletons in this closet, but I’ll close that door for now.