Or… “How I nearly got tear-gassed on my winter vacation.”
On Saturday morning, my girlfriend and I checked out the Hotel Monaco in downtown Denver, and had the valet pull around our mountain-dirt covered rental car. Friday was the one semi-luxurious day of our vacation, and I would have preferred to sleep in and enjoy the feather bed for a few more hours. But February 15th had been selected as a major day of anti-war protest, and we wanted to do our part.
I was bummed not to be able to march with friends and family in hometown New York City, but a search on United for Peace had turned up a reference to a state-wide Colorado protest being planned in Colorado Springs.
We stopped for some breakfast at “The Market” in Larimer Square and hit the highway south-bound towards the Springs.
Colorado Springs is a big military town as well as a the home to several extreme right-wing organizations including Focus on the Family. It’s not an urban city the way D.C. or New York is. I was curious to see what the protest would be like there.
As we neared the protest site (Palmer Park), I was relieved to see cars parked everywhere and people walking down the sidewalks, My fear of being two of 25 people in attendance were dispelled. There were more than 500 people present when we arrived at the rally site, and that number later swelled to 1,500 to 3,000 people, according to various news estimates.
The speakers were pretty good, and there were plenty of entertaining signs to look at. After the speakers finished and a political theater group performed, the crowd walked over to the road running alongside the park, Academy Boulevard. The plan was to line both sides of the road for a few miles and hold up signs, sing and otherwise get the attention of the thousands of cars traveling the four-lane road.
This strategy worked pretty well. We got plenty of honks of support, lots of two-fingered peace salutes out of car windows, and a much smaller percentage of middle fingers. That was impressive considering what I understood the make-up of Colorado Springs to be. It seemed to be a good approach to protest in a automobile culture, which Colorado surely is.
Initially, the small police presence was mostly concerned with keeping people out of the road and off the median. A few different contingents decided to stop traffic at various points in the street, and this drew considerable police attention. I guess they called in backup, too. A police helicopter began to circle overhead.
The police closed down the road that the demonstration had lined. This nullified the attention-getting strategy of the protest, and so we began to move to the next major intersection, where we could stand with our signs and let others know that they are not alone in thinking this war on Iraq is not such a good idea.
As we walked, we saw a young woman get arrested. She was standing on the median, holding a sign, and refused to move when police asked her to. We watched the scene with a representative from Denver CopWatch, who though that the police present were quite disorganized and didn’t seem to know how to handle the situation.
A few minutes later, a group of about twenty cops in full riot gear formed into a group at the end of the still-closed down highway. Rumors of tear gas spread through the crowd. I was somewhat blasé about the vague threat, but Jeanhee had experienced tear gas up close and personal some years ago in South Korea. She convinced me to keep a healthy distance.
The scene was somewhat farcical — police in full riot gear nervously marching along a highway surrounded by people singing “Give Peace a Chance” and holding signs. I didn’t see a single protester act in a violent or threatening manner.
This silliness continued until about 2:30 in the afternoon. The rally had originally begun at 11. I had started to head back to the car, when I noticed that every cop in the area had a gas mask on. We noticed a distinct smell of vinegar, and a few minutes later saw a cloud go up over the intersection where the remaining protesters were.
Fortunately, we were upwind of the scene, and far enough away to escape any effects of the gas. The police succeeded in getting the crowd to disperse, if that was their goal.
The experience was surreal to me, and still feels that way. The tear-gas attack came without a clear cause. (Perhaps it was a “pre-emptive” strike?) It also was without a clear goal. If the police concern was traffic safety (which I understand and consider a reasonable concern), hadn’t they already implemented a solution by shutting down car access to the road?
I discussed with Jeanhee and some others at the rally whether or not the protest was effective given the circumstances. I’d say it would have been more effective if we had been able to send our message to more drivers; if protesters had stayed out of the highway and the police had behaved more reasonably. But I still think it was a very effective day, especially considering the resulting media coverage, and considering it in the context of the other protests around the globe on Saturday.