You don't always find what you expect to find, when you go looking in Denver. Some protesters turn out to be calm and collected. Others can't find their voice in a "free speech zone" and even the cops are stifled by the blazing heat.
In sharp contrast to what I've witnessed coming out of the Civic Center Park both personally and on televised coverage--the angry invectives, the arrests, the nearly overwhelming police presence--the folks hanging out at a>Tent State in Cuernavaca Park, on the other side of Denver, are relatively mellow.
In fact, most of the noise coming from Cuernavaca Park is that of speakers, music, and the hum of the nearby highway. At first, I thought I was in the wrong place.
Along a curving sidewalk through the park, folks have set up tents and tables covered with educational information--Safer Choice, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War--seemingly designed to allow those interested to stop and inform themselves, an almost entirely opposite experience than having that information screamed in one's face.
I don't judge, however. I see value in both approaches. In fact, the distinct lack of raging emotion at Cuernavaca Park struck me as far too passive, though that could have just been the timing of when I was there on Tuesday morning.
I spoke with a man named Tom Kelly with Veterans for Peace, who sat in a camp chair, beneath a tent and behind a table covered with informational pamphlets, and asked him what had prompted his group to be present the week of the Democratic Convention.
From his seat, without moving a muscle but that of his jaw, he said, "Well, we'd like to agitate for peace."
I was struck by the incongruity of that statement. It's difficult to agitate from a chair. Of course, the group's literature says, "Veterans Working Together for Peace and Justice Through Non-Violence. Wage Peace!"
I suppose their approach makes more sense than do violent protests against violent wars.
I guess when you gather this many people together with this wide variety of interests and passions and needs and purposes, you're bound to run into incongruities everywhere you turn. I don't know why was surprised.
Before I left Cuernavaca Park, I guzzled two bottles of water, took a tour of a reproduction of a cell at Guantanamo courtesy of Amnesty International (not a big space, and the slit of a window is more of an insult than a view--and the people imprisoned there spend up to 23 hours in that space, some for as long as six years), and tried to find a spot of shade. It is hot in Denver right now, the sun feels as if it has dropped down from the sky to get a closer view of the action.
Just as I wished to do. Missing the claustrophobic moments of hysteria I'd witnessed the day before, I left the park to head towards Union Station, where I'd planned to catch the Mall Ride bus up to Civic Center Park. I could see its sign--so close yet so far away. I hiked down and up a sidewalk along 20th Street then headed west towards 16th, but by that time, I was nearly delirious from the heat. I've never sweated so much in my life. Once at 16th, the restaurants began to call my name, yet most were closed for private parties. And, though still many blocks away from either the Pepsi Center or the Civic Center Park, the police presence had increased. SUVs with six or eight cops clinging to the sides drove up and down 16th. The streets were patrolled on foot, yet I didn't see a protester around.
I hopped off the bus at Larimer, knowing there to be several cafes in the area, and having decided to go check out the action at the Pepsi Center rather than make my way all the way to the park, and by the time I reached Ted's Montana Grill, I was too hot, thirsty, and exhausted to care what I spent on a late lunch (which consisted of a Fat Tire Ale, fourteen glasses of water, a salad with Bacon Ranch dressing--talk about incongruities! Sure! Give me that pile of greens, but sprinkle some bacon on it and slather on the creamy, bacon-filled dressing! and some crabcakes).
After sitting in the cool dark cave of the restaurant for a half hour, I left rejuvenated, and determined to find somebody protesting near the Pepsi Center.
No such luck.
I walked all the way down the length of Larimer Avenue, the so-called "Parade Route," past one of the entrances to the secured area surrounding the Pepsi Center, and down to the corner of 7th and Walnut, where I stopped to guzzle at one of the water fountains attached to a fire hydrant that can be found sprinkled around Denver, which invite people to fill up their water bottles.
Desperate for shade, I plopped down on some metal stairs leading up to some kind of parking structure which seems to house many of the police vehicles (when they're not driving around town). Officers milled around on the street, talking into radios, and to each other, and the number of them increased over the fifteen minutes or so that I sat there, sweating. At first relatively relaxed and easy, they began to seem more alert as the minutes went by. They huddled together in their heavy uniforms and gear--black pants and shirts, guns, helmets hooked to belts, tasers, blue plastic handcuffs looped, handing off the front of their shirts--less intense than the cops I've encountered in other parts of the city, yet intense nonetheless.
After awhile, they walked towards me, needing to use the stairs, and I pulled aside my camera case to make room for them, expecting to be ignored, or at least suspected of wrongdoing, yet their faces softened as they passed me.
"Hiding from the heat?" one asked. I nodded.
Several of them passed by, and the last, a big man, young and broad in the shoulders, gathered into himself his helmet, his dangling nightstick.
"I'm so sorry," he said, softly. "All this stuff..."
"It's okay," I said, pulling my things closer to me and leaning back to make room for him to get by.
See? Incongruities. The day before, I could barely get a cop to look me in the eye when I asked questions about how the protest defense was going, and here I am having cops apologize to me for all the equipment he's forced to carry on his person.
I got up, intending to rehydrate myself again at the water fountain, when I spotted what looked like a long line of cops further down 7th, near the "free speech zone." I walked toward them, snapping pictures, wondering what it was that held their attention yet kept them on the other side of the cement barricades, when around the curve appeared five or six young people, a couple with faces covered by bandannas, loping towards me, easy and slow but turning around to look behind them as they walked--nervous, like thieves who don't want to arouse suspicion.
I continued snapping photos as they came closer, both of them and of the cops beyond them, and the cops who had passed me on those stairs who had since come back down.
"Hey!" one of the kids called out to me. "Who are you shooting for?"
"Newsvine.com," I said. "What's going on down there?"
Another kid answered, "We got kicked out of there!"
"Out of the 'free speech zone?'" I asked, incredulous.
They all began talking at once. They'd been down there, the only people around, and had leaned against the fencing a little, when, they claimed, 30 or so cops surrounded them. "What are you doing?" the cops asked. "Get off that fence!" they ordered.
The kids, feeling intimidated, left the area.
We talked for a while, me videotaping them yet pointing the lens at the ground because none of them wanted to appear on tape (although an officer was filming us from twenty-thirty feet away).
After they left, the cop, the embarrassed one who was burdened by his own equipment and assignment, walked up to me, holding a plastic bottle filled with a clear, pale yellow liquid.
"Excuse me," he began. "Are those friends of yours?"
I shook my head, my eyes glued to that bottle of pale yellow liquid.
"We've been finding a lot of bottles of urine in this area [which have been used to be thrown at people]. I'm just wondering if you know those guys."
"Nope," I responded.
He stood there, looking at the bottle in his hand, which was encased in a latex glove and seemed to consider asking me more, or telling me something, then he looked up, and smiled an wide but uneasy smile.
"Thank you for your help," he said, and turned away.
A strange day indeed, it was. From protester basecamps that were quieter than they should have been and the daunting heat that seemed to crush everyone, to voices of protesters muffled in a "free speech zone" and policemen who seemed just as exasperated and out of place, Denver has been a city flush with incongruities.