OCT 29 2011, Civic Center Park—BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! The crowd roared at the sound of gunfire, and a riot police officer decked out in a bullet proof vest and full face mask continued to fire rubber bullets until he shot the kid out of the tree. Without warning, officers fired tear gas into the crowd and everyone scattered, people on their knees screaming, people running around with water bottles trying to flush out each others’ eyes. “If you need,” a woman screamed. “IF YOU NEED,” the crowd echoed. “Medical attention,” “MEDICAL ATTENTION!” “Call for a medic,” “CALL FOR A MEDIC!” “Or find us by the sign,” “OR FIND US BY THE SIGN!” “With the large red cross.” “WITH THE LARGE RED CROSS.” “THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!” The crowd chanted as the cops dragged a man out of his tent by the leg and rolled him over and pressed their knees into his back as they handcuffed him. Behind me, a guy writhed on the ground clutching his face. “MEDIC!” Someone yelled, rushing over. “WE NEED A MEDIC OVER HERE!”
It began peacefully, 2,000 protesters marching through Denver until they arrived at the steps of the capitol building. Things began to disintegrate when the cops showed up in riot gear, strapped with weapons. Some people wanted to march inside the capitol. When the police told us we couldn’t do that, the crowd filtered down the steps and across the street to the park. However, Lt. Matt Murray of the Denver Police Department told a different story: “Unfortunately at one point, that group did try to occupy the capitol, which is illegal; we made sure that they knew that; it was pretty clear that they weren’t allowed to do that, they tried to do it anyway, so we had to step in and push them off, things escalated, we did have to call out city wide for assistance.” All of the video evidence clearly shows that the violence happened nowhere near the capitol building but in the park across the street.
Once we had retreated to the park, it looked like things might begin to die down. The crowd thinned out a bit. But then the riot police followed us down to the park. They cordoned off the street and formed a line of cops in full riot gear brandishing batons. Protesters faced them with posters and peace signs. “What do you want?” People asked. “Why are you still here?” The officers stared straight ahead, stoic, ignoring any attempt at communication. Behind the front line, cops paced back and forth armed with huge rubber bullet rifles, tear gas launchers, pepper spray canisters the size of fire extinguishers.
The first spat of violence occurred when the cops moved in to forcefully tear a tent from a tree. “PUT YOUR GUNS AWAY,” the crowd chanted as the cops shoved in and ripped the tent down. Now they were gearing up in preparation to dismantle the food tent. Protestors scrambled to erect as many tents as possible in the park. “WE ARE NOT GOING ANYWHERE,” they chanted. “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE.” “WE ARE PEACEFULLY PROTESTING.” “PUT YOUR GUNS AWAY.”
“You have five minutes to remove the tents, or we will use reasonable and necessary force to remove them,” the police chief declared on a loudspeaker.
So the two hundred cops and a SWAT team had showed up because Occupy Denver had violated a local ordinance regarding camping. Nobody spoke to the truth, the obvious fact that this had nothing to do with camping. Yes, you can protest, city governments across the nation have been saying. But: you can’t gather more than this many people, for health reasons. You can’t block roadways or sidewalks, for safety reasons. You can’t stay in public parks, for sanitary reasons. You can’t be by public buildings, you can’t hold large signs, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t. And now, in the name of upholding the law, vast numbers of law enforcement officers descend to enforce the minute local ordinances that fundamentally undermine the constitutional right of people to express their dissent in any meaningful way.
“Mic check!” A guy yelled. “Mic check,” a few people repeated. “Mic check!” He screamed. “MIC CHECK!” The crowd echoed. “Over the police radio,” “OVER THE POLICE RADIO,” “they just called for,” “THEY JUST CALLED FOR,” “a dump truck.” “A DUMP TRUCK.”
“You have two minutes to remove the tents,” the police chief shouted. A SWAT team assembled behind the police line. As officers strapped on gas masks in preparation for the strike, protesters passed out rags soaked in vinegar for us to tie over our faces as crude protection from the tear gas. Others ran around with markers to write on our bodies the number to call if arrested.
The sun sank behind buildings and bled out into the sky, and the next push began. With crowd control batons raised in front of them, the cops pressed into the crowd. When protesters refused to back up, they were either shoved out of the way, pepper sprayed, or dragged to the ground and arrested.
They removed the tents.
This movement has been criticized for plenty of reasons; some legitimate, some propaganda. But at its core, this movement is a peaceful expression of dissent. The movement is attempting to open the lines for a conversation. Whether or not you agree with the issues being raised, whether or not you believe there is a problem in this country with corporate greed, homelessness, unemployment, or poverty, whether or not you agree with the specific ideology, methods, organization, or tactics employed by the protestors: American citizens have the right to disagree with their government. This country was founded upon the right and responsibility of its citizens to do so. Our constitution guarantees us the right to assemble, the right to bear arms, the rights to freedom of speech, media, and expression, all in order to legally arm us with ways to speak out against injustice. And now, nonviolent dissent across the country is being met with institutionalized, government-orchestrated violence. This is how I know that something is very, very wrong.