It was a simple question. “What are the protests like?” The caller from Dallas, a freelance photographer who sometimes shoots for D Magazine, had herself been working on obtaining an off-the-books press pass for the convention. Surprisingly, yesterday she was told that her contact had scammed one photography pass for Obama’s Invesco Field speech tonight. She wasn’t interested in shooting that, though, for the same reason we weren’t interested in attending: like with a rock concert, stadium shows are decidedly less interesting than those held at more intimate venues. (And the pass, sadly, was not transferable to me or Lavin.) So, she said, she was only interested in paying for a last-minute flight and coming here if the reports of dozens of violent protests were true and, as important, would produce dramatic images. I was sipping a triple-shot iced vanilla latte in the 16th Street Market area on a patio on a picturesque day. I looked around. There was one anti-abortion protestor, sitting on the curb, taking a break from yelling at disinterested passersby. I took another sip. “I dunno,” I said. “Maybe it’ll get crazy later. But I wouldn’t count on it.”
All week long, we’d been reading about protests here, and watching TV commentators wonder if there was a possibility that ’68-style Dem convention riots would break out. We were certainly hoping so. Something to write about occurring outside the security zone around the Pepsi Center seemed to be the only thing that would possibly save my job, given the general irritation this trip has engendered back at the D Empire. (Note to 5280, the fine Denver city magazine: if there is an opening for which I qualify, please let me know before I head back; really don’t want to make this drive again unless I have to.)
As soon as we arrived, it looked as though Denver was primed for some Chicago-style billy-clubbing. On our first walk along 16th Street, a series of trendy shops, eateries, and bars that cuts west-east through downtown like a rolling version of Dallas’ West Village, we saw hordes of cops in full riot gear at intersections. Sometimes they were actually keeping pedestrians from straying into chanting protest groups (which usually numbered about 20 and which most often had all the spitfire and venom of a tabby asleep on your chest); most often, they were sitting on curbs or leaning against parking meters, alternately bored or eying young women in sundresses. But maybe they were just getting warmed up, we thought. Before attending the Denver Museum of Art speech by Hillary Clinton on Monday night, we wandered by the last moments of a hippie-filled peace rally/concert, where the organizers were reading to the shaggy-haired crowd, detailing where they were to meet the next morning for a series of scheduled protests. I should have known by the generally disinterested attitude of the crowd and the couple making out next to us that no one’s heart really seemed to be in causing trouble.
Lavin has friends at the Associated Press office in Denver, and they kept her informed of reports of potential possible riot-like situations that appeared to be developing possibly and maybe throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. She would run over there to shoot and, by the time I sauntered up a half-hour later (usually with some sort of coffee beverage or ice cream treat in hand), the protest’s lameness had already been determined. Usually it was a few dozen, at best 150 people, chanting about how we need to get out of Iraq (are there people who disagree with this?) or their general dissatisfaction with The Man and his cronies.
By yesterday, though, word was that some serious monkey business was going to go down. We spent the morning and afternoon calling and chatting (read: harassing) with Texas delegates, trying in vain once again to bribe them for some floor passes so we could hear (warning: personal hero alert) Bill Clinton speak that evening. We figured if we didn’t secure said passes by 4 p.m. local, we would head back to Dallas. (Side note: Columbia Journalism Review says there are about 500 journalists and bloggers here trying to scam passes, so we weren’t the only lame-o’s. Just the only ones brave/honest/dumb enough to admit it.) As you probably realize, we failed. So Lavin headed to the AP office to say goodbye to her friends, and I waited outside the downtown limits at a Starbucks so that I didn’t have to fight the horrible traffic in the city.
An hour later, I got these six texts, with a break of about five minutes between their arrival:
“heading towards a riot”
“give me 30”
“I want to get tear gassed”
“looks like people will riot”
“come and get gassed”
“o m g”
My head dropped. Sigh. I guess I had to try to hoof it into downtown, toward the Pepsi Center, because there wasn’t parking within blocks of that, and just getting into downtown was a 45-minute ordeal. After about a half-hour, I wandered through the empty campus of the downtown college, continually hitting blockades where police had cordoned off the area. Finally, I came upon the crowd: hundreds, perhaps a thousand, of anti-war protestors, marching and chanting to “stop the war.” I tried to get around the police lines to get a better look. I jumped up on some steps about 15 feet above the scene. This was the biggest protest to date, and I wanted to see me some rioting.
What I saw was this: hundreds of kids in fashionably frumpy attire, giggling, smiling, chanting pre-scripted lines. I saw hundreds of expertly trained police armed with rubber-bullet rifles, not allowing themselves to be engaged by people screaming in their faces or the occasional rock-thrower. I saw a posse of hard-news photographers with gas masks hanging off their backpacks and helmets with “Press” written on them. And I saw a Spider Monkey in flip-flops and a bright orange halter, jumping up and down, antsy for action.
Alas, it was it not to be. The crowd finally dispersed and headed back toward downtown. We followed. On the street corners, you could hear them talking to each other about their big march, the prevailing sentiment being, “Dude, so awesome, dude.” Since Clinton was about to speak, we headed back up the trendy area a block outside the Pepsi Center security zone. It was filled with yuppies, suited bigwigs, and granola kids. We passed a Cru, a Samba Room, and a Capitol Grille on our way to Martini Ranch, where we sat at the bar next to a Dallasite/former Aggie who now lives in D.C. and works for the guvment. She was drunk on politics (and several beers), discussing everything from the importance of the NASCAR demo to the lingering resentment of the Hillary Clinton camp. Throughout her commentary ran this thread: the convention is ridiculous, because it’s so scripted and fake that there is no real emotion to it. No passion. “At least with the protesters, they have passion. They’re fighting for something. They’re searching for meaning, and that’s inspiring.”
As she turned her attention to the single attractive and also drunk man to her left, I looked across the bar. There were three kids who had been in the protest we just walked from. They were ordering Ketel One martinis: one dirty, two straight up. They each threw out a credit card. Later, we all watched Clinton. The protesters clapped with the entire bar at every high point. We ended up staying downtown late because of the convention traffic. As we sat out on a patio at another super-trendy restaurant with the Denver fete set, eating saffron pasta and drinking red wine, we heard a man on a bullhorn, headed our way. We saw people along the street turn and stare, and traffic stopped. Maybe this was finally The Big One, rebels intent on upsetting our elitist apple cart, shoving our plates of grilled peaches and Italian cured meats into our fat, happy faces.
Oh. It was a convertible Cadillac from Shotgun Willie’s, the popular local gentleman’s establishment, telling people drink specials were available until close. Now that would’ve made a good photograph.