activist with Recreate ’68, a group organizing protests and events around the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
legal director of Colorado ACLU.
It remains to be seen whether the Democrats will ultimately take their fight for a presidential candidate all the way to the Democratic National Convention this August in Denver, but for many activists tired of the two-party system and the ongoing war, they will be demonstrating at the convention regardless of who the final nominee is. We speak with Mark Cohen, an organizer with Recreate ’68, and Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the ACLU in Colorado. [includes rush transcript]
We’re broadcasting from Denver, Colorado, from the PBS station KBDI, where Democracy Now! broadcasts here in Denver. Yes, Denver will play host to the Democratic National Convention this August, and preparations are well under way for the big event. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats will ultimately take their fight for a presidential candidate all the way to the convention. But for many activists tired of the two-party system and the ongoing war, they will be demonstrating at the convention, regardless of who the final nominee is.
As Denver readies to sign contracts with dozens of security agencies ahead of the convention, we look at some of the concerns around the rights of the protesters and how lawyers and activists are preparing to protect demonstrators.
Mark Silverstein is on the phone with us, legal director of the ACLU in Colorado. We’re also joined in the studio at KBDI by Mark Cohen. He is an organizer with Recreate ’68, a group of activists attempting to greet this year’s Democratic National Convention with the same demands of accountability and ending the war that animated protesters in Chicago forty years ago.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mark Cohen, what are your plans for this convention?
Thank you, Amy. We plan to have a massive presence during the Democratic National Convention in August. We will be having a number of major demonstrations, including on the Sunday, the day before the convention begins, what will probably be the biggest antiwar march and rally that Denver has seen at least since Vietnam. We’re also working with some of the major immigrant rights groups to, on the Tuesday, have what we think will be a very large immigrant rights march and rally.
But we’re not only involved in protest activities. We’re also staging what we’re calling the Festival of Democracy, which will be a five-day event in downtown Denver, during which we will have trainings, workshops, teach-ins, and provide people the opportunity to come together and learn about alternatives to the two-party system, solutions that communities can provide to their own problems. We’re also, during that, going to have a 24/7 free health clinic, legal services, two feedings a day in cooperation with Food Not Bombs and other services for the community.
And who is "we"?
We are Recreate ’68, which is a group of local Denver activists. We began planning for the Democratic National Convention actually before we found out that Denver had been given the convention. It looked like a fairly certain thing. So we’ve been planning for about a year and a half now. We’ve been talking with the city to try to ensure that people’s First Amendment rights would be protected during the convention. We’ve been working with national organizations, among them United for Peace and Justice, CODEPINK and others, as well as numerous Colorado organizations, to prepare for this event, to try to use the attention and the excitement and the energy generated by this major event to kind of kick organizing in Denver up to another level.
Mark Silverstein, you’re legal director of the Colorado ACLU. What are the city’s plans for these protests?
Well, you’re asking me to tell you the city’s plans, and unfortunately the city has not responded to some of our requests for information about those plans. I can tell you that political conventions like this have historically been marked by struggles over law enforcement’s attempt to balance interest in security with the First Amendment rights of the public and protesters. And in the past, that balance has sometimes been subjected to judicial review, and courts have disagreed with law enforcement about the proper balance.
And since 9/11, I think the issues have even gotten more intense. We know in Boston in 2004, the city provided what it called a “demonstration zone” outside of the convention that the district court said was like a concentration camp and an affront to the First Amendment. But there wasn’t enough time for the court to fully evaluate it and issue an order that would remedy the problems.
We have been trying to find out what it will look like, what kind of regulations will apply to First Amendment activity near the site of the convention. And so far, Denver has been either unwilling or unable to discuss any of that in detail, pointing to the Secret Service as the ultimate shot caller for security at the convention. And the Secret Service has said, well, it won’t have details to reveal to the public until sometime this summer, maybe as late as August. And, of course, that might be far too late to have any negotiation over the arrangements for First Amendment activity and certainly too late for an opportunity for judicial review. So that’s very much a concern for us.
I’m looking at a piece just recently in the Denver Post, “No Cages for DNC Protesters,” that according to Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown, protesters will not be confined to cages during the Democratic National Convention. The city wants to get away from the long lines of shoulder-to-shoulder, riot gear-clad police that typified security, saying, “We don’t want to provoke violence.” Mark?
And that’s a very commendable sentiment. And, you know, at the ACLU, we certainly hope that what Councilman Brown says will indeed be the reality. But, you know, there’s a question that I always ask when somebody in government makes an assurance like that. I ask, “Well, how do they know?” because when we’ve talked with the city officials or when we’ve read what’s quoted in the newspaper, the answer always is, “Well, we don’t know yet, because the Secret Service ultimately makes the decision, and the Secret Service isn’t saying, at least publicly.”
So there’s a rumor that there’s going to be a one-mile radius hard security perimeter around the convention site. And then you can occasionally read in the paper, somebody will debunk that as a rumor. It’s not true that there will be one-mile security zone around the convention, but yet, when you talk to the city people who ought to know, they say, “Well, we don’t know yet.” And if they don’t know, then how do they know there won’t be a one-mile security radius? There must be some plans already formulated.
Keeping protesters one mile away from the Pepsi Center? That’s where the Democratic Convention is going to be?
That’s correct. That’s correct.
According to Colorado Confidential, a web publication, the Denver Police Department is using taxpayer money to buy new security equipment in preparation for the DNC but is refusing to disclose exactly what the purchases are, saying that revealing the information would be contrary to the public interest. Mark Cohen, what do you know about that?
We do know that the city council has allocated $5 million for new weapons for the Denver Police Department. We know that in St. Paul, they have issued tasers to every single officer on the force. We’re aware that there are new weapons out there that are being ostensibly used for crowd control in places like Iraq. But we’ve seen a report on 60 Minutes, for example, where they were doing field tests with these weapons, and the people they were testing on were dressed as protesters and carrying protest-type signs. So we have a feeling that the field tests for these new weapons are going to be at the Democratic National Convention and possibly the Republican Convention, as well. So, the weapons that are being designed primarily for military use are going to be used on peaceful, nonviolent protesters.
One of the things that we’ve seen at the conventions past is the level of infiltration by police and also surveillance. Now, Mark Cohen, you were a plaintiff in the Denver spy files case.
Explain what that was.
We discovered in — I believe it was 2001, that the — or maybe earlier than that, but we discovered that the Denver Police Department had been keeping what they called “criminal intelligence files” on people who had engaged in no criminal activity but simply exercised their First Amendment rights in protests and demonstrations. There were labels on these files, such as “criminal extremist.” And the information in these files was, first of all, not the kind of information that had any relationship to criminal activity. They had–people had written letters to the editors of local papers, and they had stuck these in files. And they also had a good deal of false information.
My wife, who is a middle-aged Jewish woman, was identified as belonging to a white racist motorcycle gang that dealt in drugs and weapons. So, we’re obviously very concerned about this, especially because we discovered that these files were being shared with other law enforcement agencies. And in the atmosphere after 9/11, this is a very dangerous thing to be identified as a criminal extremist and as, presumably, a security threat. So we did sue the city and got out of the suit a change in policy, which prevents the Denver Police Department from collecting intelligence information on people who are not actually engaged in criminal activity.
Well, we are going to leave it there for now but certainly will continue to follow this. Mark Cohen with us from Recreate ’68 and Mark Silverstein on the line with us, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, I want to thank you both for being with us.