Lots of people were yelling. Black helicopters circled over our heads. I ran between groups of black-clad protesters huddled together and fending off the police…or were the police fending off the protesters? Two thick lines of riot police had us surrounded. By us I mean about 300 anti-capitalist protesters, the journalists crazy enough to follow them, and some unfortunately curious passers-by. The cop lines were closing in, pepper spray was going off and protesters were disappearing under piles of cops before being arrested and dragged away.

Some of the protesters were yelling about the “police state,” others were chanting “no violence, no violence,” and some were just screaming for medics.

It was Aug. 25, and we were in Denver, Colorado. The Democratic Party was celebrating the opening night of its 2008 convention just miles away, but in the streets protesters were trying to throw a different type of party. The cops were just not having it.

One of the protesters was Mac Tuttle, a young anarchist most recently from Washington. Tuttle was 13 years old when his friend’s mother Celia taught him about the police state by simply telling him the story of her own past. Celia was a political exile from Argentina, where her father worked as a journalist before his criticisms of the government angered the wrong officials. Celia’s family was forced to flee the country in fear of imprisonment, or worse. Since her youth Celia has called herself an anarchist and maintained the position that government does more harm to democracy than good.

Inspired by Celia and the romance of the underground, Tuttle ran away from home to live in a communal “punk house” in Greenville, NC. He has always had his qualms with the state, but now, at age 20, his anger at the system, and its police, has deepened further. That’s because Tuttle was one of 106 “anti-capitalist” radicals rounded up, physically intimidated, and arrested during the single “nonviolent” protest-turned police riot on the opening night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

In a scene that conjured up the violent images of the 1968 DNC in Chicago 40 years earlier, armed police surrounded a group of several hundred protesters during a non-permitted march that took the streets around Denver’s Civic Park. Police were generous with their pepper spray, which was dispensed from canisters, pellet-ball guns, and large cannon blasts. Several protesters reported that the police also used tear gas and rubber bullets to subdue the crowd. Even civilians, including journalists and curious passers-by, were pepper sprayed or struck by police, and then held on the street for more than two hours before being arrested.

“[The police] didn’t care about anybody,” Tuttle said later. He said that he saw riot police order a young woman who didn’t look like she belonged in the protest to back up, but when she tried to obey their orders she found herself trapped beside an immobile group of protesters. “This cop kicks her in the stomach, whips out his (pepper spray ball) rifle, and shoots three people. This chick was trying to back up, and he just shot her.”

This particular police riot did not receive the same attention from the national media as the larger demonstrations that lead to violence at the Republican National Convention, so many of those who were arrested and allegedly abused by police fear that their story may never be heard, and that authorities in Denver will never be held accountable for the way they handled, and stifled, dissent.

On that Monday evening, it became obvious to journalists and demonstrators alike that the hundreds of police who blockaded the march knew exactly who they were after, so understanding the roots of the riot starts with understanding the anarchists and radicals who converged on Denver and inspired a police state in the first place.

The calm before the storm

On the morning of Sunday, Aug. 24, I woke up on some unknown patio wrapped in a tarp and a light sleeping bag. With me was William Aanstoos, a 19-year-old college dropout who traveled to Denver from Asheville, NC to protest the DNC. I had met and befriended Aanstoos when I backpacked to Asheville in July. There we made plans to stick together in Denver because neither of us had ever been to the city, knew anyone who lived there or had any place to stay, which is how we ended up crowd surfing at a punk show and sleeping in some activist’s back yard together.

On the surface, Aanstoos typifies the young anarchist radicals who show up to represent the anti-capitalist left at large protests: white, middle class, independent, and radicalized by punk rock and the romantic allure of  the underground anarchist communities that can be found anywhere in the country yet remain virtually invisible to the uninitiated. I knew, however, that Aanstoos is also a well-educated, shy kid who had left his home in Texas for college only a year before. I also knew that the DNC would be the first time Aanstoos would find himself on the front lines of a confrontational protest, so I felt obliged to look after him as he looked after me.

That Sunday morning the radical rapping duo Dead Prez kicked off a series of anti-war demonstrations with a performance on the steps of Colorado’s state legislature. I filtered through the hipster socialists, the super-paranoid 9/11 Truthers, and assorted hippie types and found the grungy looking, black-clad twenty-somethings I was looking for. One of them handed me the memo: a small, glossy flier detailing information on the upcoming “direct actions” as planned by the anarchist group Unconventional Denver and its allies.

Aanstoos told me his reasons for protesting were about the same as those posed by Unconventional Denver; the Democrats, although liberal, were simply the not-so-bad-guys whose existence only upholds a system of government that has failed to meet the needs of its people and wages perpetual war against foreign countries and the millions immigrants, workers, minorities, and impoverished peoples that fill its prisons and ghettos.

“We just want to show that there’s other options out there,” he said.
The actions and protests planned by Unconventional Denver, the local wing of Unconventional Action, were part of the broader DNC Disruption, a coalition of radical activist groups seeking to disrupt delegate activities and bring “the DNC to a halt” according to their website, www.dncdisruption08.org. It was an attempt to simultaneously crash the Democrats’ party and bring the public’s attention away from mainstream politics and to the spectacles created by protest groups offering the anarchist alternative to the system of global capital ultimately supported by Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Unconventional Denver and their more moderate allies in the Recreate ’68 coalition spent well over a year planning the protests at the DNC. They distributed stylish propaganda newspapers and flashy wall posters across the country. They organized workshops and legal information for activists interested in confrontational demonstrations that could disrupt DNC activities. They held meetings across the country and networked with activists ranging from the Students for a Democratic Society and the anti-war feminists of Code Pink to the hard-line anarchists associated with Unconventional Action and the RNC Welcoming Committee, whose “leadership” was arrested and charged with “conspiracy to riot” and “furtherance of terrorism” under Minnesota’s version of the Patriot Act in early in September.

Denver officials were not in the dark about the planned protests. In May an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit revealed that Congress allocated $50 million to reimburse Denver for security-related expenses, and city budgeted $18 million for crowd deterrent equipment, which manifested on the streets as body armor, tear gas guns, pepper spray canons, guns that shoot paint ball-like pepper spray capsules, black armored vans, gas masks, and riot helmets for the thousands of cops that showed up from counties across Colorado.

After Dead Prez played on Sunday morning, I took an hour or two to walk around downtown Denver and observe the police presence. They were everywhere; riding in motorcycle brigade, in unmarked vans and cars, hanging around in every public park, standing on street corners, and even patrolling the streets on dozens of bicycles. As soon as anti-war marchers took the streets, police seemed to just appear out of the walls to observe and contain a series of peaceful protests.

Despite the hundreds of protesters and police that gathered in central Denver on Sunday, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful and few arrests were made. Even Unconventional Denver’s “street reclamation party,” an non-permitted parade that featured boom boxes blaring music from shopping carts and around two hundred masked radicals blocking intersections, ended peacefully. The police did finally face off with the radicals outside of the capital building, but when the protesters ignored the order to disperse the police simply walked into their front lines and guided them back onto the sidewalk. It was clear the neither side was interested in escalation. It was as if the police knew nothing violent was planned during that parade, so they simply cleared the streets after the kids had their fun. But this was all about to change.

The convergence center

Aanstoos and I spent our Sunday evening at Unconventional Denver’s ad hoc “convergence center,” a rented hall in Denver’s industrial district. The center had a small kitchen, tables covered in anarchist ‘zines and publications, an area designated to street medics, and a large area to hold meetings. A volunteer security force watched the front door night and day. A sign on the door announced that booze, drugs, recording devices, and cops were prohibited, but there was a giant bowl of condoms in the unisex bathroom.

That night Unconventional Denver held a meeting to discuss the next day’s set of actions, which would include an “anti-capitalist bloc,” which basically translates to “Black Bloc.”

Black Bloc is a style of protesting that became infamous during the anti-globalization movement almost a decade ago. During massive protests, international swarms of black-clad anarchists provoked (or were provoked, depending on who you talk to) to riot at the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle and outside of G8 meetings in European cities like Prague in 2000 and Genoa in 2001.

There was no talk of rioting or violence at Unconventional Action’s meeting, but it was clear from their discussion that this Black Bloc would not be an average street protest.

Police intimidation began almost immediately after the meeting ended, as if they had been listening into the meeting the entire time. A car full of anarchists was pulled over in the parking lot as soon as they left. Around 10 anarchists gathered outside the convergence center to observe the police, and within minutes there were eight police vehicles and over a dozen cops sitting in the parking lot. After about fifteen very tense minutes, the cops pulled away without issuing the driver a ticket.

Things heat up

The Black Bloc protest was planned for 7 p.m. on Monday, so Aanstoos and I spent our afternoon locating “The Freedom Cage,” as Denver activists had nicknamed it. The Freedom Cage is a parking lot just outside of shouting distance from DNC headquarters at Denver’s Pepsi Center. The lot is surrounding by metal fences and outfitted with a microphone and speakers. It was created to be a “free speech zone” for protesters, but for whatever reason the protesters refused to use it, with the exception of some college-age leftists who set up an overnight shantytown for camping there.

When I arrived at The Freedom Cage it was empty except for a few curious reporters. There wasn’t much to look at except for a large piece of poster board with a sign-up sheet for speakers.

Here are some of the speeches that were planned for The Freedom Cage:

“I Agree Completely” by A. Hitler
“This Is Awesome” by Joseph Stalin
“I Could Wear My Dress Here” by J. Hoover
“I honor and accept this nomination…and promise more cages” by Sen. Joe Biden

Aanstoos and I planned to meet back up at the Civic Park for the Black Bloc and split up for a while. I grabbed some dinner and set out for the park at around 6:45 p.m. As I neared the park I saw van after van of riot police covering themselves with body armor and strapping different kinds of weapons to their legs and sides. The cops were obviously preparing to respond to a different kind of protest. It was an ominous scene.

The protesters, mainly black-clad anarchists and their anti-capitalist supporters, were milling around in Civic Park and sharing plates hot food, compliments of an anti-war group called Food Not Bombs. Cops were everywhere. Suddenly, as if a signal was given, a group of about a hundred masked protesters gathered close together and began chanting anti-capitalist slogans as they marched into the street. Mac Tuttle, wearing a mask and swimming goggles, was on the front line.
This was Tuttle’s third time in a Black Bloc. He expected trouble, but he put on his mask and marched in the front lines anyway. He said that his role was to act as a buffer between the police and less confrontational protesters who simply wanted to speak their minds in the streets.

“The police are fucking terrifying, hands down,” Tuttle said later. “They’re scary as shit.”

Riot cops were in formation as soon as the protesters hit the concrete. The protesters were immediately surrounded by riot police on both sides and decided to march directly toward one of the lines. As soon as the front line of protesters came within ten yards of the police line, the riot cops raised their batons and shot a cannon burst of liquid pepper spray. Several protesters went down and were either arrested or lead away by volunteer street medics.

A Salt Lake City man who identified himself as Fred Javalpra told me later that he saw two or three protesters get shot with rubber bullets during this time. Several protesters would later tell me that police used tear gas at another point during the protest, and I saw several police wearing respiratory gas masks during the confrontation and eventual mass arrest. A statement that the Denver Police Department released shortly after the protest, however, claimed that police made “limited use” of pepper spray. According to the Denver Police, during the initial confrontation only two police officers used pepper spray and one policemen shot paintball-like balls of pepper spray from a gun. This does not explain a reporter I saw suffering from pepper spray later in the protest.

“I was fucking scared shitless,” Tuttle told me. He had been hit by pepper spray during this initial confrontation, but didn’t consider himself injured, so he pressed on, even though the police “had a lot of new (non-lethal weaponry) that I didn’t want to see what it did.”

The statement from the Denver police said that protesters were observed possessing rocks and “other items that could be used to threaten public safety.” I did not see anyone carrying rocks, but there were several groups of protesters carrying cloth banners and one protester carrying a skateboard.

After the initial confrontation the Black Bloc retreated back onto park property, and then their supporters filled the streets. The police momentarily retreated. It was immediately clear that the police would preemptively confront the Black Bloc, but not other protesters. This trend continued for the rest of the night. They knew who they were after.

The police re-grouped and charged those who were still in the street. I was on the sidewalk taking pictures, and before I knew it there was a riot cop shoving me in the back and laying his baton in the back of my neck. “Move!” he yelled. “Press!” I said, and then I ran backward into… the Black Bloc’s front line. “Oh, great,” I thought.
I made it through the Bloc and climbed up unto the base of a light pole to watch what happened next. The police stopped and held their position just before the sidewalk. The Black Bloc and their supporters approached them, began chanting as if they were going to stage another offensive, and then they all began laughing and running in the opposite direction across the park to flank the cops’ position.

The protest made it through the other end of the Civic Center Park, but they didn’t get far after that. They marched in the street for about two blocks before being surrounded by two lines of riot police in a short length of street between two intersections. The police spread out across the street and prevented anyone from leaving. The Black Bloc, their left-wing supporters, and the journalists who were following them were now all trapped between two very angry looking lines of riot cops.

And the cops multiplied. They amassed in vans, buses, cars, and horses. Helicopters with searchlights began circling overhead. Soon there were two hundred, then three hundred cops piled up on both sides of the protesters, who were now screaming “peace” and “we’re nonviolent.” The police seemed to outnumber protesters by nearly two to one.

“Tell what a police state looks like!” someone shouted. “This is what a police state looks like!” the protesters screamed in reply. Despite their chants, many of the young protesters, some of whom had removed their masks, were as frantic as rats in a cage.

The front lines of police slowly closed in on the people between them. Anyone with a press badge was grabbed and sequestered outside of the police line. I stayed as long as I could before a riot cop wearing a gas mask grabbed my hand. I told him I was staying, but this was apparently not an option because he began dragging me toward him. I decided to comply and the cops pulled me through the police line and onto a long set of stairs outside of an office building. The stairs were filled with civilians and reporters trying desperately to document the fate of the protesters on the other side of the police. One reporter, who was fully credentialed for the DNC, was one the ground trying to recover from a pepper spray blast to the face. I gave him my water bottle and a medic soon arrived.

After most of the press was removed from the street, the police began chanting “move,” and charging toward us while thrusting their batons forward in unison. We reporters ran like hell. It seemed as if we had been specifically picked out of the crowd so that we could not document the escalating violence and mass arrest.

I ran around the outside of the building to see if I could get a better view from behind the opposite police line, but I soon discovered that the police had boxed-out supporters and the press there as well. These supporters continued to shout insults and slogans at the riot police in front of them, but the voices inside the police blockade were not as brave and had gone silent.

I climbed on a concrete statue, and from that vantage point I could see that the riot police had separated the protesters into two groups: The Black Bloc and the others. Each group was backed up against a building and trapped there. Then I felt someone tapping on my shoe. I looked down. It was Aanstoos. I jumped down from the statue and hugged him. He was white as a ghost and obviously shook up.

“William, are you OK? What happened to you?” I asked.

“I got pepper sprayed,” he said quietly. It was at this moment that I finally felt overwhelmed by whole situation, and I thought I might cry. Instead I just hugged him again.

Aanstoos explained that he was one of the protesters hit by pepper spray cannon blast when the Black Bloc first approached the police line outside of the Civic Center. He said he went blind until a street medic treated him. His clothing was still covered in pepper spray and it pained him to touch most parts of his body. 

The aftermath

Over the next two hours police searched a majority of the protesters and picked out dozens and arrested them for possession of objects that could be used as weapons. Resisters were pepper sprayed. One demonstrator told me she saw someone arrested for having nail clippers in their backpack.

Supporters outside of the blockade chanted and harassed the police, but nothing else could be done for those inside. At 8:22 p.m. most of the non-Black Bloc protesters were let free. The rest of the block was either still inside, being processed for arrest, or arrested. Mac Tuttle was one of them.

Tuttle and 105 other protesters were bused to a warehouse at 3833 Steele St. that, with the addition of some metal chairs and a series of metal cages, had been converted into a temporary jail. Tuttle said that defendants had their mug shots taken next to “mass arrest boards” listing charges against them, which included everything from resisting arrest and failure to disperse to begging, loitering, and throwing missiles/rocks. This lead many protesters, including Tuttle, to believe that they were being charged with multiple offenses, when in reality most of them were only charged with resisting arrest or failure to disperse.
Tuttle and his comrades were held in the jail overnight. There were no blankets, and “white PVC pipes” constantly blasted cold air into the facility. Tuttle said he was allowed to see a doctor, but the doctor only asked if he was suicidal. Tuttle said that he wasn’t, but that he was suffering from bronchitis. The doctor promised him pills in the morning, but they never came. Tuttle’s bronchitis developed in pneumonia by the time he returned to his home in Washington a week later.

On Aug. 27, Mark Pendergrass of the Colorado ACLU sent a letter to Denver officials detailing concerns about the detention of protesters like Tuttle, who, like many protesters, was arraigned in the early morning hours after a sleepless night in the horrid conditions of the warehouse. “[It] was evident that the arrestees were laboring under a myriad of misunderstandings and misinformation that was predictably highly coercive in convincing an arrestees to plead guilty, which have been remedied if they had received legal council,” Pendergrass wrote. He also claimed that the ACLU lawyers and other legal supporters were repeatedly denied access to confidential meetings with arrestees, which Denver legal officials had previously promised. Both the Denver sheriff and city attorney have not responded to my requests for an interview on the subject. The legal defense of the arrestees is ongoing.
Despite their experience at the anti-DNC Black Bloc, Aanstoos and Tuttle remain close their political convictions, and they both vowed to protest again. In fact, Aanstoos and I parted ways after the DNC, and he went to the Twin Cities to protest the Republican National Convention. I have not heard from him since.

Tuttle ended up pleading guilty to “blocking a roadway” and was fined $140. He’s said it was worth it, and he has no regrets. He believes that the Black Bloc did succeed in changing people’s minds about the system, even if it did end ugly.

“A lot of people who didn’t want to be in the protest got blocked in by the police,” Tuttle said. “Now they understand that the police don’t give a shit about them… and I will be at the next DNC in four years. This just made me more upset and more angry.”

As Tuttle points out, protesting may not be about whether anarchists and radicals can disrupt or shut down events like the DNC. Perhaps it’s just enough to step out into the streets for a miniature revolution, even if it only lasts a couple of hours.

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