Denver – They’re outside city offices, in parks, on the capitol steps and near the US Mint. But the one place most protesters here are avoiding is the official demonstration zone, a fenced-in parking lot near the Democratic National Convention that activists here mockingly call “the freedom cage.”
The 47,000-square-foot zone is hemmed by rows of metal barricades and concrete barriers and watched over by uniformed Secret Service agents. Views of the Pepsi Center convention site, some 700 feet away, are blocked by a giant tent housing news media.
On Monday afternoon, a couple hours after the convention kicked off, the zone was an asphalt desert. A microphone stood on a lonely stand. A Canadian documentary crew waited for protesters who never came. An official sign-up sheet near a low-rise platform was a study in sarcasm.
Requesting the 7 a.m. slot was one “G. Washington,” who listed his cause as “You can’t cage freedom.” At 11:30 p.m., “B. Obama.” Topic: “Hope for Cages.”
“It’s so far away, it’s surrounded by cops, it’s just ridiculous,” said William Aanstoos, a college dropout from Asheville, N.C., with a yellow bandana around his neck who came to see the site after taking part in antiwar rallies elsewhere in the city. “I don’t think anyone is taking it seriously.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and several protest groups sued Denver and the Secret Service over the zone earlier this summer and lost. A federal judge ruled that the zone didn’t infringe on free speech because convention delegates would pass within 200 feet on their walk into the Pepsi Center, and no trees or other objects would block sight lines to that walkway.
Unlike the “free speech zone” at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004, where protesters were corraled behind concrete barriers away from the convention site, delegates inside the secure convention perimeter here can walk within eight feet of the protest zone.
The Secret Service says the barricades and large police presence are critical precautions against tossed explosives, car bombs, and other threats to security at the convention, home this week to the stars of the Democratic Party, including two former presidents.
“The legal requirement is that those expressing their freedom of speech are within reach of the delegates,” Malcolm Wiley, a Secret Service spokesman at the Denver Joint Information Center, said in a phone interview. “The requirement isn’t that you see the building.”
Even so, most protesters are taking their message elsewhere, many to a constellation of 13 parks within a mile of the Pepsi Center.
One of the most active groups is Recreate 68, an alliance of anticorporate and antiwar protesters that has demonstration permits every day of the convention. But rallies and parades have also being staged by groups pitching everything from immigrant rights, women’s equality, and Ralph Nader to lower fuel costs, legal marijuana, and a united Jerusalem.
Police have so far been underwhelmed. A parade permitted for 25,000 Sunday drew just 1,000, according to the city. A march on Monday was so small that police reopened closed streets.
As of Tuesday night, the city had reported 135 convention-related arrests. Most occurred Monday night, when police say a crowd of 300 disrupting traffic near Civic Center Park refused requests to disperse and then rushed a police line.
Suspects were charged with disobeying orders, obstructing a public street, and interference, violations of city ordinances. But most events have been peaceful, officials say.
On Monday afternoon, Bob Kunst, a Miami man who is president of Shalom International, a pro-Israel group, stood outside an entrance to the convention site with a sign that read “Obama BAD for America and Israel.”
His group had planned a demonstration that evening in the official protest zone, but after seeing it he had second thoughts. The site is several blocks from roads accessible to cars, and he worried about whether some of his group’s elderly supporters would survive the walk.
“It’s not fair to hold everyone hostage to a few crazies,” he griped. “They’re treating everyone like a criminal. Who are we catering to with this type of paranoia?”