Yesterday, as I made my way to Newsvine base camp, I noticed two police helicopters in the sky. I'm used to the presence of these flying law enforcement vehicles as they patrol certain areas of Denver regularly and I can watch them from my balcony. It was unusual to see them in the daytime, but they were more of a curiosity than anything. Along the drive, which begins in the suburbs South of Denver and ends 30 minutes North, just West of downtown, I noticed a large number of law enforcement vehicles. After the first three or four, I began to keep count. I saw at least fifteen different police cars from four agencies. A lot for a Sunday morning. I found this fact interesting, but not particularly alarming.
Throughout the rest of the day, while gathering supplies for base camp and and later, when picking Viki up from the airport, I saw an additional thirty-some police vehicles - some marked, some unmarked. Many from jurisdictions I recognized, some that I didn't. The sheer concentration of police cars started to niggle at my brain, but I brushed it off as understandable considering the profile and risk involved with the DNC.
Then, I ventured into downtown Denver.
Denver is my home, a place that has grown as I have. Changes have been made; some good, some not-as-good. I don't know if anything could have prepared me for the changes I saw when my cabbie dropped me off on the North side of the Pepsi Center.
The Pepsi Center is an oval, domed building on the edge of downtown, surrounded by open parking lots and welcoming businesses in old, brick buildings. An icon of Denver, it is a facility that is dominating without being obtrusive. This was no longer the case. A large black metal fence surrounded the entire property. A special gate on the North side let in cars (which I can only assume carry supplies and dignitaries) and was equipped for sweeping the vehicles. When I asked if I could enter through that gate, I was told, quite nicely, that I would need to proceed to the main gate at 9th and Auraria, about four blocks away. The woman who passed this information on to me wore a gray secret service vest and carried a rifle, but her attitude was such that I only noticed it as a sidebar. She even smiled.
The businesses that abut the Pepsi Center property had been incorporated into the compound. Kacey Fine Furniture, Braun's, Brooklyns (which now read CNN = Politics) were either vacant or part of this media enclosure. These buildings that are so much of my Denver now seemed foreign and, somehow, spooky. I focused on my destination: the main gate next to the CNN Bar nee Brooklyns. The gate had three entrances: one for people with general credentials, one for VIP groups, and another that I could only assume was for people who could be expedited through security. Once a person had entered into the "short fence" area, they were ushered into the security line, where they would wait to have their bags and persons screened. If they passed, they would continue in through the big black fence and into the Pepsi Center compound itself.
When I arrived I asked where to go if we didn't have credentials. The hired security person (rent-a-cop) just pointed to the back of the hundred-person line waiting to get in. I joined it and waited as groups of seven to ten people at a time were let into the short fence for security screening. When I reached the front, the rent-a-cop simply pointed to the right and said "step aside," which I did and stood, leaning on the short fence where I had initially walked up, and called our contact for credentials.
While waiting for the runner to bring out our credentials, I took in the surroundings. There was a rent-a-cop at each of the three entrances. Inside the short fence were two secret service agents with bulletproof vests and tasers. There were two police officers tending the gate to the actual compound where people exited. I was sure that there were more law enforcement officers inside the security tent that I couldn't see. Several times over the two hours that I was standing by the entrance, large groups of law enforcement individuals from various groups exited the Pepsi Center compound. They were generally dressed in cargo pants with polo shirts and carried duffel bags. I counted, in total, sixty-five such people leave the compound.
However, none of this really bothered me. I understood controlling the number of people who could enter at one time, and keeping people from leaving while others were entering and vis versa. The police officers and secret service made sense. The rent-a-cops were a little odd, but not bothersome.
At this time the line was perhaps 75 individuals long, with a second line of people entering through the VIP entrance. The credential waiting area consisted of around 15 people, the majority were leaning on the fence or standing behind it, talking on our cell phones or messaging someone to bring our credentials out to us. Not a large group of people, and everyone was calm, conversations were held in muted voices, people milled around but nothing and no one appeared out of place. Until the four armed men appeared.
They were dressed in all black, carrying rifles and sporting tear gas canisters around their waists. When they first came out I thought they might just have been suiting up within the compound and then moving to another part of the city - possibly to some protest invisible to me. Instead, they lined up, facing those of us who were waiting for credentials.
The change in the atmosphere was palpable. Suddenly, spots on either side of me on the fence were vacant, their previous occupants moving back from the fence and over-enthusiastically concentrating on their phones. The conversations in the waiting area and the line became more hushed. Several photographers took pictures of the men, but made haste to get away after they had captured their subjects. It was akin to when the principal would walk into the classroom in elementary school, and it didn't matter if you had been doing exactly what you should have been; suddenly, you just felt guilty.
It's not that the officers were overtly threatening, it was just that their presence, so pronounced and aggressive with their all-black in the 90+ degree weather, caused a change in the mass of people. A nervousness. A glimpse, perhaps, of things to come. The presence of the police officers, secret service, and rent-a-cops were all things that made sense, they fit. They were there for security and they carried their weapons (holstered) in case they might need them. The four officers in full regalia spoke of a conflict already in progress. A battle that, somehow, those of us waiting for a piece of laminated paper, felt culpable in.
They were still standing there when I left, watching the ever-growing, yet completely peaceful, throng of people. On the walk back to my taxi, I took notice of what was inside the forbidding black fence. Men and women in various states of combat readiness patrolled the perimeter. There was at least one guard every fifteen feet, with small shelters of two or three guards every hundred. As I rounded the corner to the North side of the compound, I heard a guard telling an Asian man to "move away from the gate" as he tried to fix his camera strap. The man was clearly flustered and moved quickly back from the fence, which he had been no closer than ten feet from. It was an unsettling interaction.
As I reflected on all of this, I felt my excitement for the event slip away, somewhat. My biggest fear about the DNC was that protesters would incite riots and that they would attempt to destroy, or at least maim, my wonderful city and its residents. I had put that thought away in lieu of excitement about the positivity that the DNC would bring to Denver, the atmosphere of openness, of hope and change and something better for the future. And now I was confronted with a type of "monument to man's functional paranoia."
A taste of the police state that liberals so rail against. I saw my home, a place that relishes open spaces and open doors, closed off to all but the elite. If not literally, symbolically. Armed personnel are patrolling our streets, helicopters watch our skies. I still desire the feeling of excitement, of hope, but now the feeling of oppression dampens the emotions that I so want to promote.
I can't help but wonder what this week really means, now that I have seen the physical constructs of it. Is this truly a new chapter in our history, an idea that so many are pushing? Or is this simply a facade; an elaborate farce meant to give the American people the illusion of being a part of the process, while not-so-subtly telling them to "keep away?" A paradox in political clothing.
I hope that my instinct is wrong. I pray that these trappings of war end up being superfluous, unnecessary. Maybe the DNC will live up to everything that it has promised to be; full of hope, change, promise. I can wish for nothing more than peace, but that's hard to obtain with so many reminders of war.
We are a city on lock down. I just hope that it's worth it.
Update 8/27/2008 2:45pm:
I am interviewing other Denverites as to what their impressions of the security forces in Denver are like. Please watch for updates in the comments below. Thanks.