Protesting Hate Speech in Denver, Colorado

By Dan Whittemore– Denver

On November 6, 2007, I was arrested with about eighty-five others in Denver, Colorado, trying to stop hate speech as expressed in the Columbus Day Parade.  I suffered about ten hours of incarceration, with about half the time in hand cuffs and was exposed to mental and minimal physical abuse.  I am charged with violating three Denver City Ordinances (impeding a public assembly, disobeying a lawful order, and obstructing a public passageway) and face possible additional jail time, fines and/or public service work for these misdemeanor charges.

Why did I choose this course of action?  Many people of many cultures suffer in this world.  An outcome of my study and reflection at Iliff School of Theology and my world travels has sharpened my instincts to focus on helping to alleviate human suffering.  I quickly became active in several organizations (including participating on the boards of the Boulder, Colorado Mennonite VORP focused on restorative justice, and the American Humane Association to alleviate abuse and neglect to children and animals) and now realize that I really want to focus on just one thing where I can make a difference.

I have listened to the concerns of our First People for several years, studied issues confronting Native Americans today and now I am trying to make a difference among the Native Americans, and I don’t mean their conversion to Christ.  I want to support their culture as they want it, and I want to help the Lakota People regain much of their lost land in the Black Hills that the U.S. earmarked for them in at least two separate treaties in the mid to late twentieth century.  I am concerned about poverty within reservations and am striving to help in whatever way I can.  All people need to feel good about themselves and need to believe they have control over their own destinies.  Putting Native Americans on the defensive continually is counter-productive.

The protest action I took at the Columbus Day parade reflects that I am serious with this direction, and I feel a personal calling to this objective.  I believe the issues of domination over Native people continues today as a direct result of the continual history of taking lands, massacring many Indians thereby committing physical and cultural genocide, and leaving Native People on some of the poorest quality land.  I believe contemporary issues of poverty, alcohol, and drug directly stem from many of these atrocities.  Many Americans of the dominant culture currently fail to take responsibility for these actions of our ancestors and “permit” the issues to continue without substantial restorative measures.

On the street, I carried a sign reflecting my expression of the problem in Denver and a potential, plausible solution.  My sign read on the front side, “Columbus is a symbol of genocide, slavery, and domination.”  The reverse side suggested a solution, “Change the symbol!  Da Vinci Day?”  The protest movement was about transforming the celebration, from celebrating the domination and genocide of Native People to celebrating all people in harmony.

The organizers of this Denver Columbus Day parade publicly described the parade as being an Italian Pride Day, but the organizers refused for years to change the name and character of the parade.  The 2006 parade which I personally witnessed included, as the lead group, a reenactment of the military cavalry, which I and many Indians believe to be a racist symbol in the parade intended to incite continual domination over the First People.

Some of the organizers of the protest wanted to stop the parade.  The timing was significant.  The year 2007 represented the 100th year anniversary since Colorado enacted a State holiday and it is past time to rescind the holiday.

During the last three years I have become increasingly concerned with many issues of racism and violence in our world and now specifically in the United States. 

Upon retirement, I exercised the opportunity to study full-time at Iliff School of Theology where I received a Masters of Theological Studies degree in June, 2007.  I have been an ordained minister for many years, including responsibilities while serving professionally (full-time paid ministerial positions) and self-sustaining for all other years in my adult life. I wanted to update my education and ministerial skills.  Initially, I focused on scriptural classes and early church history.  I took most of these courses as they were available.  As time-space was further available, I took many courses to help me understand peace and justice issues.  I soon realized my call was to work to make a better world rather than to further promote evangelism as my area of ministry. 

During the course of these studies, I participated with classes in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  I realized many years ago that the people on the lowest “class” structure in the Americas are the Native Americans.  I have tried to understand Native American issues specifically and intentionally since about 1986. 

Nearing graduation about a year ago, I felt a great deal of frustration with all the worthy causes that need support and attention.  Upon conversing with others on this, I realized that I wanted to work on only one primary issue, at a place where I could make a difference.  My dream is to help all Native Americans regain their personal pride and independence lost through the centuries of domination by “white” culture, even by many Christian communities.  In recent decades they have been awarded freedom of religion, but many still live in absolute poverty.

I am trying to understand the root cause of this extreme poverty and work on ways to alleviate the impediments.  The dreams I have will never be realized in my lifetime, but I hope to help move the continuum in the proper direction.  Standing with the Native People on October 6th was my way of expressing solidarity with them. Dominant-culture people and their historic practice of domination are a huge part of the poor living conditions of the Native People.  I believe it will take a change in the understanding and actions of “white people” to help bring solution to poverty, racism and an end, in this case, to hate speech.

I have been active with this specific Columbus Day issue for three years, as this is my third year carrying a sign in the Transform Columbus Day event.  Two years ago, I wrote a short letter to the Denver Post Editor concerning Columbus Day and it was published.  

Last Spring, I specifically wrote to Governor Ritter, Lt. Governor O’Brien, Senator Joan Fitzgerald, President of the Senate, Senator Ken Gordon, Representative Andrew Romanoff, Speaker of the House, Senator Peter Groff and Senator Suzanne Williams and my personal representatives.  All these letters acknowledged the introduction of the “Reevaluation Columbus Day State Holiday” bill by Senator Williams and I outlined my rationale for reevaluating the Columbus Day State Holiday.  None of the recipients even acknowledged my letters until after the Columbus Day protest.  After that, the Speaker of the House acknowledged my letter.

I continue to address issues surrounding Columbus Day.  In response to David Drew’s article, Columbus Day: Footprints in Red Sand, in the Denver Southwest YourHub section of the Denver Post on October 10, 2007, I responded electronically to this article with the following:  “David Drew’s article hits the points precisely. The more we understand the root causes of why many Native Americans live in absolute poverty today, the sooner we will be able to find new solutions to helping the First People find equal place in our society. I am a recovering racist trying to help make a better world for Native People.”

Currently I am providing pro-bono business and financing advice to local Lakota People developing business plans for new industry on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  While the projects being considered are confidential, they provide some hope for new employment of Native People on the Reservation.

I will continue to work on these issues to help make a better world for Native Americans.

I was in the street because of being committed to a moral imperative to speak out on behalf of Native People.  I realize I represent to many that I am a part of the dominant society.  I realize that I am, and have always been a racist, without acknowledging that fact.  My current status is that of being a “recovering racist.”

The final Columbus Day trial will begin on Wednesday, May 28, at 8:30 am in Courtroom 117M, Judge Breese, in the Denver City and County Building. The defenders in this trial are Irma Little (a Lakota Elder who was arrested in her wheelchair), Nicholas Delmonico (a sightless Italian-American), Kate Goodspeed (longtime activist and ally, who was arrested with Nicholas), and Dan Whittemore (a retired attorney and chief financial officer of the State of Colorado, Chicago Public Schools, and the Maricopa Community College System, and a recent graduate of the Iliff School of Theology).
 
The main persecutor in this case will be Mellissa Drasen-Smith, who is the City’s lead prosecutor, and who prosecuted the first case — involving Julie Todd, Koreena Montoya and Glenn Morris. Our attorneys will be Qusair Mohammedbai and Lonn Heymann.

All other defendants, except two who were acquitted by a jury, either accepted a guilty plea on one charge, or were found guilty by their respective jury.  The sentencing has become increasing severe in the later trials, with the latest being 90 days suspended sentence, one year of unsupervised probation, a fine of between $300-500 dollars, and the option to do community service, instead of paying a fine.

I attended most arraignments and trials of the defendants.  In observing our legal process, we can not win in court in our acts of civil disobedience.  The legal process is linear and works to trap protestors into a “guilty” situation.  Denver City Government made a decision to grant the parade permit and ordered all Columbus protestors to be arrested and jailed overnight.  While the legal theory is that each defendant is innocent until found guilty by court and/or jury, Denver imposed the jail “sentence” at the time of arrest. Some were in jail for thirty-six hours before being bailed out of jail.  The City Council passed new ordinances directed at the Columbus Day protest.  The judges have taken an oath to uphold the law and the judge instructs the jurors that they can only follow the law.  The defendants are trapped within the legal system.  The judges have consistently disallowed any significant testimony concerning the moral reasons for being in the street and prohibited any “lesser of evils” defense.

As a final comment, I committed to becoming fully engaged in this protest while in jail.  Yes, I was intentional in being in the street to protest injustice and racism to Native People, but I made a stronger commitment while in jail to further the voice about injustices to my First People cousins and to strive to help make progress for all people. 

I want a better world for Irma Little and all Native People.

-Dan Whittemore contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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