Denver protests begin with small crowds

Fewer than 1,000 anti-war protesters took to the heavily guarded streets here Sunday in hopes of influencing thousands of Democrats arriving for their four-day national convention.

The first of the week's scheduled rallies and marches proved a disappointment to organizers, who had hoped for up to 25,000 participants. It was a relief to the police, FBI and Secret Service who massed in riot gear to prevent the mass violence that some had predicted.

There had been talk of comparisons to Chicago in 1968 and Seattle in 1999, past protests that resulted in widespread violence and arrests. Police, working with the FBI, Secret Service and National Guard, were prepared with thousands of their own forces in the streets, on rooftops and in helicopters.

Most of the protesters were from the greater Denver area, including sisters Krista and Brooke Martinez, both students at Colorado State University. They were attending their first such protest.

"There isn't a lot of solidarity here. There isn't a lot of connectedness," said Krista, 21. Because of the police presence, she said, "the people have kind of been scared into not coming."

That wasn't true of Joe Brock, 55, a retired carpenter from Greenville, N.C., who hitchhiked to his first anti-war rally and was staying at a mission for the homeless. "I figured I'd just see what it was like," Brock said.

'A dignified march' with others concerned

The protest's organizers — different anti-war groups who failed to come together under one umbrella — urged those in the crowd to be peaceful rather than confront the police force.

"It's important to have a dignified march," said Ron Kovic, the paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who inspired the movie Born on the Fourth of July. Through non-violence, he said, "we have the moral high ground."

A few dozen protesters tried to engage the police verbally, with X-rated gestures and with "die-ins" along the designated parade route. No physical confrontations were observed throughout the day. A small group of demonstrators supporting U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was unimpressed. "Was that underwhelming, or what?" said Merrilee Carlson, chairwoman of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, whose son Michael was killed in Iraq three years ago.

Protesters expressed anger with presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has not called for an immediate pullout from Iraq and who wants to add troops to Afghanistan. They also are mad that Democrats who took control of Congress last year have not ended or even cut back on war funding.

"The Democrats now own this war and have funded it as much as the Republicans," said Deborah Sweet, national spokeswoman for The World Can't Wait/Drive Out the Bush Regime. Still, she said, "There are some people who don't want to alienate the Democratic Party because they're our best hope."

Most of the protesters were not of that mindset. "The Democrats own the war in Iraq as much as the Republicans do at this point," said Sunsara Taylor, who writes for the newspaper Revolution. "Nobody's putting their hopes in the Republicans to stop the war, but a lot of people are putting false hopes in the Democrats."

Some veteran anti-war activists were concerned that any street violence — threatened by so-called "anarchists" — would hurt Obama and the Democrats when they need to be perceived as the party of change. Chicago's Democratic convention in 1968 is best remembered for its police crackdown on demonstrators, as is Seattle's World Trade Organization conference in 1999.

"The violence issue could lead people to go to McCain or lead people not to vote for Democrats," said Dana Fisher, a Columbia University sociology professor and an expert on mass political protest. The protesters themselves, she said, are less likely to vote "because they don't like the two-party system."

Range of protests due this week

Many smaller protests are scheduled here this week under an elaborate system the city has established. Each group has its own time and place, with specific parade routes leading to the Pepsi Center convention site or, on Thursday, Invesco Field, where Obama will deliver his acceptance speech to some 70,000 people.

The largest groups are the local anti-war organizations — Recreate 68 and the Alliance for Real Democracy, both of which planned rallies and marches Sunday to greet arriving delegates. The disunity worried some national antiwar leaders.

"The challenge is, will we be able to collectively rise to the occasion and move beyond our individual activities to deliver a collective statement," said Leslie Cagan, co-founder of United for Peace and Justice.

Police were taking no chances. The city has hosted Pope John Paul II, the Group of Eight, the Super Bowl and the World Series, but its last national political convention was exactly 100 years ago. It has set up holding cells for anyone arrested that have chain-link lids. "Hopefully, nobody will have to go there," said police spokesman Sonny Jackson.

The tight controls placed on protesters angered local organizers, who said they planned no violence. "Our goal is to have everything come off as peacefully and non-violently as possible," said Mark Cohen, an organizer for Recreate 68.

Other causes getting attention here this week include immigration, health care, women's equality, prisoners' rights, the environment, energy costs and legal marijuana. At Sunday's march, there were even protesters heralding militant Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr as well as independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

Democrats took the protests in stride. "We do recognize the importance of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment," said Natalie Wyeth, spokeswoman for the Democratic convention.