Once upon a time, liberals could protest without first putting out a press release. How times have changed.
As Denver prepares for its 15 minutes in the national spotlight as the host of this summer’s Democratic National Convention, national and local protesters are also seeking their moment of televised glory. A local group called "Re-Create 68," or R-68 for short, is now proclaiming that it anticipates 50,000 people will take to the streets to protest America’s "two-party system that allows imperialism and racism to continue unrestrained."
At first glance, it appears that R-68 organizers — many of whom weren’t born until a decade or more after 1968 — are eager to mimic that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago, most frequently recalled for violent clashes between protestors and police.
As the R-68 Web site proclaims, "Sometimes we need to look back to move forward. In 1968 there existed a spirit of change, the Paris Rebellion, Prague, Chicago, Vietnam, etc. People believed, around the world, that they were capable of taking over the institutions that controlled their lives. The smell of revolution was in the air. Over 1 million college students openly identified as revolutionist."
But while the prospects of 50,000 radicals coming together in Denver was enough to make radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh sing with glee on his radio show late last month, the fact of the matter is that whatever happens in Denver this August will likely disappoint those eager for a Democratic convention meltdown.
The main reason: The anarchist-hippies in charge are downright organized, committed to an institutional structure that would be the envy of most corporations. As a disclaimer on the R-68 Web site proclaims, "Recreate 68 is not a throwback group trying to relive some vision of glory days long gone." This is whole new kind of protesting.
R-68 organizers, representing several different grassroots groups, meet weekly at the Gypsy House Café, a family-owned coffee shop located four blocks from my house in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The place overflows with self-denying capitalists eager to make a quick buck. A dread-locked man named Nottidreads will provide you your "short numerology chart analysis" for only $10.
According to Nottidreads, who completed Barack Obama’s chart, the Democratic presidential candidate "secretly dreams of having a big impact on the world. . . .It is the paradox of [his] Heart’s Desire that [he] receives by giving. Both [his] material success and spiritual satisfaction are made possible through service and sacrifice to others." Wow, that’s deep.
At the Gypsy House, you can also buy candles "blessed with magic" and Italian gelato made from all-natural ingredients at almost $3 a bowl. During my most recent trip there, I overheard a young Iraq veteran talk about his spiritual awaking during his second tour of duty. His goal: To reconcile differences between his pagan and Buddhist foundations.
This ain’t no Starbucks. And every Thursday, R-68’s organizers gather there to talk strategy. At a recent meeting, about a dozen people attended. The climate was polite and the focus was on unity. In between these meetings, organizers are keeping themselves busy. This week alone, supporters can attend two fundraisers, including a concert by the "Dead Prez," where tickets will set you back $20.
Leading the effort is Glenn Spagnuolo, 37, a one-man press machine who first became a household name with Denver reporters for his support of former University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill — a man who compared 9-11 terrorism victims to Nazis, falsely proclaimed Native American ancestry and who was ultimately fired for plagiarizing the works of academic scholars in an effort to mischaracterize major historical events.
In his role heading up R-68, Spagnuolo makes Churchill look mild. But while he says things like "If Denver needs to become Ground Zero in the fight to take back our rights, it will," he is hardly the hardened activist he portends to be. And while he proclaims a distain for mainstream media, telling the Rocky Mountain News, "I’m not in this for myself; that’s why I don’t want this to be about me," he never misses an opportunity to jump in front of a camera.
Spagnuolo is clandestine about his past, and there appear to be many reasons why. According to a local expose in the city’s Westword newspaper, he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. This is the 21st Century face of anarchy.
Limbaugh’s "dreams" of Denver riots came after Spagnuolo and friends became angry in March after they were denied an event permit at the city’s Civic Center Park, a spot highly coveted for its location just steps from the state Capitol, City Hall, the city’s two newspapers, and the state Supreme Court. Re-Create 68 lost out in a city lottery to the DNC’s host committee.
"When things blow up because the police have to enforce a permit that the Democrats go, don’t blame us for that," Spagnuolo told The Rocky Mountain News. "Blame the Democrats for trying to silence dissent in the city of Denver."
Spagnuolo has since backtracked on such statements, pledging a non-violent movement and saying it is the police who have created a threat of violence. He has spent the last month conducting serious damage control, recently announcing that he will turn Civic Center Park into a tent city protestors are now calling "Free City."
With the press predictably in tow at a recent press conference, Spagnuolo proclaimed that "Nobody should be excluded from using a public park," and indicated that he will encourage people to violate the city’s prohibition on overnight camping there.
Spagnuolo now claims he is not planning to organize an event at the park in violation of the policy. "If something collective happens, it will be organic," he told reporters. And maybe he means it. Violence would run directly contrary to a proposed "Tent city", which organizers have said will operate on a "10-point program" that includes being free of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Organizers have suggested there may be open sex acts in the park as well as a "nude-in" where "peace" will be spelled out through a giant sea of naked bodies.
While those organizing the love-in announced that they are splitting with Spagnuolo this week over concerns about his violent rhetoric, the rest of us have little to be concerned about. Ultimately, Spagnuolo’s goal in life is to see his face plastered on CNN. It’s unlikely he’ll have access from a Denver jail cell. And even he is forced to admit that 2008 is not 1968, conceding that calls for revolution are now more frequently ignored by young people. Maybe they just have a lot to worry about, like making sure their coffee is fair trade, organic, and served in only biodegradable, post-consumer recycled containers.