There’s a riot out there!
Okay. It wasn’t quite a riot. It was a minor civic disturbance.
This year, as for the last decade, OMEGA’s members supported the Denver Parade of Lights. This includes shadowing event officials, monitoring critical intersections, walking the parade route to monitor and manage flow and public safety.
Last year the Denver Parade of Lights was memorable because it was our coldest deployment ever. Temperatures dipped down to -2ºF with an estimated wind chill at -17ºF. Some parade participants had to cancel out because their floats or musical instruments could not hold up to this excessive cold.
2014’s Denver Parade of Lights is the 40th anniversary of the event and it was meant to be fairly festive, but leading into the weekend we were warned by several sources that protests were being planned and additional caution needed to be exercised. The protests were to be in support of Michael Brown of Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner of Staten Island, NY.
Friday night the parade went off without a hitch. It was televised. The biggest issue was stopping and starting the parade in synch with the commercial breaks. One would guess that after all these years the dynamics of stopping and starting would be like clockwork, but that still isn’t the case. Friday night the parade has the distinction of being televised in real time. It starts at 8 PM and is generally attended by a slightly older crowd, made up of those who work in the downtown area and stay late to take part in the festivities and party.
In contrast, the Saturday version of the parade starts at 6 PM. It tends to bring the families in from the suburbs and as a rule, there are a lot more children lining the streets.
Protesters did make an appearance on Friday, but they stayed in Civic Center Park along Broadway and the protest was peaceful. That changed on Saturday.
Saturday started out beautifully. The temperatures were in the 40s and crowds were huge. Places along the 2 mile route saw people standing twenty deep to witness the parade. The protesters were once again in Civic Center Park. At the start of the evening there was no hint that anything could go sour.
As anticipated, the parade stepped off on time to the roar of the crowds and on the whole progressed very well. Protesters were visible behind the spectators, holding up their signs and exercising their right to free speech in a peaceful manner. The 2014 parade consisted of 43 parade elements and lined up the bands, floats, balloons and other components made up about two miles worth of festivities. It takes about an hour for the parade to snake its way along the downtown route and as the lead banner and the honor guard at the front approached disband, they passed Santa and his sleigh as he enter the parade route through the grandstand platforms.
Santa was already on the parade route and about a quarter of the lineup had crossed back into the disband area when the first call announcing trouble went out. There was a report of heavy police activity at 17th and Arapahoe, around the half way mark in the parade, and police were asking the parade organizers to reroute the parade down Curtis Street rather than continuing down Arapahoe as originally planned.
While the request was given serious consideration, it was logistically impossible. Not only had thousands of people gathered along Arapahoe to watch the parade (and diverting would potentially cause a riot), but logistically it was simply impossible. Parade elements were already on 17th past Curtis and could not be turned to come back. There were no safety barricades along Curtis, no route marshals or monitors, no police. The street had not been checked for hazards or obstacles. Vehicles were still parked along both sides of the road. The list of why this was not possible was virtually limitless.
A lot of resources were diverted to 17th and Arapahoe, both in front of and behind the police activity to manage the parade lineup and make some critical decisions regarding how to proceed.
What had happened was that a handful of protesters broke through the barriers and staged a “die-in” at the intersection. Their goal was to lay in the parade route for four and a half minutes, one minute for each hour that Michael Brown’s body was left in the streets of Ferguson. This turned a peaceful protest into a disruptive protest and assuming the worst, the world descended on the occupied intersection. It did not take long for the police to get the protesters off the street. One was arrested, the rest returned to the sidewalk peacefully. The parade continued, but the setting had soured.
The evening finished without any additional incidents and there were no injuries to any of the participants or spectators, but adrenaline did have an opportunity to spike and what could have been a simple organized protest resulted in a dark shadow over the festive environment.
The parade finished with a slight delay through much lighter crowds that dispersed either due to fear or uncertainty if the parade would be allowed to continue. There were several debriefings after the parade to discuss what happened and what could have been done better.
Everyone is obviously thankful that there were no injuries. The weather this year was a major bonus, but it could not mask the disruptive events. No one involved in the parade said that demonstrations or public expression were unwelcome, but the means of the protest were not well thought out. We hope that in the future anyone with a statement to make considers the positive and negative impact of how the message is delivered.
We look forward to a calmer 2015 event. And we are hoping for unseasonably warm weather.