The Democratic National Convention came to Denver in August 2008 for the first time in one hundred years.
As a part-time reporter at KGNU last summer, I was assigned to cover the story of the Blackhawk helicopters that had been flying over downtown Denver for several days. Special operations forces coordinated with local police and fire departments in organizing drills with Blackhawks. Some drills were performed on the grounds of the old children's hospital. Authorities said these drills were "routine" and had nothing to do with the Democratic National Convention, but that they were in preparation for the global war on "terrorism." Helicopters flew low over tree tops and one Denver resident said they were so low that she could wave to the soldiers. When residents in the vicinity of the children's hospital were questioned, they did not believe the public statement that authorities gave.
There were reports in local newspapers of $50 million being allocated for the DNC. A portion of the money went toward additional police officers from surrounding cities and Wyoming. Part of the money also went to the purchase of additional equipment, including pepper spray guns.
KGNU Associate News Director Maeve Conran, an Ireland native, said she did not recall this level of fear in Belfast. Maeve expressed concern that the security forces covering the DNC might resort to their weapons prematurely.
Weeks later I was offered the position to be a radio producer for Studio 08, which was the television and radio studio that was affiliated with the DNC. The prospect of encountering the security first hand was a source of concern since I had read about the drills, the additional forces, and the millions spent on additional weaponry. Additionally, Maeve's comments about the possibility of weapons being drawn too soon instilled anxiety in me.
Driving on Speer Boulevard towards downtown, I noticed the street getting narrower because of the barricades that were in place. Turning into downtown Denver, I saw groups of police officers including SWAT team members walking down the sidewalk in full armor. They looked prepared for action.
It was just after 4:00am. I was dropped off about one mile north of the Pepsi Center, which was the site of the convention. The barricades created a distant border around the Pepsi Center. Police officers guarded the inside of the barricaded area. I had my press credential around my neck. As I was wondering if I would be directed away and have to circumvent the barricade, to my surprise, an officer opened the barricade and let me in. I had to show my credential to more officers before I crossed Speer Boulevard. When I reached the security entrance to the Pepsi Center grounds, I had to show my credential again. The security entrance was a tent that had detectors that resembled those of airport security. My purse was searched and I was admitted. Outside of the entrance to the Pepsi Center stood more people who checked my credential. Then, in the lobby there were more people who checked my credential again. Hence, though there were indeed several levels of security, at each point, officers were helpful and no one was hostile toward me.
The Pepsi Center was packed with people. Different credentials gave people clearance to different areas. Mine permitted me to enter the hall surrounding the convention floor, but not the floor itself.
Throughout the four days of the convention I did not witness any aggression on the part of security. However, I read reports of tear gas and pepper spray being used on protestors, as well as of mass arrests and temporary jails and courts. It was as though the Pepsi Center and the buffer zone created around it was a different atmosphere than that outside of the barricades. The contrast between what I personally experienced and what I read about was stark and disturbing.
On the last day of the DNC, Barack Obama gave his speech at Invesco Field. There were more than 80 thousand people in the stadium. After the speech, people emptied the stadium and there were no riots, there was no antagonism of any kind from the crowd or security. In fact, people were in good spirits. We all filed out in the dark, looking for the correct car or Light Rail stop. I had never seen so many people on the streets of Denver, many of whom had come here from other cities; and yet there was an air of cooperation and unity, which brought tears to my eyes.
Several weeks later on Election Day I watched Barack Obama's victory speech on television, which was broadcast from Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois. The crowd there dwarfed the one that had been at Invesco Field. Estimates as to the number of people there ranged from 125 thousand to 500 thousand. People were packed together like sardines standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting, attentively focused on the stage. During his speech they showed support and when it was fished, they emptied Grant Park civilly just as had been done in Denver.
My positive experiences and observations of the civilized behavior of thousands of people in these crowds led me to question the purpose of the additional riot police and extra weaponry in Denver during the DNC. Was it all really necessary?