Cultural and historical conflicts came into play early Thursday in an unusual Denver court hearing for more than 230 men and women arrested in a protest of last year's Oct. 9 Columbus Day parade.
Two defendants wanted to honor their American Indian heritage by vowing to testify truthfully while clutching an unlit ceremonial pipe.
Assistant City Attorney Robert Reynolds answered their request by telling the three judges hearing the pretrial motions procedure, "They can place their hands on a ham sandwich or baloney sandwich as long as they tell the truth. It doesn't matter to me."
No objection came immediately. But during a court break a few minutes later, defendant Glenn Morris, director of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado at Denver, was steaming.
"I was highly insulted," said Morris, one of two witnesses who would later testify with pipe in hand. "It was extremely demeaning for him to compare our request to observe our spiritual tradition with a baloney sandwich."
Immediately following the morning break, defense attorney David Lane did tell the judges hearing the protesters' cases that Reynolds' remark was "exceedingly offensive and insensitive" and expressed a belief that it reflected "the city's general attitude toward their culture."
That exchange was one of several emotional peaks - or valleys - in an unusual proceeding in which three Denver county court judges sat together through a lengthy hearing in which a squadron of lawyers for defendants and the city mounted arguments in which the lines between the legal, political and cultural blurred repeatedly.
Although the three judges heard the arguments together, they are ruling on the legal issues raised independently of one another; the rulings of each are applicable only to the defendants specifically assigned to each judge's division.
Colorado Judicial Branch spokeswoman Karen Salaz called the three-judge procedure "unusual," and her research found just three prior examples of it, once each in Pueblo, Arapahoe and Denver counties.
As an example of the judges' individual decision making, the Columbus Day parade protesters want to see the charges of loitering and failure to obey lawful orders thrown out because they contend their actions were necessary to block the Columbus Day parade as a form of hate speech and ethnic intimidation.
The three judges reacted three different ways: County Judge Doris Burd deferred her ruling, County Judge Aleene Ortiz-White requested additional testimony - but also held off in ruling - and County Judge Kathleen Bowers denied the motion outright.
"I'm not buying it," Bowers said of the parade-as-hate-speech argument.
Ortiz-White, before concluding the hearing, heard both Morris and fellow AIM activist Ward Churchill, chairman of the ethnic studies department at CU in Boulder, on the issue of whether Columbus Day parade participants last year had intimidated those who were there to protest the event.
Morris, Churchill and a third witness told of seeing young women atop one float hurl hard candy at protesters in an aggressive manner.
Assistant City Attorney Greg Rawlings challenged Morris, "So, you're calling a bunch of teenaged girls on a float throwing candy racists?"
"They are racists, yes," Morris answered.
Imploring him to simply answer questions "yes" or "no," Rawlings advised Morris, "You're not teaching, today."
"I think I am teaching," Morris said.
"This is a courtroom. Act like it," Rawlings abruptly said, before Ortiz-White cut off the exchange.
The protesters, some whose cases are set for trial next week, object to celebrating Columbus, whom they condemn as a slave trader responsible for genocide in the deaths of up to 10 million American Indians.
During one break in the hearing, one protester, identified by the city attorney's office as Brian Deuschle, pleaded guilty to loitering in return for the dismissal of a charge of failure to obey a lawful order.
He received a one-year deferred judgment.
brennanc@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2742