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Kim Cameron, left, speaks with Glenn Morris, a defendant, on Tuesday outside the courtroom where District Judge Doris Burd is presiding over the trial of eight Columbus Day protesters at the Denver City and County Building. The trial was moved into the courtroom of Judge Robert Hyatt in order to accommodate more people.

Parade protest trial starts

Opening statements draw on history, rights of citizens

By Charlie Brennan, Rocky Mountain News
January 19, 2005

Eight organizers of last year's Columbus Day parade protests in Denver went to trial Tuesday, and at times the proceedings sounded more like a civics lesson than a legal process.

In his opening statements at Denver County Court, defense attorney David Lane told a jury of six women and two men - two of them are serving as alternates - that his clients chose to obstruct the parade because they saw it as a celebration of the destruction of the Native American culture.

Three of the defendants claim Native American heritage, and all eight are prominent in Colorado's minority rights community.

In 1492, Lane said, Christopher Columbus "landed, and declared it a new world. To the people living there, it wasn't a new world. It was a new world for Columbus."

Rather than an intrepid explorer, Lane said, Columbus was the perpetrator of wholesale genocide, slavery and oppression that followed and persisted through much of American history.

"It's a national disgrace and an international tragedy," Lane said.

He said the annual Columbus Day parade in Denver is "no different than if Nazis marched through a Jewish neighborhood."

Assistant City Attorney Robert Reynolds, in his opening statement, stayed away from history lessons, but did address citizens' rights - the rights of those holding a city parade permit to indeed have that parade.

The police, Reynolds said, were obligated to remove the protesters, to protect the Columbus Day paraders' rights to express themselves.

"If that's not the case," Reynolds said, "then a parade permit is a nullity, and there's no purpose in having one."

The eight protesters on trial this week are the first of 239 people arrested for forming a human blockade to the Oct. 9 Columbus Day parade at 19th and Blake streets to have their cases go to a jury.

All had been charged with loitering and failure to obey a lawful order. But the loitering charge against about two-thirds of the defendants, including those now on trial, has been dismissed. The loitering charge may also soon be dropped against the remaining defendants.

If convicted on the municipal offense of failure to obey a lawful order, each defendant could be sentenced to up to 180 days in jail and fined as much as $999.

The eight defendants are: Ward Churchhill, Glenn Morris, Troylynn Yellow Wood, Nita Gonzales, Reginald Holmes, Glenn Spagnuolo, Natsu Saito and LeRoy Lemos.

In his opening statement, Lane said the protesters' purpose in blocking the parade was directly analogous to the late Rev. Martin Luther King's defiance of orders to remove himself from segregated lunch counters in Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement.

"They tried to stop it, by purposefully standing and, with no violence whatsoever, facing the hate that was coming down the street their way," Lane said.

Jury selection consumed much of the first day - rare, for a case involving such a minor offense. But it was made clear to the jury pool that something bigger than violation of a municipal ordinance was at stake, and some expressed misgivings about being thrust into an emotional conflict that has roiled Denver for more than a decade.

"The city ought to quit giving out the permit. It just seems to be making everybody mad," said a 66-year-old man, who did not make it on to the jury panel.

The trial is expected to last most of the week.


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