DENVER — A month after whipping the crowd at Lollapalooza into a near-riotous frenzy, a strange thing happened during the protest show on Wednesday (August 27) in support of Iraq Veterans Against the War: Things were downright ... peaceful. And, as of 7 p.m. Mountain Time, they stayed that way as several thousand protesters gathered in the shadow of the Pepsi Center, where President Bill Clinton was about to address the Democratic National Convention.
After a more than 2-mile march across Denver that at one point included a police-estimated 4,500-6,000 people, a crowd of several thousand anxiously awaited word from the campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama, to whom they had submitted a list of demands that included an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and reparations for the Iraqi people.
With more than 700 police in full riot gear looking on, the protesters defiantly refused to enter the designated 50,000-square-foot protest zone, dubbed the "Freedom Cage," saying that as veterans, they deserved more from their country.
With chants of "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "We believe in freedom and will not rest, will not rest until it comes," the marchers were led by a phalanx of soldiers from Iraq Veterans Against the War and a front line that included Rage's Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello, as well as the Coup's Boots Riley. They amassed outside the Freedom Cage and let out a whoop as word came down around 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time that the Obama camp had agreed to enter into negotiations with the group.
Hours earlier, Tent State University leader Adam Jung vowed from the stage of the Coliseum that the marchers would make the Democrats "sh-- their pants" as the mile-long protest snaked through town.
Before taking off, Rage played an hour's worth of incendiary, bomb-throwing anthems from their catalog, and lead singer De la Rocha egged on the near-capacity crowd at the Denver Coliseum into a froth, but several hours' worth of warnings from the concert's organizers to keep the post-show protest nonconfrontational appeared to soak in as fans mostly danced in place with their fists in the air, spinning out the occasional mosh pit.
Among those helping to spread the message of peaceful resistance at the show — which also included sets from the Coup and Denver natives the — was Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, whose story was the basis for the movie His fist raised in the air, the wheelchair—bound Kovic told the crowd that "the whole world is watching."
Rage said little during their set, playing hits such as "Testify," "Bulls on Parade" and "Killing in the Name." With assistance from former MC5 guitarist and 1968 Democratic National Convention protest veteran Wayne Kramer — decked out in all white and sporting a guitar painted with an American flag — Rage ripped through a punk-edged take on the MC5's scorched-earth manifesto "Kick Out the Jams."
De la Rocha kept the polemics to a minimum during the show but gave a stern warning that "revolutionary change begins with a crime of betrayal," and said that any politician who continues to support the United States' current policies "is in harm's way."
A short time later, voluntary parade marshal Wesley Flowers, 31, put on his helmet and brightly colored vest and began the long march to the Pepsi Center, keeping the marchers in line while warily eyeing the hundreds of police on bicycle and on foot shadowing the march from across the street. "I'm wearing a flak jacket because I'm allergic to tasers," he said, showing off his body armor and explaining that with his heart murmur, a blast of the taser could cause him to go into cardiac arrest. Flowers, an advocate for the homeless, said he hitchhiked eight days from Portland, Oregon, to take part in the protest and hoped that the Obama campaign — which he had written a letter to three weeks prior — would listen to the veterans' demands when they made their way to the Pepsi Center.
An hour before the marchers arrived, hundreds of police began massing and forming long, foreboding lines, in order to funnel the march toward the protest zone and away from the delegate entrance to the Pepsi Center. Checking their mace canisters, dropping their face shields, standing at attention with their five-foot batons at the ready and strapping on leg armor, the squadrons of storm trooper-like officers marched into the fray with orders to be prepared for potential violent action.
The protesters marched past the gathering delegates and into a long concrete and barbed-wire corridor, stopping several times to coordinate actions with police, remaining orderly and respectful along the way. In another bit of Big Brother irony, the procession was led by a police officer in a heavily armored golf cart with a digital message board on it that flashed the instructions, "Welcome to Denver ... Follow us."
Nearly three hours into the protest, frustration began to ripple through the crowd as it stalled out just outside the desolate Freedom Cage, with some marchers sitting down to play dice, start impromptu dance circles, smoke marijuana and, eventually, wander away until police estimated that just a few thousand remained.
Then, a buzz rippled through the mass as the word was passed on from the front that something was happening. "We are entering negotiations with Senator Obama," one of the march's Iraq-vet leaders announced. "The Democratic Party is scared sh--less of us right now!"
A spokesperson for IVAW could not be reached for comment on the negotiations at press time, but judging by the roar of approval from inside the convention center for President Clinton's speech a short time later — which likely could not be heard by the far-flung protesters — fear was likely not the on the minds of party supporters as they finally got the healing message between the Clinton and Obama camps they'd been looking for all week.
Don't miss out on the action: MTV News and our Street Team '08 will be on the ground at both conventions to sort through all the speeches, streamers and ceremony to find the information you need to choose our next president. And head to Choose or Lose for nonstop coverage of the 2008 presidential election. And after history is made in Denver, MTV News will help you make sense of it all in "Obama Decoded," premiering Friday, August 29 at 7:30.