Fearing a supposed ‘autonomous zone,’ Denver police used weapons to oust people from Civic Center Park

DPD says protesters swung first. Protesters said they were helping people without homes.

Denver Police break up a protest camp at Civic Center Park. July 1, 2020. (Courtesy: Brian Loma/Cut The Plastic)

Denver Police break up a protest camp at Civic Center Park. July 1, 2020. (Courtesy: Brian Loma/Cut The Plastic)

staff photos

Officers with the Denver Police Department shot pepper balls and used batons and pepper spray on protesters to push a group of people, which police said were setting up illegal camping structures, out of Civic Center Park late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.

While protesters say DPD started the clashes, DPD Division Chief of Patrol Ron Thomas said officers were responding to people spraying fire extinguishers at them and that people “threw things at officers” and used “some unknown type of irritant against them.”

Gabriel Lavine with the Afro Liberation Front said it was police officers who escalated the situation. He described people in the crowd trying to retreat when officers “yanked one girl so hard she face-planted.” When Lavine tried to help her, he said officers unloaded four rounds of pepper balls in his face at point-blank range and shot him “with two other somethings” that left bulging welts on his legs.

“I know her personally, she has a lot of trauma with police, and they don’t care,” Lavine said. “Like this disregard was phenomenal last night, like the way they were brutalizing her, what they did to me, what they did to everybody else.”

A video of the skirmishes shows police officers, armed with body armor and gas masks, pepper-spraying residents and shooting pepper-balls at protesters, some of whom defended themselves with umbrellas. Police officers also beat one person with a baton, the video shows. Thomas said the person being hit grabbed the officer first.

No tear gas canisters or smoke bombs were used, according to DPD. Lavine said that whatever was released “felt like tear gas” and “produced the same effects.”

Thomas said authorities had warned the group of about 40 people earlier in the evening that erecting tents at Civic Center Park was illegal — though nearby Linclon Park, which is filled with campers, has different rules because it is state-owned. Civic Center Park closes at 11 p.m. When officers returned at about 12:30 a.m. to find their warnings disregarded, they formed a “skirmish line” to push the protesters out of the park, Thomas said.

It was “a collection of groups, some just agitators, honestly, certainly protesting prior police actions,” Thomas said. “Certainly we’re not trying to interrupt their peaceful protest. We were there only to remove the structures that were illegal in the park and then enforce the park curfew after 11 p.m.”

DPD arrested six people.

A few protesters verbally attacked officers following their use of force against them, the video shows. Thomas said officers only responded with weapons after being physically pressed and that words aren’t enough to elicit violence on the part of officers.

DPD was concerned about a budding “autonomous zone” — an area of public space occupied somewhat permanently by a community of protesters — like the one in Seattle that was recently disbanded, Chief Thomas said.

He claimed protesters were advertising the area as such on social media.

Lavine said his group and others were there to protest police violence (as they have for over a month) and to serve houseless residents. Their group of tents included a canopy storing medical and sanitation items.

While Lavine said one member of his group may have referred to the area as an autonomous zone, annexing the space for a permanent camp was never part of a long-term plan.

Lavine said he plans to press charges against DPD, which already faces a slew of lawsuits for their crowd control tactics.

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