Dueling rallies in downtown Denver devolved into chaos and some violence Sunday afternoon as protesters crashed a pro-police rally in Civic Center.
The anti-police protesters greatly outnumbered the pro-police crowd, and moved into their rally’s space in the park’s amphitheater shortly after the demonstration supporting law enforcement started around 3 p.m.
The protesters banged drums, blew whistles, clanged pots, clapped and shouted obscenities to drown out the pro-police rally, where a band had been playing music to a small crowd. The chaotic clash between groups led to some violence, with several people throwing punches in isolated disputes. Law enforcement officers attempted to form a line around the two groups, but could not completely separate them.
After about an hour, most of the pro-police demonstrators left the plaza, and police also began to retreat. The anti-police protesters followed officers as they retreated and at least one officer fired pepper spray into the crowd of protesters. It was not immediately clear what prompted the use of the spray.
Minutes later, protesters stood in front of a police vehicle to try to stop it from leaving, and officers again used chemical agents and less-than-lethal weapons before speeding away.
Denver police confirmed they used chemical sprays in three situations, in accordance with their policy and with a supervisor on scene. Police also made one arrest, for assault, but did not provide details.
“We had two pepper ball deployments and one hand-held fog device deployment, and we made one arrest for assault,” Denver police spokesman Tyrone Campbell said.
“We have a policy that dictates when and how those tools are used. And we have supervisors on scene to make sure there’s a reasonable reason for those devices to be utilized. And any time we use any of this stuff, there will be a review. It seems as if they were used in an appropriate fashion,” Campbell said.
“Our goal is to make sure everybody has the ability to exercise their First Amendment rights. Those tools are used only if there is some sort of disruption or threat to safety.”
The pro-police rally had been billed as a family-friendly event with music, speakers and food, and was promoted by Randy Corporon, an attorney who has recently represented two businesses in high-profile legal disputes about coronavirus precautions. Corporon represented C&C Breakfast and Korean Kitchen, a Castle Rock restaurant that was shut down by the state after it opened for dine-in eating on Mother’s Day, as well as Bandimere Speedway, which faced legal action from county health officials when a July 4 event saw large crowds and limited social distancing.
Corporon said Sunday that Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen asked him to reschedule or move the pro-police rally, expressing concern that police officers would be put in harm’s way by the event.
“He was agitated that we’re going to get his officers hurt,” Corporon said before the event. “My response to him was that he should allow his officers to do their job and if people are down there breaking the law, to stop them. Because they’ll have nothing to fear from us.”
Denver police spokesman Campbell confirmed that police had been in touch with rally organizers about the event beforehand.
“I think the conversation was such that said, ‘We appreciate it, but if you’re doing it on our behalf, we don’t want you to do that. We absolutely appreciate the sentiment, we know there is public support. But in the event you are doing it to exercise your First Amendment right, then by all means we’ll make sure you have the space to do that,’” he said.
Corporon said the rally organizers decided not to move or reschedule the event, in part because it’s happened annually in Civic Center Park for five years.
“We’re exercising our constitutional right to peacefully assemble, and we have no intention of giving up that ground to these domestic terrorists,” Corporon said, referring to the counter-protesters. He added that he believes Pazen doesn’t support his own officers.
“This chief of police is the guy who walked hand-in-hand with Black Lives Matter,” he said, describing that movement as a push toward anarchy. He could not immediately be reached after the rally.
Lillian House, an organizer for the Party of Socialism and Liberation, said they planned the counter-protest because a celebration of police is “unacceptable.”
“It’s just all around out of touch with the struggles people are facing,” she said.
Adina Chapman said she came to the Denver rally from Colorado Springs to support law enforcement. “I’m not saying there doesn’t need to be reforms,” she said. “But if we don’t have police, we don’t have safety.”
Ahead of the rallies, Campbell said Denver police would aim to protect both sides’ right to free speech.
“In the event it becomes contentious we’ll absolutely do what we can to make sure everybody is safe,” he said before the event. “But I don’t think we’re going to prevent one side from being heard or make sure one side is louder or anything like that. Our job is to make sure that everybody’s rights are respected and we ensure everyone’s safety.”
Denver Post reporter Bruce Finley contributed to this report.