Marchers, police, protesters outnumber spectators at Denver's Columbus Day Parade
October 11, 12:34 PM
Downtown Denver Examiner Kendra Wiig
One hundred years ago, in 1909, Italian Americans were still a target of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment that had raged throughout the United States since the mid-19th century. It was under these circumstances that the first Columbus Day parade was held in Colorado, two years after the state became the first to adopt it as an official holiday. The Italian American community embraced the day as a way to celebrate their heritage and contributions to U.S. American culture. After all, they claimed, it was an Italian who first "discovered" the Americas in 1492, setting into motion the trade routes and colonization that would eventually lead to the establishment of the United States in 1776.
In more recent years the celebration of that legacy has drawn intense criticism, as Native American activists and their supporters have drawn attention to the treatment of indigenous people by Columbus himself; and to the disease, war, genocide, enslavement and displacement inflicted on natives by later European settlers. The controversy has lead to many local governments discontinuing observation of the holiday and to organized protest against Columbus Day events. In 2007, confrontations between demonstrators and parade marchers in Denver lead to the arrest and detention of 83 anti-Columbus Day protesters. The controversy has dampened interest for the parade in the broader community, leading to lack of sponsorship by the business community and declining attendance.
This year the parade suffered two additional setbacks. Earlier in the week a press-release was e-mailed to news outlets falsely announcing the 2009 parade would be canceled. The cancellation was reported as news by the Associated Press and several local news outlets before they were contacted by frustrated parade organizers. In addition to the hoax, the day of the parade was marked by sub-freezing temperatures and an early-season snowstorm, virtually ensuring that only the most dedicated would come downtown to either support or oppose the event. The parade consisted of four sparsely-decorated floats, a few dozen marchers, a procession of cars waving Italian and American flags, and perhaps preparing for repeat of 2007, a phalanx of Denver Police cruisers. Despite the chill, the marchers kept good spirits; waving, smiling and shouting "Happy Columbus Day" to the few scattered onlookers on the sidelines of the parade route.
At the intersection of Colfax and Broadway around 15 protesters held signs, waved banners and heckled the passing parade. While they have nothing against Italian Americans, they said, the legacy of Columbus is one that lead to massive injustice that continues to this day. Hector, a Denver resident who held a "Death to Empire" sign, commented on the sparse turnout for this year's event, "But it's been pathetic for years. It's a racist holiday, regardless of whether there is a parade or not. Columbus coming to this part of the world really represents a genocide of the entire continent. Literally thousands of civilizations were forcibly removed-- that's why we're out here today." As the parade continued, the demonstrators beat a home-made Uncle Sam piñata and chanted "go away" to marchers. They were met with a wail of car horns as the parade procession attempted to drown out the interruption.
Though the vast majority of curb-space along the parade route remained empty, there were some spectators who braved the cold for what they believed was an important cause. Alex from Colorado Springs sported a green, red and white parka and explained what Columbus day means to him, "It's about Italian Heritage." Asked about the demonstrators across the street, he shook his head, "I think they're wasting their time, and I think they could find more positive ways to get their message across. I'm from Detroit originally, and there isn't a big protest there, so the first time I came I here was surprised to see it. I wish more people would come out to show their support."