125 arrested protesting Columbus Day parade

Sunday, October 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER – For the first time in nine years Saturday, Italian-Americans in Denver bucked a tide of protest and staged a Columbus Day parade along a few city blocks of downtown.

Despite several thousand protesters along the short route, including many Hispanics and descendants of American Indians who regard Columbus as an invader, the two-hour march passed without the incidents of violence that both sides feared.

Police said they arrested about 125 protesters, most of them women, who sat in the street at the midpoint of the parade. Those arrested were charged with unlawful assembly.

But the arrests were carried out gently, with some police officers helping older protesters to their feet and only a few people handcuffed as they were walked to a police bus for processing.

"This is the greatest day of my life," said George Vendegnia, a parade organizer. "They have the right to protest, but we have the right to march. We got our Italian festival day back."

The parade followed weeks of arguments over ethnic sensitivities and the rights protected by the First Amendment. At one point, opposition groups and the organizers signed an agreement that all references to Columbus would be eliminated by parade planners in exchange for a promise of a peaceful protest.

The deal fell apart several days later when organizers said they would not compromise their rights of free speech and would celebrate Columbus as an Italian hero. But negotiations by Mayor Wellington Webb and others continued, and on Friday they won assurances from both sides that they would discourage any violence by their followers.

By maintaining peace, both sides enjoyed at least a public relations victory. From noisy motorcycles, flatbed trucks, stretch limousines with tinted windows and an oversize dump truck, Italian-Americans waved their green, red and white flags and carried signs proclaiming their heritage. For the most part, they smiled and seemed to look past their antagonists.

Carlo Mangiaracina, a march organizer, estimated that 2,800 people had participated in the parade, although to neutral observers that seemed to be an exaggeration by half.

The protesters had their say, as well. Along the route, they chanted "No more Columbus Days" and held signs that reflected their antipathy toward Columbus. One sign said, "Your hero was a murderer." Other signs compared Columbus to Mussolini, Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan.

"I respect their right to march and celebrate their heritage," said Russell Means, a national spokesman for the American Indian Movement who was one of those arrested. "But I don't believe the First Amendment, as the founding fathers designed it, is to protect hate speech."

Mr. Means said the protestors would ask for individual jury trials. The charges can bring penalties of up to a year in jail.

Once the street was cleared of the protesters, the marchers were allowed to continue through what would have been the only flash point of the parade, a gantlet of sorts with both sides of the barricaded streets filled with angry spectators.

But unlike the 1991 parade, when protesters pelted marchers with eggs, both sides held their ground with no physical confrontations. After the parade, the Italian-Americans left the area to attend a picnic in a distant park.

"There was no violence, and we're very pleased about that," Mr. Mangiaracina said. "So we'll be back with a parade again next year. The float committee has already started planning."

Associated Press contributed to this report.