DENVER -- The simmering tension near the Colorado Capitol escalated dramatically Saturday with more than a dozen arrests, reports of skirmishes between police and protesters and authorities firing rounds of pellets filled with pepper spray at supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Officers in riot gear moved into a park late in the day where protesters were attempting to establish an encampment, hauling off demonstrators just hours after a standoff at the Capitol steps degenerated into a fight that ended in a cloud of Mace and pepper spray.
Denver police spokesman Matt Murray said 15 people were arrested in the evening confrontation, where authorities were moving to prevent protesters from setting up tents in the park, which are illegal. Officals say the demonstrators had been warned several times that the tents would not be allowed and those who attempted to stop police from dismantling the camp gear were arrested. Protesters have been staying in the park for weeks, but tents have repeatedly been removed.
Murray said that most of the protesters were peaceful but there was "just a die-hard group that didn't want to cooperate."
"We showed great restraint," he said. "We were calm. We went in and did what we had to do. There's a group of very committed people who believe in a cause, and then there are a few people who just want to cause trouble."
Earlier in the day about 2,000 protesters rallying against what they see as economic inequality and corporate greed marched downtown toward the Capitol, setting up the most intense moments of the Denver movement, which has lasted weeks.
A group of the marchers advanced toward the building and some tried to make their way up the steps. About eight officers scuffled with a group of protesters and police confirmed that they used Mace and fired pepper balls – hollow projectiles filled with the chemical irritant – to break up the crowd. Protesters told the paper at the time that they believed police used rubber bullets.
Murray said protesters kicked police and knocked one officer off his motorcycle. He said five protesters were arrested, including two for assault and one for disobedience.
Chantrell Smiley, 21, of Denver, said she has been protesting downtown for more than a week, sleeping on the ground in the park. She said she didn't see the officer get knocked from his motorcycle and didn't see any reason for the afternoon confrontation.
"It was just chaos. This wasn't necessary. My friend got hit with rubber bullets in the face. He was screaming and bleeding, then they Maced him. We're being peaceful. We don't want to be harmed. They came through and took everything down – our food, our blankets, everything's gone."
Mike Korzen, 25, told the Denver Post that he was among the group that police dispersed with rubber bullets and pepper spray and suggested that the police force was excessive.
"I was standing there with my hands behind my back," Korzen said, using a water bottle to rinse pepper spray from his eyes.
After nightfall about a dozen Denver police and Colorado state patrol cars remained in the area.
About 100 protesters milled about, most coughing and sneezing from the haze of pepper spray and Mace that still hovered in the air. Some laid out tarps on the ground, preparing to spend another night outside. Throughout the evening vehicles pulled up, dropping off blankets and food with cheering protesters.