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The Battle Of Denver

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Wednesday was the day that the party and its discontents decided to party.

At highly exclusive big-donor events, the Black Eyed Peas and Fergie rocked a prObama concert for the entertainment industry foundation, The Creative Coalition, while Kanye West headlined the One Campaign/RIAA event.

Rosario Dawson hosted a party for her organization, Voto Latino, as Bun B, Fat Joe, Big Boi, Jessica Alba, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Eve Longoria, and J-Lo were spotted around town.

At the Manifest Hope Gallery, DJ Z-Trip entertained the party people. And in Boulder, Chuck D--fresh from his wedding party--led Public Enemy at a free show for an audience decidedly more critical of the Democrats.

But the biggest and most unlikely gathering of the day started the earliest--at 11 in the morning--at the Denver Coliseum, an aged arena best known for horse shows and "Disney On Ice", five miles away from the glittering new Pepsi Center and Invesco Field where Barack Obama will give his acceptance speech tonight.

There, 10,000 fans gathered to see powerful sets from Denver's biggest hip-hop crew the Flobots, a newly black-rockified The Coup, and the reunited Rage Against The Machine. This was the Tent State Music Festival. Tickets were free. The guests of honor were the Iraq Veterans Against The War.

Between sets, 22-year old vet Wendy Barranco drew a cheer when she urged the audience to march with them towards downtown where Iraq Veterans Against The War hoped to deliver a letter to Senator Barack Obama calling for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, full health benefits for all returning veterans, and reparations for the Iraqi people.

Just two years before, Barranco had been an Army combat medic based for 9 months in Tikrit, tending to wounded soldiers, Iraqi people, even insurgents. She had grown up in Echo Park and enlisted right of Belmont High School, which has one of the highest dropout rates in Los Angeles.

"I wanted to see the world. I got a paid vacation to the sandbox," she said. "All I knew was my family didn't have money and so therefore I couldn't go to college."

She had come into the Army in the full hoo-rah of the first months of the invasion, and was deployed with the 47th Combat Support Hospital in 2005. "I fell for the mission hook line and sinker. I was like, let's go kick some hajji ass," she said. "You had to be that way. The moment you realize you don't have a purpose you fucking lose it."

In 2006, she got her papers and was able to be discharged. Half of her peers, she thinks, weren't so lucky, and had to return for a second deployment. She enrolled in Pasadena City College, eager to get on with her life.

One day she wondered into a campus forum on the war where two members of Iraq Veterans Against The War were speaking. "I was so pissed off. I kept thinking why are they biting the hand that fed them for so long. What the fuck is wrong with them?" she said. "But I still felt used (by the military)."

When she grabbed the mic to address the panel, she thought she'd give them a piece of her mind.

Instead, it all came back. The tactics the recruiters had used to lure her in. The soldiers she'd tended to who had been blown up by IEDs. The Iraqi families and children burned over large parts of their bodies.

"As I was fucking speaking, a light bulb went off," said Barranco. "Everything I was saying, they had said." That began the process that led her to the Denver Coliseum yesterday afternoon.

At 3:15 pm, after closing with a rousing version of "Killing In The Name", Zack De La Rocha and the rest of Rage Against The Machine rushed out into the street to join the march. Boots Riley from the Coup and Jonny 5 of the Flobots held a banner reading "Support G.I. Resistance". Three thousand followed. At the front, 50 servicemen and servicewomen from the Marines and the Army in uniform or combat fatigues, including Barranco, marched toward downtown in formation.

When they arrived at the Pepsi Center at almost 5 p.m., the crowd had swelled to between 4,000 and 6,000, according to Denver Police Lieutenant Vince Porter. The march briefly shut down parts of the downtown.

They came up Speer Boulevard towards the Center, where hundreds of delegates and others credentialed for the Convention were arriving. Hundreds of riot cops met them in the streets, on horses, and on trucks, both inside the Center perimeter and out.

The demonstration was diverted around the Center into a 'free speech zone', what protesters have called 'freedom cages'. Penned in from all sides, the veterans decided to march back out to the convention entrance on Speer and Market. There, convention attendees, Denver residents, and onlookers confronted the strange sight of unarmed Army and Marine soldiers in full uniform facing down riot police holding tear-gas rifles.

But although tensions built, this was a different kind of protest.

Marshals kept protesters to the march route for the entire five miles. There were no breakaway clashes with police, and not a single person was arrested. Marine Lance Corporal Jeff Key carefully explained on the cell phone to Denver police that they wanted a meeting with an Obama representative to deliver their letter. They were prepared to stay as long as it took, and some veterans were ready to get arrested.

As the crowd grew, Army Specialist Jason Eric Hurd got on the bullhorn and addressed it. "I was that man with the baton in the uniform. I know what it feels like. I have to live with those nightmares," he said. "I want to remind everyone that these police are good people, and that they are under orders."

The troops then saluted the riot police. And there they stood, the veterans and the thousands behind them, mostly silent.

At about 7:30, word came back through the line. Former Texas Lt Governor Ben Barnes would accept their letter. Denver police escorted Key and former Marine Liam Madden into the convention center for a meeting with Phil Carter, the Obama campaign's staffer for veteran's affairs.

In the streets, the veterans broke formation to let out a roar. Barranco, other servicemen, and many of the young activists shared some tears. For her, after 5 years of seeing the worst of humanity, it was a small victory, a ray of light. From the back of the line, protesters spontaneously began chanting "Yes we can!" and "Si Se Puede."

Then the veterans snapped back to attention. Mission accomplished, they about-faced and marched back into the dusk.

Originally posted at Vibe.com.

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