August 27, 2008 – A standoff between Iraq war veterans and police ended after representatives of Barack Obama’s campaign finally emerged from the Pepsi Center to hear the group’s grievances.
The veterans were arrayed in formation and in uniform, marching slowly toward a line of police, who had warned them they could be pepper sprayed and arrested. They were being watched by a crowd estimated by police at more than 5,000, many of whom had marched with the veterans from the Denver Coliseum.
As the vets got within a few yards of the police, the cavalry arrived in the form of two white-shirted Obama staffers who asked a representative of the veterans to be escorted inside the security zone.
After a brief conversation, a veteran’s representative said they had been promised a meeting with Obama’s liason for veteran’s affairs. A cheer went up, the veterans did an about face, and the Democrats appear to have avoided providing John McCain with some very unflattering video footage of veteran’s being pepper-sprayed hogtied and handcuffed outside their convention.
The veterans first approached the southwest entrance of the Pepsi Center and tried to ask the Democrats to allow a representative to read an open letter to nominee Barack Obama from the podium. But no one from the party or the Obama campaign emerged from the arena to speak to the group.
Jeff Key, who served in Iraq as a Marine master sergeant, said he wants to go into the convention, play taps for the fallen on his bugle and read the letter from Iraq Veterans Against the War.
“I’m not leaving until I get to read that letter,” he said, as protesters gathered behind him in a fenced zone outside the Pepsi Center. “I intend to read that letter from the podium. If they say no we’re going to tell the world they turned away the veterans.”
As Key spoke, delegates inside the arena were watching a performance by Melissa Etheridge. A spokeswoman for the DNC said she was unaware of the veterans demands or even that they were outside.
“The veterans have fought too hard to come back here and be ignored as we have for the past seven years by the administration,” said Liam Madden, a Marine sergeant.
A representative of the Barack Obama campaign did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Moments later, and after police warned the veterans that they could be pepper sprayed and arrested, they turned and began walking back toward Speer, but stopped at the Pepsi Center entrance on that side, near Market. Dozens of police in riot gear were waiting, but did not immediately intervene.
“We want to thank you for your service,” one of the veterans shouted to police over a bullhorn at 7:15 p.m. “We are non-violent. We don’t want to hurt you. We don’t want you to hurt us.”
The veterans were aligned in formation, marching, two steps at a time toward police.
The march of as many as 3,500 people from the Denver Coliseum to the Pepsi Center by Iraq Veterans Against the War reached the fenced protest zone on the grounds of the Democratic convention hall about 5:30. But while they were next to the zone, they refused to enter.
The march, led by the members of the band Rage Against the Machine and the veterans, and followed by an array of protesters including anti-war groups, supporters of medical marijuana and some anarchists with gas masks, started at close to 4 p.m.
As the head of the march reached the 16th Street Mall about 5 p.m., they stopped, and one of the veterans read the letter intended for Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who arrived this afternoon at the nearby Westin Hotel.
“Sen. Obama, millions of people are looking to you to restore our reputation around the world,” the letter read. “…In this ominous time, you symbolize the hope for a better America .”
The group read out its three aims: Removing U.S. troops from Iraq immediately, providing full health care benefits to returning veterans, and paying reparations to Iraqis for the damage done during the war.
Marchers expressed disappointment that Obama had not responded to their letter by 3 p.m. today after they had delivered it to his campaign earlier.
“We are here to hold the Democrats accountable,” said an IVAW spokesman shouting into a bullhorn. “We as Americans voted them into office in 2006, and they have not done their job.”
The protesters, who had divided themselves into groups based on who was willing to be arrested, were led on the march by a police SUV with a flashing sign saying, “Welcome to Denver, Follow Us.”
Police estimated that 3,000 to 3,500 people were taking part, making it by far the largest march of the convention week.
Organizers have been talking with officers along the route, and, while there is a heavy police presence around the marchers, there have been no confrontations. Some of the protesters have a phone number written on their arms for legal assistance in case of arrest.
The march followed an energetic, and at times emotional Rage Against the Machine concert at the Coliseum.
The concert opened with a stirring speech from Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic.
“I have been in this wheelchair for 40 years because of war, and I have been arrested in this wheelchair 12 times protesting this war,” said Kovic, whose story was told in the film “Born on the Fourth of July.”
“This is our country. They are not going to shut us up or shut us down,” he said. “We are going to end this war and bring the troops home.”