Independent journalist attacked and arrested by Denver police

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On April 29, 2015 around 200 people gathered in Denver in protest to show solidarity with the People of Baltimore, Freddie Gray, the ongoing uprising in that city, and the missing 43 of Ayotzinapa. I was among the group both in solidarity and documenting the protest as an independent activist journalist.

If you’ve ever filmed the cops you know that your camera will make you a target of their ire. Cops hate cameras. I tweeted this as I approached the protest on April 29.

The demonstration began right outside the Denver county jail and Lindsey-Flanigan courthouse on Colfax. The crowd grew and received lots of love from people driving by.

Protestors left a lane of traffic open to allow it to keep flowing, while also getting the message of the protest out.

After gathering for a bit, demonstrators took to the streets to begin the march. I’ve been to a lot of actions in the last year, mostly in Denver, and while the Denver Police Department (DPD) is always violent and repressive, April 29, 2015 had a distinctly different feel to it. Demonstrators were immediately met with a wall of cops riding their motorcycles straight at us. I accidentally slipped behind the line of motorcycles as I was filming. When cops get a chance to snatch a lone protestor they usually do. So I half-expected to be arrested right there.

As the crowd moved to the sidewalk motorcycle cops rode into the gutter, as close to us as possible, escalating the confrontation with protestors who were up on the curb. There was a lot of yelling, and some pushing, as cops shoved people to keep them on the curb—lest anyone’s foot touch the gutter of a now totally closed street.

See, while demonstrators left a lane open, the DPD did not. Let me say that differently: The DPD closed the street. Not demonstrators.

From here it seemed the DPD was intent on confrontation and they rode dangerously close to people who were on the curb. Officers repeatedly yelled for demonstrators to get out of the street, despite the fact most people weren’t in it, and that the road was now closed.

The march carried on like this for some way until demonstrators cut through a park and got some reprieve from the aggressive officers. At this point I ran over to my wife, Jessica, who was pregnant at the time, and gave her the keys to the car and let her know I was pretty sure I’d be arrested that day. We always know it’s a possibility. My camera and my relatively aggressive nature as an activist and as a journalist make me a target. She knew to film me with her iPhone when the time came.

After cutting through the park the motorcycle officers and police vehicles managed to trap some of us between the lanes of traffic in the street and two buses that were in the parking lane—essentially kettling 40-50 of us. This left a small amount of space for a lot of people, and the motorcycle officers kept nudging us into the buses. It was a scary place to be and the officers’ actions were downright dangerous. But documenting this type of police behavior is a big reason I’m there, so I did.

There were also three Black women who I spoke to before the march. It was their first demonstration. In the first minutes of the protest I saw one particularly aggressive officer—Michael Rispoli, the cop who ultimately assaulted and arrested me—single them out. After that I made it a point to try to keep my body between his and theirs. They were ahead of me among the group kettled against the buses.

As I ran up toward them one of the officers riding his motorcycle tipped his bike over. At first the crowd laughed and I thought I just caught a funny embarrassing moment on film and that would be it. I was only partially correct.

The wobbly little piggy kept to his feet as he laid his Harley Davidson down on its side. As he did this he pointed at the person he was ramming into the buses before he fell over—a bicyclist—and ran at him, shoving him against the bus to arrest him.

It’s worth a quick sidebar to note the Tall Tale the DPD spun regarding what happened here, as well as that local media initially ran with it. This is common for mainstream coverage of protests, it’s called the protest paradigm.

From the Denver Post:

“An officer got knocked of his motorcycle as he was basically patrolling and that was what lead to the assault charge arrest,” Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said. “That is what stirred up a lot of things at that point.”

As you can see here, the officer falls off his motorcycle. If you watch the slow motion clip it’s clear the bicyclist’s arm is actually in front of the officer, but even if there was incidental contact, it’s initiated by the officer angling his motorcycle into the bicyclist and not near enough force to knock a competent grown rider off their motorcycle.

12359963_1183963838299952_5901518571987951341_nSeeing this was all it took for the SWAT officers riding on a “rapid-deployment vehicle” a few lanes over to swarm and attack demonstrators in the area. It all happened in seconds. As the bicyclist was slammed into the bus at least two SWAT officers tackled and dragged me 10-15 feet across the pavement. No order was given. I had no chance to submit peacefully to arrest or leave the area. Several people around me received the same treatment—including one of the three young Black women and another Black man they grabbed from the sidewalk. The crowd was mostly white.

After they dragged me across the asphalt Rispoli rode up, dismounted, put his knee into my back, cuffed me, and repeatedly lifted and smashed/ground my face into the street while saying, “This is what you wanted,” and calling me a dumb ass and other insults. His attack left me with a concussion, a lacerated lip, and a loose tooth. His knee to my back has me in physical therapy eight months later. shot-2015-12-19_10-07-38

As this was happening to me, my wife Jessica was filming from the sidewalk as we’d planned. She was focusing on me, but also capturing the melee and other arrests around me. That’s when a cop, we think Commander Anthony Lopez—the guy in charge of this mess—snatched her phone from her hand. She wasn’t given any command or chance to see where her phone went, as a SWAT officer, we think a guy named Dixon, then grabbed her, pulled her into the street, and shoved her against the bus with a baton to her neck. Her phone never turned up in evidence or anywhere else and the DPD denied any of their officers took it.

As Dixon pinned Jessica against the bus she looked at him and said: “I’m pregnant, please don’t hit my stomach,” and he shoved her aside.

Reflecting on this Jessica realized later that her statement was a vestige of white privilege. Even in that moment, as this wannabe GI Joe violently pressed her into a bus with a baton to her throat, she asked him to protect her. And ultimately, he did. The same wasn’t true for Charlena Michelle Cooks, a pregnant Black woman who was slammed to the ground while police ignored the white woman who was in a dispute with her.

As I was being brutalized and arrested by Rispoli, only a few yards away DPD officers were pepper spraying demonstrators who were entirely on the sidewalk or in the public park, including a 12 year old.

In spite of a lot of confusion regarding why I was arrested and who arrested me (the SWAT officers never came forward to identify themselves or make a statement), I was charged with three misdemeanors: Interfering with a police officer, obstruction of a road or passage, and failure to obey a police order. After a trip to the hospital that night I spent the rest of it in the jail where the protest began. My brother paid my $500 bond early that morning and I was released by the afternoon.

And that was just the start.

Next, I’ll write about my journey through Denver’s criminal injustice system. Stay tuned.

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About Author

Jesse Benn is an independent media studies scholar, a writer, and an activist journalist. He holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Colorado and is currently taking a year off before beginning a Ph.D program. When he isn’t taking to the streets or pushing for radical societal change elsewhere he’s hanging out with his new daughter. He can be reached at: JesseBenn@mail.com.