How I nearly got arrested for holding a sign at Denver International Airport
DIA, COLORADO- Last weekend I joined thousands across the country protesting Trump’s executive order restricting entry visas from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Spontaneous demonstrations had erupted at international airports nationwide on Saturday January 27. Denver’s airport was no exception but the lively gathering of sign holders was ultimately persuaded by police to leave the premises. Supposedly a permit was required to hold signs. Demonstrators the next day were quickly ushered outside, to rally instead between the terminal and adjacent lightrail station, where only a tiny fraction of travelers would see them. This much we knew as we monitored events online while we reconnoitered DIA from the short-term parking garage. We made our way swiftly to the International Arrivals doors at the north end of the main terminal WITH OUR SIGNS.
The point was to reach immigrants, right? We walked to our intended protest spot unhindered and inconspicuous, because of course signs are not an unusual sight at an airport. Travelers who’ve been a long time away, in particular soldiers returning from deployment, are frequently greeted by family members holding signs. Often limo drivers have to page their corporate clients. We carried our placards with their message facing inward hoping they’d be mistaken for everyday signs. When we raised them above our heads we attracted immediate attention. They read “#NO MUSLIM BAN #NO REGISTRY, END WHITE PATRIARCHY” and “FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE MUSLIMS AND WE SAID: NOT TODAY MOTHERFUCKER.” Immediately a man with a “DIA Operations” cap informed us that we weren’t allowed to hold signs. We assured him the opposite was true. He called for backup.
We weren’t alone in front of International Arrivals. In addition to the families awaiting loved ones, there were a couple dozen law firm employees holding signs which read “Pro Bono Immigration Legal Services”. We surmised that their presence might have already been negotiated with DIA. Soon a couple of those lawyers approached us to announce loudly that the public protest was outside the building and that we could continue there unmolested. We thanked them for their assistance but urged that they also clarify publicly that we were within our rights to stay inside as well. I was upset that their gravitas, as lawyers, was seen as supportive of the authorities telling us to stop.
Police officers arrived in short order, a first one filming us with a digital point-and-shoot, then a second filming with a cell phone, both surely streaming to a command center. After six officers assembled, a sergeant approached us flanked by two DIA employees. She gave us our formal warnings. We were given instructions to “cease and desist” while we countered that we knew our rights. After a second warning we were assured that a third would mean our immediate arrest. We held our signs higher, all the while asserting their order was unlawful. The immigration lawyers huddled as far away from us as they could. Sgt. Virginia Quinones then got on her phone to consult somebody.
I recount this scene like it was a nail-biter, but of course we’ve held this standoff many, many times before. For activists with Occupy Denver, it’s become the routine. I was wearing an OD hoodie on this visit to DIA and I suspected whoever was on the line with Sgt Quinones had likely dealt with OD before. To be honest, this standoff too often does lead to arrest, so we were not proceeding without trepidation. Denver jail is an excreble experience. But it’s an unlawful arrest and that’s where we have to push back. As the sergeant kept talking, she and her entourage retreated. We stood our ground smiling and winked to each other. For onlookers however, the tension lingered. Several lawyers approached us to offer their cards, in case of arrest.
Though we were confident about asserting our rights, the six officers standing at the ready made it near impossible to entice other sign holders to join us. Our encourgements would be followed by the DIA operatives offering their advice to the newcomers. Nearly every newcomer opted to go outside. Only after hours of detente, with officers projecting a more relaxed inattentiveness, did we succeed in building a consensus of demonstrators.
In the meantime DIA operatives installed queue barriers to keep us from intermingling with the lawyers and family members waiting for international travelers. This strategy might also have meant to force us into the flow of passengers entering the nearby security check. We stood clear and even as our numbers grew, no obstruction occured.
One interesting fellow, a Mr. Gene Wells, wore a jacket with a message taped on its back. It read:
IS A SMALL MAN
AS A PERSON”
with the letters diminishing in size every line. He was warned by DIA personnel that he could only wear his jacket outside. DIA operatives wouldn’t leave his side as he walked through the terminal, but abandoned their effort to intimidate him as he rejoined us at the arrivals door.
A couple of travelers joined in before they had to catch a flight, they held signs they’d printed that morning at their AirBnB. We were joined by Quakers and even a former Denver Occupier. At most we numbered eight, compared to the hundred outside.
The protest outside
The protest outside was seen only by those travelers arriving or leaving by light-rail. And potentially by only half of those departing DIA through the B and C terminals, whose security check queue necessitated passing the windows facing the south. Perhaps. Most travelers approaching security aren’t lingering to take in the sights. The other half of passengers departing DIA go through the north security check, or over the walkway to Terminal A.
All arriving passengers, on the other hand, enter the main terminal from the north or using the underground train. They pass through the center of the main terminal before exiting at the baggage claims to the east and west. International arrivals enter the terminal from the north and proceed directly to parking or ground transport. If they are met by family they are very UNlikely to be riding the light-rail to downtown Denver.
While the protest outside did garner local television coverage, it was prevented from reaching immigrants or those awaiting arrivals, to convey the solidarity which those who opposed the Muslim Ban wished to express.
Inside our signs prompted a constant stream of public support. Passing travelers gave us thumbs up, high fives and thank yous. Muslims shook our hands and offered their heartfelt thanks. A couple gentlemen made speeches expressing their pubic appreciation of what we and the lawyers were doing.
The DIA operatives kept explaining that protesters need only apply for permits. The catch was that they required seven days advance notice. And of course activist do not expect permits to be granted.
One of the Quakers who joined us expressed confidence that her group would be granted a permit to protest at DIA. She explained to me that she was personal friends with the new Denver DA.
I told her applying for permits set a bad precedent. Asking for permission implies those rights are not already protected by the First Amendment. Permits also restrict others to the code of conduct agreed by those who signed permit agreements. Often permits are used to exclude public participation on public grounds temporarily reserved for the use of the permit holder.
Worse, the police can intervene when “others” aren’t abiding by the permit agreement, when they aren’t complying with police intrusion, or aren’t acquiescing to the authority of the permit holder.
Never the less, this Quaker wanted to inform me that as the anticipated holder of the permit at DIA, she wished to invite me to participate with her group. However, she anticipated that her church colleagues would be made most uncomfortable by my sign (which ended with the word “motherfucker”). So if I did choose to join, she was expressing her preference that I not bring my sign.