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Final trials held for Denver Columbus Day parade protesters

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DENVER - Eight months after Denver's annual Columbus Day parade, trials arising from a parade controversy ended May 30 with the acquittal of a Lakota woman in a wheelchair who had joined the protest because she felt the parade celebrated oppression.

''I wanted to stand up for Native people,'' said Irma Little, 67, of Denver, originally from Rosebud, S.D. She was found innocent of municipal code violations in Denver City-County Court.

A city prosecutor had charged that Little ''gunned the engine on her electric wheelchair,'' sweeping past a police cordon into the street. Melissa Drazen-Smith, assistant city attorney, said Little then hindered police efforts by gripping the chair's wheels with her hands, although her hands were later shown by the defense to be twisted by arthritis.

Little said she spent about 12 hours in custody, including time in ''what they were calling the 'cripple cell.'''

Denver's annual Columbus Day parade Oct. 6, 2007, ''seemed like a good time to make a stand against the oppression of Native Americans,'' Little said, because Columbus represented the ''start of all the oppression I put

up with.''

Parade opponents last fall gathered in downtown Denver carrying banners and chanting anti-Columbus slogans. In this last trial of parade dissenters, three others - a sightless man and two older Denver residents - were convicted of blocking the street and refusing a lawful police order. They were acquitted of a third charge of disrupting a lawful assembly.

An underlying issue was brought into court by defense attorney Lonn Heymann, who contended there was a city-planned sweep and mass arrest of the Columbus Day dissidents and implied a connection to security concerns at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver, noting, ''We have the DNC here this year.''

George Vendegnia, of the Sons of Italy-New Generation, the parade's organizer, said the parade had to do with ''American heritage'' while Glenn Morris, a leader of the American Indian Movement in Colorado, said the parade is ''deliberately celebrating the destruction of Native peoples.''

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Vendegnia said parade organizers were warned in 2007 that police intelligence suggested problems might arise at the parade and they were advised ''to make sure we had our security in place.''

Morris, a professor in the political science department at the University of Colorado - Denver and an expert witness for the defense, countered that in nearly 20 years of intermittent parade protest, there had been no violence on the part of the dissidents. Because of his long-standing and cordial relationship with Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman, ''I'm on his speed-dial; he's on mine,'' he said.

The three other Denver residents on trial May 30 were Kate Goodspeed, 63, a non-Native who teaches English as a second language. She acted as a guide at the protest for Nicholas Delmonico, 32, a sightless Italian-American. The third defendant was Dan Whittemore, 60, a retired non-Native lawyer and minister.

''I do not stand for ignorance, discrimination or prejudice on any level,'' said Delmonico, who described indignities he has suffered in connection with blindness. Goodspeed, who said she spent about 20 hours in custody after she was arrested, has protested at past Columbus Day parades and hopes for a change from the present state commemoration of Columbus Day to Italian Pride Day or another holiday.

Whittemore was arrested holding a sign that read on one side, ''Columbus is a Symbol of Domination, Slavery and Genocide'' and, on the other, ''Just Change the Name ... Da Vinci Day.''

Although the three were also initially charged with disrupting a public assembly, defense attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai queried why, if a significant disruption had occurred, no parade participants were called to testify that a disruption had in fact taken place.

The conclusion of the trial ended months of proceedings during which 13 of the 83 people initially charged in connection with the parade demonstration were found guilty of at least one charge at trial, according to Vince DiCroce, director of the city prosecutor's code enforcement section.

Only a handful of parade opponents were found guilty of all the charges against them and paid the maximum $500 fine, Morris said.

The Columbus Day parade protest has been an annual event in Denver since 1989, although there was an eight-year hiatus beginning in 1992. In 2000, parade organizers agreed to eliminate the word ''Columbus'' from the parade's official name and from the parade itself, but did not do so. Protests have continued to the present.