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Trial for Columbus Day parade protesters ends

DENVER - A controversial trial against three Native activists who protested the city's Columbus Day parade ended in Denver County Court Jan. 22 with mixed verdicts.

''No case anywhere is more important than this case,'' David Lane, a prominent civil rights attorney, told prospective jurors at the start of the four-day trial, ''because the relationship between the government and its citizens is the most important thing.''

More than 80 people were arrested Oct. 6 in downtown Denver, including the three whose consolidated trial concluded Jan. 22: Glenn Morris, a professor in the political science department at the University of Colorado - Denver; the Rev. Julie Todd, a Methodist minister in a doctoral program at Iliff School of Theology; and Koreena Montoya, a Denver educator. They were charged with misdemeanor offenses that included blocking the street, interfering with a parade and, for Montoya, resisting arrest.

They were found not guilty on related charges.

The three defendants were not sentenced to jail, but were fined in amounts ranging from $50 to $200.

The convictions were the first in nearly 20 years of opposition to the parade in Colorado, birthplace of the Columbus Day state holiday, and they occurred under an ordinance passed last year by the Denver City Council.

''Are you aware that to some Native Americans, celebrating Columbus is the same as celebrating Hitler?'' Lane asked jurors. Columbus' contact with the already-inhabited North American continent marked ''the beginning of the end for Native Americans,'' he said, citing slavery and genocide.

An assistant city attorney, Melissa Drazen-Smith, told jurors, ''Don't listen to their opinion; don't listen to words,'' but consider only actions, as the city sought to prove that the political protest had significantly impeded the parade. ''They want to use this to put Columbus on trial. That's not what this is all about.''

George Vendegnia, of the organization Sons of Italy and a chief organizer of the parade, did not appear in court. He had said earlier that the protest caused minimal disruption and is ''just motivating people to be back next year and exercise their right to participate in an American holiday.''

Testifying before the all-white jury, Morris noted the parade includes Hell's Angels on motorcycles and is ''not a cultural celebration, but is intended to show whites' racial superiority and racial inferiority of Indian people'' in a display of ethnic intimidation.

The defense also raised the issue of both the police and SWAT team conduct at the Columbus Day parade protest and showed a video of pain compliance holds being used on some of the arrestees, including the two female defendants.

Police spokesman Sonny Jackson said earlier that officers used ''appropriate measures'' given the situation.

Irma Little, of Rosebud, S.D., an elder who testified from a wheelchair, said the only violence she witnessed was not from protesters, but from police officers making arrests when those being apprehended ''yelled in pain.'' She said she participated because ''now that I know the truth, I want them [young people] to know the truth.'' She had been arrested in her wheelchair and taken to jail from the parade.

Russell Means, who, along with Morris, is a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and a prominent activist, was also to have been on trial, but charges were dropped for procedural reasons and he became a witness instead.

Means said life expectancy on reservations in the Dakotas is now 44 years, and his 22-year-old son is ''already middle-aged.'' Means, who recently announced the creation of an independent Republic of Lakotah in the northern Plains, said American Indians have no constitutional rights and no protection against various outside forces. ''The 'doctrine of discovery' that Columbus brought to this country was murderous to my people,'' he said. ''When do we get to tell our story? In the 21st century, we don't exist.''

Morris has unsuccessfully attempted to get parade organizers to remove ''Columbus'' as the parade's title and to use ''Italian-American heritage'' or some other neutral designation instead.

Efforts by Morris and others to introduce legislation that would end Columbus Day as a state holiday in Colorado have also been unsuccessful. Activism against the parade itself began in 1989 and, after a massive demonstration in 1992, the parade was canceled for eight years.

The city did not immediately decide whether to prosecute the 70-plus remaining arrestees from the parade protest.