Last Thursday, after a health care sit-in that lasted nearly sixty hours, nine disability rights activists with the Denver-born organization ADAPT, many of whom are in wheelchairs, were arrested at the office of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).
But the official story of who had them arrested and why remains somewhat murky.
Let’s begin by tracing the statements given by Gardner’s staff.
The Denver Post reported last Thursday that “Gardner’s state director read a statement to the protesters saying building management informed the office that it was in violation of its lease and both staff and the protesters had to leave.”
That report also states that Gardner’s staff said building management informed them that the protesters could no longer stay because neighboring tenants had begun to complain, giving us two reasons why the protesters allegedly had to be removed.
The Post report provides yet another reason for the arrests:
“The top priority throughout this protest has been allowing these individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights in a safe environment,” Casey Contres, a Gardner spokesman, said in a statement after the arrests began. “In order to allow this, staff have slept in the office for two nights and assisted and aided these individuals with several matters to ensure they were comfortable and safe. Earlier this evening, Denver police asked the individuals to leave. When they declined to leave, the police were forced to remove them due to several factors, including serious concerns for their health and safety.”
Now here’s where things get especially dicey. I found three different versions of this statement, and all suggest health and safety concerns as the primary reason for the arrests, but in terms of who ordered the removal of the protesters, the story shifts. The Denver Post’s version just says the police asked the protesters to leave, but doesn’t say who called the police in the first place.
Here’s the Associated Press version of the statement, which suggests building management called the police:
“The top priority throughout this protest has been allowing these individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights in a safe environment,” Gardner spokesman Alex Siciliano said. “At the request of the building, Denver police were forced to remove them earlier this evening due to several factors, including serious concerns for their health and safety.”
And, finally, the ColoradoPolitics.com version, which not only puts the blame on building management, but works in some praise for Gardner’s staff:
The top priority throughout this protest has been allowing these individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights in a safe environment,” according to a statement released Thursday night. “In order to allow this, staff have slept in the office for two nights and assisted and aided these individuals with several matters to ensure they were comfortable and safe. At the request of the building, Denver police were forced to remove them earlier this evening due to several factors, including serious concerns for their health and safety.
On Saturday, the Denver Sheriff Department released a statement on their Facebook page clarifying that “Gardner’s office filed trespassing charges against several protesters on Thursday night,” which the police were then obligated to enforce.
The building management company Hines declined a request for comment.
A Westword interview with one of the protesters who was arrested also raises questions. Kalyn Heffernan said they initially received a noise complaint from one of the building tenants, which they complied with, and that Gardner’s only neighbor on his floor, First American Title Insurance Company, seemed especially peeved by their presence. But Heffernan says on the day they were arrested, no employees from the title insurance company were even there to file a complaint with the police, and called the manner in which they were finally arrested “shady.”
First American Title Insurance Company didn’t return a call for comment.
Once again, pinning down Gardner’s official statements and positions feels like trying to nail jell-o to a wall, but one thing is reasonably clear: Gardner and his staff seem eager to evade responsibility for the arrests of nine people with disabilities who were so worried about losing health coverage that they were willing to spend days sitting in a cramped office with little opportunity to use the restroom. And it’s not hard to see why.
Key questions remain here:
How much, if at all, was Gardner’s staff pressured by building management and neighboring tenants to force the protesters to leave? And was that pressure so insurmountable that Gardner couldn’t have let the protesters stay until he returned to Denver later that evening and could have spoken with them face to face? As the Denver Post reports, his flight was diverted that day, according to his spokesman Alex Siciliano, and didn’t arrive at Denver International Airport until midnight.
Second, did Gardner himself sign off on the removal of the protesters?
And finally, if the primary reason for the removal of the protesters was due to health and safety concerns, why would Gardner draft a bill that put them in danger of losing health insurance in the first place?