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Klan Rally Sparks Violence at Denver King Celebration : Holiday: Protesters objecting to hate group's presence battle with police. Observances elsewhere are largely peaceful.

January 21, 1992|ANN ROVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DENVER — Martin Luther King Day observances turned violent Monday when police, clad in riot gear, clashed with thousands of demonstrators protesting a Ku Klux Klan rally on the state capitol steps.

Three police officers were injured by rocks and bottles and at least five protesters were treated at Denver General Hospital, said police spokesman Det. Dave Metzler. Police said they arrested 21 people, including six juveniles.

The disturbances took place after one of the largest local celebrations of Martin Luther King Day. Earlier in the day, between 6,000 and 8,000 people paraded through east Denver. But trouble erupted when authorities tried to take participants in a klan rally away by bus.

Elsewhere, King day observances were more peaceful.

At a service in Atlanta, King's hometown, Winnie Mandela said South Africa's fight for freedom has "come full circle" from an armed struggle to King's nonviolent philosophy. And in Phoenix, up to 5,000 people--a smaller crowd than in previous years--turned out in the rain to march in support of a paid state holiday for King in Arizona, the only state without one, although New Hampshire's civil rights holiday does not honor King by name.

The Denver disturbance began near a side exit to the capitol as authorities were escorting participants in the klan rally from the scene. About 1,000 klan opponents began pelting officers with snowballs, bottles and even cans of snuff. Police, in gas masks and deployed in riot lines, responded by shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd.

Although several canisters were picked up and thrown back, officers were able to slowly drive the protesters down the street. At one point a small group attempted to turn an unoccupied police car onto its side, but quit when three more tear gas canisters were sent off.

Later, youths ran down a nearby shopping district and ransacked a Foot Locker sports clothing store, punching two store employees, the store manager said.

In all, police said, protesters damaged five police cars, overturning one. One police officer, who was hit in the chest with a snowball packed with a large rock, may have suffered a bruised heart and was hospitalized overnight for observation, police said.

Police Chief Jim Collier described the protesters as mostly youths who set out to spark a confrontation with the klan demonstrators.

Still, some felt the police overreacted.

"I think the police are really instigating it to some extent," said spectator Dave Kolko, 28. "I was standing up on the hill and the police just started pushing people back and gassing people."

Earlier, at a ceremony in front of a statue of King in City Park, Mayor Wellington Webb prayed for the klan members, calling them "misguided representatives of hatred and intolerance."

"Those who would spread evil and racial hatred . . . need our prayers," said Webb, Denver's first black mayor.

The klan's rally, following the parade, took place amid a heavy police presence on the state capitol steps. It drew about 100 white supremacists, including Thom Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. As Robb spoke, however, a police helicopter circled the capitol steps, making it impossible for his message to be heard by most of the King day participants.

Terming the holiday a "Day of Infamy for America," Robb called for a popular vote on whether the day should remain a national holiday.

As he and others spoke, some members of the King day crowd lobbed snowballs and other items at the speakers. Standing by was a force of more than 400 police officers, including 300 in riot gear.

The klan's rally took place after the group's right to gather was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and upheld by a federal judge. Earlier, two applications by the klan to rally at the capitol had been denied by Gov. Roy Romer.

In Atlanta, after the three-hour service at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mandela, wife of African National Congress President Nelson Mandela, joined Coretta Scott King, King's widow, in leading a memorial parade.

A rally at the end of the Atlanta parade turned into a pep rally of opposition to President Bush, who visited the King Center on Friday.

"Don't vote for Bush," the crowd chanted.

Arizona's controversy also was mentioned in the Atlanta service. The keynote speaker, the Rev. James Alexander Forbes Jr. of New York's Riverside Church, denounced the rap group Public Enemy for its recent video portraying blacks assassinating white officials in Arizona.

"Don't go around suggesting destruction as a way to honor Dr. King," Forbes said.

And in Philadelphia, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim sect that had differences with King, told about 16,000 people at the Philadelphia Civic Center that he had changed his opinion.

"As I look back at the life of Dr. King, I see Dr. King as a genuine American hero," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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