The Ballad of Brother Koch and Tiananmen Sid

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My rural Colorado town, pop. 1,500 on a good day, is in many ways a laboratory-scale model of the U.S.A. We worship both community ties and unfettered independence. We’re gossipy and private, inclusive and provincial, divided by class and dogma even as we gather under our purple mountains majesty. Our community stew comes to a boil at Cherry Days, the annual Fourth of July celebration, and this year’s version — heated by wildfires and record summer temperatures — was extra hot and spicy.

The 66th annual Cherry Days parade was notable for its lead vehicle, a well-preserved Korean-War-era tank complete with a pair of anti-aircraft guns. Even more notable is the tank’s owner: billionaire Bill Koch, brother to the liberal bêtes noires Charles and David Koch. Bill Koch, whose interests in sailing, fine wines and antiques are less political than his brothers’ but probably just as expensive, is the founder and CEO of Oxbow Group, whose holdings include a local coal mine. Oxbow affiliate Gunnison Energy Corp. is active in local natural-gas development.

In recent years, Bill Koch has also become a part-time neighbor, acquiring a long list of area properties and commissioning the construction of a private “Western town” furnished with his collection of frontier memorabilia. He’s aroused local suspicion and resentment by pushing for Congressional approval of a public-private land swap that would benefit his ranch and close off 40 miles of access to a wilderness area. And for the community activists fighting fast-moving natural-gas development, Bill Koch and Gunnison Energy have become symbols of unwelcome change.

So when Koch’s collectible tank creaked down Grand Avenue last week, Sid Lewis — hairdresser, cycling enthusiast, and former town councilman — stepped in front of it holding a handwritten cardboard sign about money and democracy and the corruption of the latter by the former. Sid and his sign were soon escorted off the street, but the story of “Tiananmen Sid” quickly landed on Facebook. By Friday morning, Sid was in The Denver Post, and that night the tale of the hairdresser versus the tank was told on The Rachel Maddow Show. By the time you read this, local online arguments about the incident will probably have invoked the First Amendment at least 1,098 times (and, if Godwin’s Law holds, mentioned Nazis at least once). All over one minute and fifty-three seconds of jaywalking:

To some in town, it turns out, Bill Koch is the benevolent rich guy who buys the groceries, and Sid is the outsider poking his disrespectful outsider-y nose into a pretty good deal. To others, Koch is the dastardly outsider trying to buy the town for cheap, and Sid is the community standing heroically against him. These stories, with different characters in the lead roles and varying degrees of truth, have been told and retold here for generations. Neither is likely to change anyone’s mind.

But I was happy that Sid shook up Cherry Days, and not only because I happen to prefer beauticians to billionaires. Sid made the parade a more accurate reflection of my little complicated town and big complicated nation. Most of us, after all, are in a testy, confrontational mood these days.

I was even happier, though, when the parade continued its march, unrolling its humble column of Constitutionalists and conservationists, Republicans and Democrats, Shriners and dancing librarians, organic farmers and volunteer ambulance drivers and the Class of 1982. They all straggled slowly along the long, crowded route in pickups or flatbeds or under their own steam, waving and grinning, separate but more or less on the same path. That’s the part of the procession where most of us live our daily lives. When we’re lucky, its story is the truest one of all.

Top photo credit iStockphoto; video by YouTube user chesterzev1.

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10 thoughts on “The Ballad of Brother Koch and Tiananmen Sid

  1. It’s always a pleasure to read your writing, and even more so here where you’ve captured the essence of the situation and brought the beauty of it to the surface.

  2. Love the story of the confrontation — what’s a small-town July 4 parade without a little pizazz? And I love the way you told it, and how generously you embrace all the contradictions of your little town. I would have loved to see those dancing librarians! Your post made me miss the July 4 parades (and city council arguments) from my own goofy former home, Takoma Park, Maryland.

  3. Two hands clapping loudly for “Tiananmen Sid” Lewis. It would have been really great had there been a whole crowd of protesters joining Sid.

  4. Spirit of the 60’s lives on when all don’t become aligned with the sheeple. Hopefully, awareness of big money influence will affect our community and help dilute the power of Mr. Oxbow. Too many trains!!!
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  5. Well written and fair assessment of the incident. The FB threads have been a fascinating reflection of the community and probably the broader community of this country.

  6. I love that the announcer ignored the protest and stuck to her script. A perfect commentary on current US politics.

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