An eight-year-old girl in a pleated pink skirt and sneakers stood on stage in Denver’s Civic Center on Thursday, dwarfed by the amphitheater’s towering stone columns and the sea of people before her.
Protest organizers adjusted a microphone stand as low as it could go and then she poured out her heart.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Mac Vasquez said. “That’s not being taken very seriously right now, and we should do that.”
The crowd of hundreds roared in support and leapt to a standing ovation. It was the eighth day of protest in Denver following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He died under the knee of a white police officer, gasping for air and calling out for his mother, and his death sparked nationwide outrage during an already extraordinary time.
Amid a global pandemic that’s led to record unemployment and that’s disproportionately harmed people of color, combined with a divisive president in power, the video of Floyd’s killing — on the heels of the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia — became a rallying point for Americans across the country to call out systemic racism and demand an end to police brutality.
But there’s a reason those deaths resonated so deeply in Colorado: this brutality, citizens of color attest, has happened for generations.
Standing outside the Capitol on Thursday, as hundreds chanted “Black lives matter,” Dee Veay, a 36-year-old black man from Denver, recalled the first time he felt targeted by police.
“I was probably 15,” he said. “I was hanging with some friends and we got pulled up by the police. They put us all on the wall, illegally searched up. We didn’t have anything. But we all just got harassed. It’s not really fair, but we couldn’t go out and assault the police — we’d get in more trouble. There’s nothing 15-year-olds can do. The police are the ones with the power.”
Veay said he long ago settled into a feeling of powerlessness. Veay has two teenage sons, and he’s warned them about the targeting.
“That’s pretty much my whole life. It’s just how it is,” he said. “You’re growing up as a young black guy, you’ve gotta know you’re just a target of injustice.”
Black and brown Coloradans said last week in dozens of interviews with The Denver Post that they — like Veay — have rarely, if ever, felt protected by police. Young and old alike, shared stories of being personally targeted or of having family members brutalized and even killed by police. Some of the stories date back decades.
The generational trauma and exasperation can be heard in the cries of “I can’t breathe” — words spoken by Floyd in his final moments and by Eric Garner six years ago in New York — that ring out from crowds flooding streets that as recently as two weeks ago were nearly empty due to the coronavirus. The eerie quiet has been replaced with a consistent and thunderous expression of outrage and urgency, and a demand for change that many believe may now, finally, be attainable.
It’s spread across the state, with demonstrations from Fraser to Boulder, Parker to Grand Junction.
“Police brutality has always been directed at the poor and oppressed in society, including the poor and oppressed in Denver,” said David Lane, the Denver civil rights attorney who’s represented the families of some of the state’s most high-profile victims of police violence. “But the poor and the oppressed have never had a voice to prove that this stuff was happening.”
They do now. And some people in power are listening.
The Democrats who control Colorado’s legislature are intent on passing a sweeping police accountability bill, sponsored by black and Hispanic lawmakers, that a month ago would have been seen as radical. The concept has broad support among Democrats, including from many white lawmakers and from the governor, who rarely speaks on issues of race or police violence.
Because of video evidence of Floyd and others being killed by police, Lane said, “For the first time, white America is seeing what the black community and the Hispanic community have seen for decades and decades and decades: the police targeting minority people with violence. They don’t do this stuff to bankers in Cherry Hills Village.”
Braxton Robertson pleads with the police during a protest over the killing of George Floyd in downtown Denver on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Thousands gathered to protest as police enforced an 8 p.m. citywide curfew. As officers advanced, protestors began throwing objects as officers returned non-lethal fire into the crowd.
“It happens a lot”
Aya Gruber, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, said with collision of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump and decades of police brutality and systemic racism she is not surprised to see protests.
“That is a lot of pressure, in a few months, to put on not just the black community, but also just people who value racial equality and are frustrated by police violence,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic may have boosted the number of protesters across the country as Americans deal with economic uncertainties, increased isolation and job loss, she said. There is a distinct air of liberation at these protests, as if demonstrators — who, perhaps incidentally, have been largely homebound since March — feel fully unshackled.
“People have been locked up in their homes,” said Natalia Marshall, whose uncle Michael Marshall was killed by Denver sheriff’s deputies five years ago. “They’re angry, they’re bored and frustrated, and they’re taking it out on their cities.”
She added, of police violence, “A lot of people don’t realize it happens in Colorado. It happens a lot.”
A Denver Post investigation of all police shootings in the state in 2019 found that in cases where a subject’s race was reported, black people were over-represented among the dead. They comprise about 5% of the state’s population, but were shot and killed in 10% of the incidents examined.
This over-representation can be found in local data, too. In 2016, The Colorado Independent and CU News Corps found that black people had been killed in 13 of 24 officer-involved shootings in Aurora over a five-year period, or 54%. Just 15% of Aurora is black.
And it’s not just killings. Boulder is 1% black, but a review of data from the first half of last decade found that black people were more likely to be cited for traffic violations and misdemeanors. This is a statewide trend — a Colorado Division of Criminal Justice report found that black people made up 12.4% of all arrests and summonses in 2015 — more than double their population share.
The statistics have stories attached.
Jasmine Townsend, a 29-year-old black woman from Aurora, spoke about the moment she found out firsthand that she was vulnerable to police abuse because of her skin color. She was 20, and she got pulled over, she said, because “I fit the description.” The police asked to search her car.
“I exercised my right and told them no,” she said.
They asked her if she was hiding anything, and, she said, she again told them no.
“And so they held me up for two hours. Outside my car, sitting on the curb. The color of my skin is different than my girlfriend’s, so I didn’t get the same benefit,” she said.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, shared a similar story with The Denver Post. Hancock, a black man, said he was profiled by police when he was younger.
“I had an officer explain to me I was being pulled over because I was in the wrong neighborhood,” he said.
Townsend marched Wednesday evening with thousands from the Capitol to Colfax Avenue, up through a downtown core lined with businesses with windows boarded in anticipation of looting. All the while she carried a sign that read, “Am I next?”
Protesters march out of Civic Center Park in Denver on Thursday, June 4, 2020.
“That’s what revolution looks like”
The protests have made clear that an increasing number of people consider police abuse a national, systemic problem. Crucially, that includes white people. The mostly young crowds convening every day downtown have been diverse, but majority white.
That so many are showing up may be attributable to the fact the video of Floyd’s death — he pleads for his life before falling unconscious as three officers pin him and a fourth watches as bystanders plea for them to stop — shows such clear and obvious brutality that it cut through decades of inaction and denial. Even those who have never before acknowledged or protested police brutality against people of color are galvanized.
“The realness of the video made it difficult for all of us,” said Hancock, who added that he’s never been able to shake the footage of Philando Castile’s death in 2016, which, like Floyd’s, came at the hands of police in Minnesota.
“Americans across the country were outraged at the murder of Mr. Floyd,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Boulder Democrat and the first black member of Congress from Colorado. “The pain and anguish and fear that so many are experiencing in this country is very real.”
Edie Tavel, 19, said she’s been forced to consider her role as a white woman in fighting racism.
“This moment is when I first started becoming active in the movement,” she said outside the Capitol. “I marched in the Women’s Marches, but now I’m donating. I’m coming to these protests. This moment has really been impactful.”
Changing systems as entrenched as policing and government will be a slow and painstaking, experts said. Whether the protesters’ momentum pushes through change or whether Floyd’s name will be lost among a still-growing list of black men killed by police remains to be seen.
“I feel encouraged that we’re going to see some serious change,” Robert Davis, vice president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, said. “But we have to strike the iron while it’s hot and we have to be focused on what it is we want to accomplish.”
Davis welcomes the support of non-black people.
“The thing I’ve been very encouraged about is that we have so many of our Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic brothers and sisters who are joining in with the African Americans and saying, ‘This is enough,’” Davis said. “I’m sensing a certain amount of unity around, ‘Something needs to be done.”
The demonstrators in Denver have chanted, among many things, obscenities about Trump — who called the protesters at George Floyd events “thugs” just weeks after supporting mostly-white and heavily armed protests over coronavirus restrictions. They’ve called for him to resign or be voted out in November.
But it’s not clear how the unrest will impact Trump’s reelection campaign. Perhaps the last time America saw forces like the ones coalescing now was during the 1960s civil rights movement, Gruber, the CU law professor, said.
In 1968, Richard Nixon used unrest to get elected, pledging to bring law and order back to the country, and Trump has shown signs he intends to take a similar approach, she said, like when he cleared protesters from around the White House in order to stage a photo at a nearby church.
Still, she said, 2020 — with so much available video evidence of police misconduct — is very different from 1968.
“There is a theory that there is such a broad coalition of people that were horrified by the George Floyd video and execution-style killing that he will not as easily be able to play race politics the way Nixon did,” she said.
Of course, police violence predates Trump, and most of the American cities now drawing protesters are governed by Democrats.
Among protesters in the streets of Denver, the optimism about upcoming change is pervasive.
“It’s been happening like this for a long time and people just haven’t heard it,” Diego Garcia, 26, said during a demonstration at the Capitol. “But when you choke someone under your knee for nine minutes, and the whole world sees it … the whole world is protesting. We’ve had enough of this (expletive).”
“It’s opened the minds of a lot of people,” said Nathaniel Hailu, 25.
“I don’t think anything can be resolved until the American government is changed,” said James Allen, 29. “That’s what revolution looks like.”
Davis, a member of Denver’s police use-of-force advisory board, said elected officials must reign in police abuses. The response to protests — tear gas, pepper balls and foam bullets — was “totally inappropriate,” he said.
“The way they are approaching it is, ‘Once we are in a fist fight with the guy, we will try not to knock all his teeth out,’ and that’s the deescalation,” he said. “But we wanted deescalation before you even show up, before the fight starts, before you get out of your car, what are you doing to deescalate the situation? What are you doing to deescalate before the first stone is thrown?”
While immediate reforms like banning choke holds or making it easier to file lawsuits against police officers may help stem police brutality, many believe that American policing is beyond reform, and must be torn down and entirely re-imagined.
“Until you do a total reorientation of it,” Gruber said, “a total rethinking of how weapons are handled, when weapons are needed, if weapons are needed, what they wear, how they are deployed, who does what — an entire restructuring and rethinking — likely we’re still going to see these events occur.”
This content was originally published here.