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Denver in the Movement for Black Lives
Roots of the Movement
When the authors of the United States Constitution wrote those famous words in 1787, “We the people,” they did not mean all people. They did not mean to include the enslaved Africans they looted, or the Indigenous people whose land they stole and bodies they tortured, or the women they silenced. They meant white, male property owners. The rest of us were left out.
The deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers is but the tip of the iceberg of a bigger societal problem. Our freedom movement ancestors have long thought of racism as a deadly malaise that has infected US society at every possible level—the police force, public schooling, corporations, even capitalism itself. Under European colonialism, which started in the era of Spanish conquests to “the New World” and was often endorsed by the church, the US has leveraged its military to export violence globally. Ask the hundreds of innocent civilians in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia who were killed by drone strikes under the Obama administration.
All of these forces are like one big powder keg, ready to explode at any moment. The spark ignites occasionally. More surprising than the recent uprisings in Minnesota, and now all over the world, is that it doesn’t explode more often. A hypocritical and inflamed democracy caused James Baldwin to ask, “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” It is a marvel that most Black people still fight for this country at all—and that our prevailing demand is justice, not war. If Black people had chosen a more radical politic of revenge and racially based terror akin to the KKK, there may well have been a civil war during every generation of our existence here. A few burned buildings and looted corporations, as much attributable to white extremist groups as anyone, are hardly anything compared to the destruction we could have wrought.
Our hope overwhelmingly lies in our chance for freedom in our lifetimes, the logical conclusion of justice, above any noble ideals about democracy. This hope is rooted in a Black prophetic tradition—or as the great Vincent Harding coined it, “The River”—the Black-led, multicultural, and intergenerational freedom fighters who have fought for justice at every milestone of America’s history. Captured Africans sank their slave ships, abolitionists preached against the bloody stain of slavery in a “free land,” marches and sit-ins in Nashville, Selma, and Washington, DC, inspired revolutions from South Africa to Palestine, from Poland to East Germany, from Tunisia to Sudan, and uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson changed the global narrative: Black Lives Matter! For the first time in the European colonial experiment, this affirmation of Black life has entered the mainstream zeitgeist with tremendous force. As we consider where we go from here, let us remember that in so many ways, this city has been here before.
The Movement Comes to Colorado
Shortly after Mike Brown was murdered in August of 2014, I flew into Ferguson, which was by all accounts a battlezone, to join the uprisings. As I witnessed teenagers on street corners sharing their stories and riveting critiques of a failed democracy, I was undone and remade time and again. Shortly after returning back home, I started leading “Freedom Rides” modeled after those of the 1950s and ’60s. Our group, a mixed collective of rabble-rousers and poets and preachers and concerned Americans, would travel back and forth to Ferguson and eventually to Baltimore, to stand together with the people and bring back some of the prophetic fire of social rebellion. Our unlikely troupe included young people—the likes of Howard student Kamau Wasset and high school senior Corean Adams, to white pastors like Jason Janz, to Denver’s own artists and poets. We would grow to call ourselves the Denver Freedom Riders (DFR).
Later that fall, my friend Antwan Jefferson and I drafted a letter to Mayor Hancock and other city leaders titled “Our Vision for a New U.S. Society.” In it, we detailed an analysis of the ways in which our city was complicit in our nation’s quest to deny Black people our humanity. We included the many names of unarmed victims of police brutality—the Marvin Bookers and Jesse Hernandezes of Denver. Though we did not yet use defunding language, we ended the letter with a list of demands focused on redistributing the power of our city from police and city bureaucrats to the people, especially youth of color, and a warning: We are prepared to shut down the entire city if these demands are unmet. In the event that they read our letter as child’s play, we quickly gathered hundreds of people to do a sit-in at the mayor’s office.
Denver Freedom Riders matured into a formidable organization and became a central hub of the Movement for Black Lives. The power of our collective was in the fact that we represented a significant cross-section of other people working on overlapping issues, but driven toward a common cause. On Martin Luther King Day of 2015, through the help of Evan Weissman and Warm Cookies of the Revolution, we hosted an organizing and direct-action conference at the McNichols Building where nearly 2,000 people joined, representing some of the best and brightest young minds in our city.
From here, we led a series of conversations with city leaders and directed protests and nonviolent civil disobedience actions locally and nationally, as well as rapid responses to subsequent unjust murders. The seeds for Black lives truly mattering in Denver were sown once again. As the heat of the moment slowly faded over time, though, it became more and more apparent that our city wasn’t willing to go far enough. We envisioned revolution; they settled for reform. The homeless have suffered because of this decision. The unchecked greed of corporate development has continued. And, worst of all, people have died.
If you are reading this moment as protest, perhaps its significance has gone over your head. This is, again, a revolution. In fifty states and eighteen countries, more people showed up for Black Lives Matters demonstrations in a single day than for any other in world history. These are the forgotten ones—African descendants all over the world, and the people who stand with us—saying in one overwhelming chorus, “No more.” And the people have the potential to reshape and redefine this nation at its core, finally giving birth to America’s conscience.
We have never known a US society that was not defined by white supremacy, so perhaps this alone engenders fear among those who stand to lose the benefits gained under a “white is right” mentality. We know our rejection of the status quo stokes the ire of the establishment and the extremist right, and there is great risk in the retaliation of it all. But better to risk in this struggle than to risk our futures being determined by those who could never love us.
Where the Movement Goes from Here
Some have said that the call to defund the police is too much, too soon. “We must compromise our way into practical reform,” they argue, “or we risk the moral whiplash of white supremacy.” But we have walked this road before—negotiating when we should have demanded, policing our own responses to insanity more than the power that has orchestrated an unbalanced world.
The call to defund the police is a conclusion built on a number of historical facts. Here are several, in no particular order:
Antebellum slavery never technically ended, but shifted tactics: The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except as “punishment for a crime,” thus birthing the phenomenon of mass incarceration.
By far, most crime in the US is nonviolent. Crime takes on different forms, everything from white collar illegal stock signalling to forged checks. Most often, it can be solved more effectively through nonviolent means than through a militarized police force.
The wealth disparity between Black people and white people at large did not happen accidentally, but through designed injustices such as red-lining. To overcome such disparities, funds (not just from policing) must be invested more strategically away from violence toward peace.
Defunding the police is a conclusion, but also a call for a new beginning. Without a clear path forward in which the community has true power to govern itself, we risk corporations arming their own private mercenaries as a substitute for police officers. This would be an even more disastrous alternative than the current reality. Capitalistic nations will always find ways to ruthlessly protect hordes of wealth. Additionally, previous efforts to slash policing budgets without a clear vision have backfired.
As we stand today, Denver will spend $435,058,656 this year on law enforcement. This does not account for the other creative ways the city capitalizes on policing for profit, such as illegal searches and seizures, and donations. In comparison, Denver has allocated $27,345,990 for housing and $44,199,310 for homelessness. All of this exists within a state that is 48th in the nation for public education funding.
Now is our opportunity to dream up creative, multifaceted, and broad-sweeping solutions that go far beyond symbolic victories. The recent commitment to rename the Stapleton neighborhood was monumental. Cutting Denver Public Schools’ contract with the Denver Police Department (DPD) was even bigger. As a next step, Denver should immediately commit to cutting its policing budget by half within the next four years while simultaneously investing those funds into a community policing network to ensure an alternative safety plan. Additionally, Denver should move to a participatory budgeting model, so that city spending priorities are not as unilateral and mayor-centric. As budgets are being discussed and approved for 2021, our city should begin this shift in year one by divesting $50 million from the DPD and into these alternatives.
There is no morally acceptable way to halfway join this fight. What may be unclear to us now will be crystal clear to our progeny. They will look back at all of the timestamps and social media posts—they will gaze at our photos and ask, “What did you do in these times? “What did you do about Black life being eradicated before your very eyes?” “What did you do about a house and world on fire?” Our answer must be more than, “We put body cameras on a few police officers and trained them to shoot at legs instead of hearts.”
For all of our sakes, our actions must be more. They must be aligned with this 400-plus year struggle to stretch this democracy to include all people. To do this, we must be willing to put our bodies on the line for Black people. And we must creatively and decisively make every effort to redistribute power. This is the foundation for our call to defund the police and to, in turn, fund justice.
Photos in this blog were taken by staff curator James Peterson and have been accessioned into the History Colorado permanent collection.
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