“Please, I can’t breathe.” Most of us breathed a bit easier when we learned that the main officer involved in killing George Floyd would face murder charges.
Colorado leaders generally have been remarkably unified in condemning the horrific police violence against Floyd, praising peaceful protesters, and condemning those hijacking the protests to commit senseless acts of violence.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said, “The violent actions of a few are drowning out legitimate calls for justice. . . . We had peaceful, successful demonstrations where people expressed their outrage over the death of George Floyd. . . . Unfortunately, another element . . . infiltrated tonight’s demonstrations and incited violence.”
Governor Jared Polis sounded a similar note, “I share the immense anguish we all feel about the unjust murder of George Floyd. But let me be clear, senseless violence will never be healed by more violence. These are extremely difficult times for our state, country, and world. Now more than ever we need to lift each other up and do right by each other.”
Across the state, Grand Junction Police Chief Doug Shoemaker wrote, “The death of George Floyd is shocking and absolutely could have been prevented. He has a family. He’s a human being. We, as a profession, never should be treating anyone like this. . . . I’m also angry. Angry and saddened that some who join this profession do so to exert power they think they have over those they serve. . . . We as a profession must own this. And when cops do bad things, other cops must call it out.”
Tay Anderson, a protest leader and a member of the Denver school board, had some harsh words on May 30 for the minority of troublemakers who “turn up and destroy our city” in the name of Black Lives Matter. He continued, “Everybody, we’re asking you, we’re demanding, that once we end this, there is no riot, there is no ‘second protest’ today.”
Unfortunately, there was some rioting in the evening hours and late into the night, prompting Hancock to issue a curfew starting May 30. There is some indication that much of the looting and rioting came from provocateurs. That is a story worth watching. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that both socialist and racial nationalist groups were independently stirring up chaos and conflict.
We also witnessed other sources of violence locally. One person, after driving through protesters, seemed to intentionally steer her car into a protester. Although protesters should not block streets, certainly drivers should not risk needlessly injuring others.
When gun shots rang out at the capitol, video shows Denver police officers rushing toward the danger and helping move protesters to safety. Thank goodness no one was seriously hurt in that incident. Frighteningly, three officers were injured when a car sped past a police vehicle; the suspect was arrested.
As much as I complain about the legislature, and as little as I like the esthetics of the building, such reports made me realize just how much I love the capitol. Although I haven’t visited in years, I’ve had some important meetings there, chatted with legislators, and testified at committee hearings. That building is our local reminder of our remarkable achievement in creating and maintaining a constitutional, republican form of government. Seeing it attacked was painful.
It should not have taken the death of George Floyd to prompt the changes in American police forces necessary to prevent police abuses. In important ways, democracy has failed here.
Yet let’s not lose sight of the many gains that justice-seeking activists have achieved. This weekend people marched to end police abuse, and every political leader I’ve heard from supports peaceful protests and legal reforms toward this cause.
It wasn’t always so. In a haunting article, Denver librarian James Davis discusses the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado politics nearly a century ago. Back then, the Klan marched through the streets of Denver and of other Colorado cities. Now that would be unthinkable. If it did happen, it would be a tiny group, every elected official in Colorado would loudly condemn it, and the counter-protest would be massively larger. The cultural and political landscape has shifted radically for the better.
Our system, whatever its imperfections, works to the extent that we make it work. We still have much to do to achieve full equality and consistent justice under the law. We will accomplish that not by smashing the capitol, not by tearing down our republican system of governance, not by pining for some variant of authoritarianism (some vandals painted Communist symbols), but, in part, by walking into our Colorado capitol with a sense of purpose and a reverence for justice.
This story has a bright spot. As Ana Campbell writes, “Dozens of people, including some participants of Saturday’s protests, scrubbed spray paint off the building and picked up the empty water bottles, fragments of pepper bullets and protest signs.” Arsen Shagoian, “a native Armenian,” Campbell writes, helped clean the memorial of the Armenian genocide that sits outside the capitol. The sign reads, “This monument commemorates the victims of all crimes against humanity.” Let the peaceful protests, the acts of city-building, and the efforts to build a more-just society be how people remember Denver and Colorado.