Why George Floyd protests resonated so early in Denver

After years of community pressure for police reform, the city was primed for protest.

 

Demonstrators at the Colorado State Capital in Denver raise their fists in a sign of solidarity while protesting the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Photo by Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

On May 30, Denver’s third night of protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man allegedly murdered by police in Minneapolis, thousands gathered in Civic Center Park, hoisting signs with slogans reading “No Justice, No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter.” Traffic cones and graffiti covered most of the statues, empty tear-gas canisters littered the streets and scorch marks scarred the vast lawn. Police in riot gear, holding paintball guns and foam bullet launchers, lined the streets surrounding the park. 

Without warning, the officers began throwing metal canisters into the crowd. As they clinked to the ground, explosions boomed, and some of the canisters sprayed a grayish-yellow mist into the air. Protesters, gagging on the mist, stumbled towards the Capitol building, pushing aside the masks they wore to protect them from the coronavirus.

In the Western United States, Denver’s protests were early flashpoints for violent conflicts between protesters and police, resulting in more than 300 arrests and a curfew starting Saturday, May 31. In 2010, Denver outranked other U.S. cities for publicized incidents of excessive police force, and ever since, it has grappled with police reform. A highly developed network of protesters was primed for action when word of Floyd’s death on May 25 spread.

“Denver has a long history of abuse in its police departments. There is more going on out here than people just expressing their feelings.”

“Denver has a long history of abuse in its police departments,” said Alex Landau, who co-founded the Denver Justice Project after he was beaten nearly to death by police in 2009, after he asked for a warrant during a traffic stop. “There is more going on out here than people just expressing their feelings.”

Protesters have marched on Denver’s streets every day since May 30, with the peaceful afternoon assemblies routinely devolving into chaos as the sun went down. In early June, the tenor began to shift. Police Chief Paul Pazen joined the afternoon protest, marching arm-in-arm with protest leaders at the front of the crowd. That night, fewer officers arrived in riot gear, and the protest did not escalate to the violence of previous nights.

Though the police have toned down their presence, Pazen defended the initial show of force in public statements, calling it a response to vandalism, looting and water bottles and rocks being thrown at officers.

  • A demonstrator holds a Black Lives Matter sign cut in a cardboard heart at Civic Center Park in Denver, Colorado on June 3, 2020, while protesting the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

    Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images
  • Protesters hold a rally for George Floyd in Denver on May 30, 2020.

    Photo by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
  • Rasllula Housch, center, holds a sign as protestors face off with Denver police officers near 20th Street and Chestnut Place in Denver on May 28, 2020. Demonstrators marched from the Colorado State Capitol building demanding justice for George Floyd, a man who was allegedly murdered by Minneapolis police officers.

    Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
  • Thousands of people rally next to the Colorado State Capitol to protest the death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. The city of Denver enacted a curfew starting Saturday night, and Governor Jared Polis called in the Colorado National Guard after two nights of protests wreaked havoc across the city.

    Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Protesters say that, in many instances, police officers escalated the violence unprovoked. Meanwhile, peaceful bystanders were reportedly caught in the crossfire: A tent in one of the park’s many homeless camps caught fire Thursday after being struck by a police projectile, and protesters were hit with rubber bullets while marching or simply standing. Journalists have also reported being targeted by police fire, even with their press credentials visible. (When I was covering the protests in late May, a police officer kicked a canister of tear gas into the pool of photographers I was standing near. The chemicals sprayed onto my face and blinded me for several minutes.) 

Many in Denver carried signs and posted on social media, comparing the video of Floyd’s killing to the 2015 death of Michael Marshall, a homeless Black man with schizophrenia who had been arrested for trespassing. A deputy pinned Marshall to the ground, face down, during a psychotic episode at the jail. An autopsy later found that Marshall died by choking on his own vomit.  

With a megaphone in hand, Tay Anderson, a member of the Denver School Board, led chants of “No justice, no peace,” and “I can’t breathe” through downtown last week. Anderson — at 21, the youngest Black man elected to office in Colorado — first stepped into the public eye as an organizer for Black Lives Matter in 2016, when he was still a student at Denver’s Manual High School.  

From the front of the crowd, Anderson politely ordered the marchers to stop at traffic lights to let cars pass, and he did not tolerate protesters who sought to stir up trouble. While there has been some vandalism and violence against police officers, both the police and protest organizers blame those actions on a smaller group.

People march through downtown Denver to protest on June 1, 2020. Protests continue in cities across the country after George Floyd, a Black man, was allegedly murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25th.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

On Friday afternoon, Anderson called off a group of white protesters who ran after a police car. In a pattern that would become habitual as the weekend passed, he repeatedly rebuked agitators for harassing the police and defacing property. Since Monday, when the police presence began decreasing, other protesters have also joined in policing the crowd. Reports on social media described protesters taking fireworks from a man who appeared to be attempting to launch them at police.

“The police officers have escalated things. There is no reason for them to show up in their riot gear to a peaceful protest.”

“The people starting this are definitely not allies,” Anderson told me when I called him after the march. “We’ve asked folks to please just go home. We don’t have a need to tear up our city.”

While Anderson has condemned vandalism and violence against police, he says that the police reaction was disproportionate. “The police officers have escalated things,” he said. “There is no reason for them to show up in their riot gear to a peaceful protest.”

Lindsay Fendt is a freelance reporter based in Denver whose work focuses on the environment and natural resources. She is currently an Alicia Patterson fellow working on a book about the rise of environmental murders worldwide. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.