Denver Asks: What is the Role of White Allies?

By Annie Burky

May 30, 2020 | News | 1 comment

//A man with an “Amerikkka” sign moves towards the 16th Street Mall during the George Floyd protest in Denver, on Friday, May 29th. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

The mass of bodies slowed before their voices quieted. On Friday, May 29 Tay Anderson lead the crowd from block to block along the 16th Street Mall in Denver to protest the killing of George Floyd. Anderson chanted “Say his name,” as the mass of voices responded “George Floyd!” He halted the group every other block to allow for cars to pass and consolidate the mass of people. It was there, between Larimer Street and Lawrence Street that he broke his chant.

“White people, I need you to step back and let people of color lead,” he said through his megaphone.

Anderson was not slated to lead the march. Allies to the black cause organized the three days of protests, running from Thursday to Saturday. When Anderson arrived with a megaphone and suggested that the organizers let a person of color lead, they obliged.

“We often have a lot of white allies that have good intentions but sometimes step into the space and take from the front lines,” Anderson said. “When we need to be protected, we’ll call on them.”

//Amber Johnson and Raver Ruiz at the George Floyd protest outside the Colorado State Capital Building on May 29th. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

Rebecca Nash of Greeley was one of the protesters who stepped forward while holding a sign that read, “Black Lives Matter.”  She said that her introversion had driven her away from protests in the past but this demonstration felt different.

“We had the back-to-back with Ahmaud and George. Plus, my sister is newly pregnant, going to bring a child of color into this world,” said Nash before moving closer to the front.

Nash agreed with Anderson’s directive while offering grace to white protesters.

“All lives matter but, right now, minorities are being targeted,” Nash said, “But we can use all the support we can get. I love everyone here. There’s so many races and genders and identities, it’s actually a really beautiful thing to see.”

Tracy, who requested that her last name not be used, stepped back. As a feminist and LGBT advocate, she felt compelled to say, “yes” when her 15-year-old daughter suggested they go to the Friday protest.

“We have an opportunity to shut up and let black voices speak. We need to elevate the voices and experiences of black and brown people,” Tracy said.

On one side of the sign she carried stood a black man with his hands in the air and a call for justice, on the other side it read, “Women’s rights are human rights.”

Then there are those who stayed in the place, such as a group of protesters carrying a sign that read, in simplified Chinese characters, “The workers have the power.”

The group was unwilling to share their names or be recorded but they adamantly trumpeted the meaning of their sign.

“Race politics and unity politics don’t matter. What matters is that workers and the working class murder the powerful,” one of them said.

The broad array of protesters present lead to consideration of the role and responsibilities of allies. Especially in racially motivated protests.

Kerrie Joy admonished fellow protesters for hindering traffic. Joy told the white protesters that any time white allies kick or damage property the cost is borne by people of color.

//Departing the roads and cutting between the Denver Public Library and the Denver Art Museum, protesters head to Civic Center Park on May 29, 2020. Photos by Esteban Fernandez | sovereign73811b@gmail.com

As the crowd circled around and settled at the Greek Amphitheatre in Civic Center Park, Anderson asked for people of color to join him on stage. He asked for a moment of silence.

Anderson gave a short speech regarding the death of many black Americans including William Lamont Debose. Debose was killed on May 1 by Denver police, who have not agreed to release body camera footage of the death. Anderson then reminded the crowd of the 7 p.m. candlelight vigil.

One of the protesters who stood behind Anderson is planning on going.

“I’ll bring milk. At protests I like to help, I don’t like to take away,” Dio, who did not provide his last name, said. Milk is commonly used to quell the sting of pepper spray, which has been deployed against protesters and rioters. When asked of allies he spoke of those with power, with connections, who may show support instead of hijacking events.

“Appropriation isn’t happening right now but the later it gets and the more people drink, the chances of things getting dangerous goes up,” Dio said.

Anderson was not leading the march Thursday night. Instead the crowd moved about lower downtown in a less-regimented manner, blocking traffic on Interstate 25 and attacking police cars. The night ended with pepper spray and rubber bullets.

What the last day of protests will bring is unsure. But Anderson feels he has done his job.

“Today was good. We were able to prove in one voice that black lives matter, we were able to go out today. It was different from what happened yesterday, but we were still together,” Anderson said. “So I think we showed what a real community looks like when you pull people together.”

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