//Torrence Brown-Smith describes how black people would rather die of COVID-19 than be killed by the police at the Colorado State Capitol on June 1. Photos by Esteban Fernandez | firstname.lastname@example.org
On her way home from the protest, co-organizer Ashley Register said she broke down and cried, overwhelmed with emotion.
“Not only did I feel joy in seeing everyone celebrating black joy, but I also felt heartbroken that it takes drastic tragedy for us to come together,” Register wrote in an email. “There is still so much work to be done, last night we emphasized the importance of action behind protest and action is what we are working on now.”
Unlike demonstrations seen over the weekend, the Mobilization for George Floyd had a clear and cohesive goal: peace, education and celebration of black culture. The event was coordinated by several current and former University of Northern Colorado students, including Register and Michelle Adjei, the two who spearheaded the organization.
Register said that the group wanted to show their support for Minneapolis and bring light to the issues that are aiding systematic and institutionalized racism, and oppression right here in their own backyard. Not only were they standing in solidarity against police brutality, but also gentrification of historically black neighborhoods like Five Points.
“George Floyd is not why people are mad, although rest in peace to our brother George Floyd, but it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Register said before the event. “For 400 years we’ve been screaming, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and it seems like we’ve been just yelling into the air with no one responding. Unfortunately, we are where we are now, but change has to happen sometime.”
The night consisted of planned and impromptu speeches about fear, love, joy and hope for meaningful change. Torrence Brown-Smith, a former president of the Black Student Union at UNC and co-organizer of the rally, spoke for several minutes on the west Capitol steps about how past policies have failed to change the oppressive system and that the time has come to demand accountability.
“Policy is cool and all but, at the end of the day, it’s about the culture. Police, they’re going to keep murdering us, that’s how it’s going to go. You can policy anything you want, but you can’t policy brotherhood and family,” Brown-Smith said to a cheering crowd. “So we ask for accountability. If an officer kills somebody, [they] never get a job as an officer again.”
After the speeches, a vigil was held on the Capitol steps. Attendees laid down flowers, photos of strangers and loved ones who had been killed by police and lit candles in their honor. Organizers then led the crowd into a nine-minute long moment of silence to represent the approximately nine minutes George Floyd was pinned on the ground by four Minneapolis police officers until he died. Protesters sat in complete silence, with only the sounds of cameras flashing and cars honking in the distance.
After the intensity of the moment of silence, local poets like Bianca Mikahn, Cisco the Nomad and Lady Speech hopped on stage, many of them uplifting the mood in a display of the power of black art. The night finished with a dance to the “Cupid Shuffle” before organizers urged protesters to get home safely.
Despite organizers’ concerns, there was not a significant police presence, in part because Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen had marched with protesters earlier in the day and stated that officers would not be arresting participants who were out after curfew. However, Register said they were less than impressed with the efforts shown by Pazen and other officers around the country who have extended similar peace offerings.
“It’s cool to see all these police officers taking a knee or marching with protestors but that doesn’t do anything. Police officers need to start holding each other accountable and work WITH us to change the broken system which they are a part of,” Register wrote over email. “It looks good on social media and it is good for propaganda, but at the end of the day they get to go home and be with their families and my brothers and sisters are buried 6 feet under.”
Register, Adjei and Brown-Smith credited the serenity of the night to the collective leadership within the organizing group and the time they took to plan the details. Adjei said before the rally that they planned to clearly communicate the guidelines and expectations from the start, especially for the white allies in attendance. She said many of the incidents of violence and clashes with the police begin, in part, due to white allies stepping out of place and not listening to the message of the black community.
“We know that they’re also angry with the police for their own reasons but as allies, they should help be implementing our plans of what we want to push forward instead of creating their own agenda,” Adjei said.
In addition to communicating those expectations, Register said the group had been working around the clock, fleshing out the structure of the event. The group worked with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to push back the curfew start time to 9 p.m. to ensure the safety of everyone attending. They also utilized a network of volunteers to serve as medical personnel, security, snack distributors and voter registrants. Brown-Smith said sometimes there were disagreements, but it ultimately came together.
Jordan Vaden, who had been to the protests over the weekend, said the fifth night was considerably lighter in large part due to the youth of the organizers, which brought a different energy to the movement.
“It was more about celebrating the movement, celebrating where we’ve come from and where we’re going to go and just trying to provide people positive energy to keep doing it,” Vaden said. “The last three days were kind of heavy. I think people are finally kind of getting in the swing of things.”
The Mobilization for George Floyd organizers quickly left after the event ended, in an attempt to set an example for other people to leave.
“With the events of the past week and the amount of people there we wanted people to try and at least disperse from the area so that the police didn’t have a chance to aggravate any of the people that attended,” Adjei wrote in an email.
And disperse they did. A march soon formed and wound its way through the downtown area. By the time the group made its way back to the Capitol, hundreds had joined in along the way. The sounds of fireworks replaced foam bullets and pepper balls. Smoke from the tires of cars doing burnouts in the middle of Broadway and Colfax Avenue stood in place of tear gas. Loud music and laughing rather than yelling and screaming. As Register said after the rally, this kind of celebration of black culture is an act of defiance against a system that so often suppresses it. And this positivity is what Brown-Smith is fighting for.
“I have a passion for black people,” Brown-Smith said. “I have a passion for humanity, cause I know it’s not just about black folks. If we have equability all around that we’d be in a better position. It starts with us; we are the most oppressed, and then it can go out and then be able to affect everybody and we can all live in a better world, a more equitable world.”