How BLM 5280 became more than just a hashtag

By Alexandra Cummings

Mar 12, 2021 | Equity, Features | 0 comments

//Amy E. Brown, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter 5280, on Jan. 7 in Denver. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

While national foundations like Black Lives Matter are often in the public eye, it’s the chapters on the ground across the United States that are addressing city-specific issues.

“I will always respect Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi for what they founded,” said Amy E. Brown, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter 5280 chapter. “But I think they would agree that they aren’t experts on what needs to happen here in Denver, Colorado.” 

Brown,  who was born in Colorado, is no stranger to the sense of isolation experienced by Black people in Denver. Denver County’s population is made up of 80.9% white people and 9.8% Black people, while Colorado as a whole is made up of 86.9% white residents and only 4.6% Black.

She credits the night of Officer Darren Wilson’s acquittal in the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown as a turning point for her. As she watched the news from Ferguson, Missouri in her Denver apartment, she could hear the sounds of games being played in City Park. Everyone seemed to be carrying on with their lives outside her window. A desire to scream at the top of her lungs in the street crossed her mind. 

“I remember that day so clearly and feeling alone and furious,” Brown said. “People were carrying on with their normal day like nothing happened because for them nothing did.” 

This was when she realized she couldn’t live within the white-washed world she had become complacent to anymore. She said goodbye to a profession at a predominantly white-led nonprofit and chose to stop hiding her racial justice work to appease her employers. That moment of self-liberation allowed her to step fully into her calling.

Brown was part of another organization before her work with BLM. She referred to it as the typical space of activism, with a charismatic Black male leader that was propped up as the face of the work. But behind closed doors, the harm shown toward Black women and queer folks made it unhealthy for those already in a fight for their lives. 

“This is not a unique situation. Our work, worth and safety were not centered in this organization,” Brown said. “Folks were preyed upon by men acting in predatory ways. There was physical and emotional abuse all to lift up the male leader. This is a tale as old as time and many of us knew we couldn’t continue there.” 

Determined to keep supporting the mission of moving Black communities forward, Brown joined forces with Rev. Dawn Riley Duval and Associate Professor Bianca Williams. Together, these women founded Denver’s own BLM chapter. 

When many think of BLM they think of the hashtags and flashy campaigns. They think of the protests and the signs calling for justice. While this work is encompassed under the national organization’s arm, it’s so much more than protests in the streets within the individual chapters. 

So, what does it look like?

BLM 5280 looks like the Displacement Defense Fund, started in November 2020, that has kept 40 families housed during the pandemic. BLM 5280 knew that gentrification and the cost of housing had already put people on the street before the COVID-19 pandemic, so the need for support was imperative. This work even inspired the national organization to start taking part in COVID relief. 

“The work being done by chapters on the ground during the pandemic has also pushed the global foundation to put $3 million in funds to help Black families in need,” Brown said.

It also looks like the Freedom School, a safe place where Black children can be taught by Black teachers and learn about Black history outside the month of February. According to one study, exposure to just one black teacher between third and fifth grade significantly increases the chance of Black students taking a college entrance exam or saying that they intend to go to college.

“For many of us in this city, we are the only one we see who looks like us in a day or a week, whether it’s in school, at work, or in our apartment building,” Brown said. “Representation is important for our well-being.” 

The BLM 5280 Freedom School has doubled in enrollment since opening four years ago. It has gone fully remote during the pandemic while also providing resources like computers to each student and free healthy meals to keep them fed every day of the week. Through this initiative, BLM 5280 is not only helping Black students, but it’s also employing Black teachers and supporting Black-owned businesses who they purchase meals and supplies from.  

“This work is a full-time job,” Brown said. “It doesn’t make headlines and it’s not glamorous. But it’s the stuff that will build community long term. Places to find employment, places to find resources, places to feel safe.” 

Since the chapter’s founding, Brown states that she and her colleagues have refused to play what they call “the game” with Denver city officials. Brown is unafraid to call them out on how she thinks city government is failing their Black constituents. This outspokenness, she believes, has played a role in BLM 5280 being denied opportunities for funding and shut out of conversations that would help provide more resources for their work. 

With heavy media attention on Denver and Aurora following police brutality incidents and apparent racial injustice, one might assume leadership would be driven towards change. But Brown says she has learned not to expect anything from a system that upholds white supremacy. Change, she said, would require the government to admit it played a part in perpetuating injustice toward people of color. 

“I hate the lack of change but I’m not surprised by it,” Brown said. “So instead of asking [officials] to change, we’re creating it and supporting the people that the city has thrown away again and again.”

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