In April, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Colorado state Capitol building, protesting Colorado’s stay-at-home order. At the end of May, crowds began marching in Denver protesting against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd. In June, Colorado legislators introduced a massive bill to increasing police transparency and accountability. Less than two weeks later, it passed.
Meanwhile, protests are evolving both in focus and geography. Black Lives Matter events have spread to Fort Collins, Boulder and Greeley while protests have unfolded in Aurora, centered on the death of Elijah McClain, a young man who died last year following a police encounter during which he was injected with ketamine, an anesthetic.
KUNC reporters Adam Rayes and Leigh Paterson join Colorado Edition’s Erin O’Toole to talk about how and why Colorado’s protest movements have evolved over time.
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: What do the protests look like now?
Adam Rayes: There has been a shift or narrowing in focus in a lot of cases. So, anti-COVID-19 restriction protests have given way to protests against or for reopening schools. The larger Black Lives Matter-related protests have spread from Denver to Aurora – where people are pushing for change within the Aurora Police Department following incidents of police brutality. Some BLM activists have partially turned their attention to protesting evictions and homeless encampment sweeps.
I’ve attended a handful of protests over the last few months and a common thread in a lot of the people I’ve talked to is that they felt like they needed to be present: whether it’s because they need police, or need not to be harmed by police, or just need to be heard.
“The police are here to serve and protect. We need to also hold them accountable, but we shouldn’t be getting rid of them,” said Taylor Copeland, a Back the Blue supporter. “I mean who do you call if your house is broken (into) at night? You’d be calling the police department. If someone is threatening you? Police department.”
18-year-old Isabel counter-protested a Back the Blue rally in Berthoud last month. She said she was there to “let other people know who are afraid of coming out and speaking up for themselves that we all have a voice and we’re here in solidarity to speak out for them.”
Many groups are protesting for a variety of reasons. How are these events related?
A lot of these demonstrations exist as a response to other, previous demonstrations, like the Back the Blue rallies that have been popping up across Northern Colorado; as calls to defund or abolish police continue, there have been some groups that have gathered to show support for law enforcement.
I attended one in Berthoud on a weekend in late July, where several people told me they want to make sure they’re heard.
We’re also seeing people counter-protesting during other demonstrations. So different groups of citizens are put directly at odds with each other, face-to-face, whereas a lot of what we’ve seen otherwise is mostly about citizens going up against institutions — citizens against the Aurora Police Department, for example.
How have these interactions unfolded?
They’re not pretty. At the Back the Blue rally last month in Berthoud, there were two groups of counter-protesters. The first was a couple dozen people who ended up being escorted away by police not long after the crowds began verbally clashing. Then, a few hours later, four teens showed up holding signs in support of Black Lives Matter.
About 30 adults at this rally, some of whom were armed, converged on the teens, cussing at and berating them. Police ended up surrounding the teens with their bikes to keep people back.
This past weekend, counter-protesters showed up to another Back the Blue rally in Fort Collins. Three were arrested after a nasty brawl broke out. Police blame both sides and plan on charging more people, but a veteran who showed up to support the pro-police rally told the Coloradoan that Back the Blue demonstrators were responsible for instigating the fight.
“If you think showing up with an ‘I support police’ t-shirt and (an) agenda of violence, that that supports us, please know it doesn’t. We don’t want your support, we don’t need your support. You can stay at home,” Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said.
Some people were armed here too. The presence of guns at some of these protest events has added another layer of tension and complication.
Treating these crowds like a hive mind can be a mistake. What’s happening in one corner may look nothing like what’s happening just moments away. Some people avoid confrontation and sometimes try to calmly talk to people with opposing views. Others say we’re past that point.
Leigh, you talked to an historian named Patty Limerick. She’s the director of the Center of the American West at CU Boulder. What sort of historical context she did give for the protests that are happening now?
Leigh Paterson: I started off simply by asking for her reaction to these events.
“I’m thinking in one way about the legacy of race relations and injustice that the protesters are thinking about but I’m also thinking about how hard it is to identify an era in western American history where people got along well,” Limerick said.
She gave many examples of upheaval during times of change: conflicts between cattlemen and sheepherders. These were armed conflicts over grazing rights at the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, thousands of miners went on strike in southern Colorado over deadly and dangerous working conditions; these protests ended in a massacre. Over 100 years ago, during the fight for women’s suffrage, those protesters met, lobbied and marched for the right to vote in Denver.
That’s not to say, ‘Oh, that makes these events insignificant or trivial,’ but it is certainly a pattern that from time-to-time, the tensions and the inequalities and anger at another group in the West, that has flared big time.
I asked Limerick how historians might write about this protest era. She said that these movements are so influenced by national politics that first historians will have to make sense of the Trump presidency. Then, they might say something like this:
“This is not the first time that people felt frustrated enough in the American West with the arrangements of power that they thought ‘It is not enough to write an angry petition and submit it to some authorities.’ So, I think it’s going to be a new and distinctive episode of Westerners saying, ‘We expected more.’”
Looking ahead, what sort of impacts are you expecting to see from these protests, so far?
I can point to a couple of concrete changes. Colorado’s new police accountability law that came in direct response to the Black Lives Matter protests, will impact agencies across the state. Starting in 2023, among other measures, all officers will have to wear body cameras. Departments will have to start sharing information about officers killing or injuring citizens and when an officer resigns while under investigation.
In Aurora, following the death of Elijah McClain last summer, an independent investigation into the young man’s death is now underway. The interim police chief, Vanessa Wilson, was just formally appointed as police chief. She’s promising reforms.