On Monday, a lawmaker projected racist mascots on the walls of the Statehouse’s largest committee room to make a point about hate speech.
“Would we tolerate these images today?” asked Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton. “Imagine a mascot with the word ‘spics’ on it.”
Salazar turned to Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, who is black. The next slide had already clicked over and there was a moment of silence before Melton said, “Imagine a mascot with the name Nigger.”
“We wouldn’t tolerate these images now, would we?,” Salazar said. “They would be offensive for you to see, and that’s the point isn’t it? The same can be said for ‘redskins’ and ‘savages.’ American Indians have to see these images and see these words every second of the day.”
The slideshow and the slurs continued.
“As you said in your opening remarks, those slides are very offensive,” interjected Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who is black. “I’d like to have you discontinue those slides because I have a hard time seeing the N-word up there … I don’t think we should condone that word by having it projected. I’d like those pictures to stop.”
“Rep. Fields, I’m just as offended by it, and I think that’s the point,” said Melton. “The point is there are students who have to go every single day to school and see ‘savages’ or ‘redskins’ or see some type of image that degrades them. I definitely understand the emotional impact you’re getting from this.”
“I need to be excused. I’m just not going to see this,” said Fields. “I believe that there are some things we can’t tolerate. That’s why we’re addressing this issue regarding the mascots. To have me sit here with all these other people thinking that that’s OK for me? It’s not.”
“I want to keep the committee intact,” said Education Chair Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, who is black. “So if you’d shut that down.”
This exchange opened debate on Salazar and Melton’s bill, which would require the 48 public schools in Colorado with Indian mascots to seek approval for their mascots from a board of nine tribal members.
“The purpose of the bill is to empower the American Indian community in Colorado and let them decide what is and what is not offensive,” Salazar explained.
If the mascot were deemed racially offensive, schools would have a year to correct the issue. Failure to take action could result in schools being $25,000 a month.
Salazar also used the slideshow to illustrate the history of team names like the Lamar Savages and the Washington Redskins. He cited that the Declaration of Independence referred to American Indians as “the merciless Indian Savages.” Government posters proclaimed: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.”
Republicans ended up voting ‘no’ on the bill after questioning school representatives with American Indian mascots about how much it would cost to change jerseys and how much it would “take away from instruction.”
Meanwhile, at least one Democrat was noticeably absent. Fields paced the halls outside the committee room.
“I’m feeling really angry. I felt like I was tricked into a social experiment,” she told The Independent. “My history tells me how that word was used, and there’s a lot of bloodshed based on that term. That’s hate language,” she explained. “When you talk about race you have to have a fundamental baseline, and that fundamental baseline has to be respect. That respect was missing in the introduction of that bill.”
But Fields stayed. For hours she stayed. She had to. Hers was the vote that got the bill passed.
Photo by Tessa Cheek.