They chanted, they sang, they shouted and they wept.
Dozens of LGBT people of color gathered in the Sunnyside neighborhood of northwest Denver Wednesday evening to grieve for the 49 people killed early Sunday at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando. They also used part of the evening to blast Denver Police, who they said makes them feel less safe.
The gathering of around 75 people was in marked contrast to the much larger vigil at Tracks nightclub on Sunday attended by Mayor Michael Hancock and other elected officials, including Sen. Michael Bennet.
And that was deliberate.
The Wednesday gathering was supported by 19 mostly-LGBT groups, including Survivors Organizing for Liberation (SOL), 2Spirit People of Color and the American Friends Service Committee, and was intended as an alternative to the Tracks vigil, which some found troubling.
The service began with an altar, built by mourners outside the Survivors Organizing for Liberation office and covered with photos of the 49 Orlando victims.
“This is a vulnerable community on the front lines of a war” they didn’t start, said David Young, who led the group in songs and prayers.
Young also took issue with claims the Orlando massacre was the worst in American history. Remember Wounded Knee? he said. Remember Sand Creek? ”We are here to remember the lives lost in Orlando, but not just those lives — lives lost over 500 years,” he added. “Indigenous people continue to be under assault…the people who lost their lives in Orlando are part of the ongoing perpetual violence we experience.”
He added, “This is not new to us.”
Some of those who attended Wednesday’s memorial spoke of watching in horror as police patted down those who went to Tracks Sunday evening. This is a community that lives in terror of Denver Police, said one mourner. This is a community that remembers Jessica Hernandez, a transgender teenager killed by Denver Police last year.
Mimi Miriam Madrid of SOL said the idea for the gathering came from concerns that “there was a lack of space for queer young people of color, in the wake of the shooting,” to mourn. It was also to remind people “this isn’t an isolated incident,” Madrid said, noting the murders of 25 trans women last year and 14 more this year. “It’s genocide,” she said.
Mourners criticized the “corporate” feel of Sunday’s memorial, and the politicians whom they said used the event for their own purposes.
“These were opportunistic politicians who used the shooting to push their political agendas,” Young told the crowd.
Vigil organizers turned down offers of protection for their event from Denver Police, saying they didn’t want the police invading what they saw as a “safe space” for LGBT people of color to grieve.
“We refuse to accept suggestions that increased police presence in our queer and trans spaces will [decrease] risks of violence or increase any sense of safety,” organizers said in a statement. “Police violence continues to be a serious and legitimate concern for LGBTQI people of color.” In their statement, organizers cited concerns of police refusal to take complaints, harassment, discrimination, profiling, assault and sexual violence.
Mourners never spoke about the gunman by name, identified as Omar Mateen, who allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIL during the attack. But Islamophobia and homophobia “are part of the same monster known by different names,” organizers said. “Islamophobic sentiments, in light of the events in Orlando, situates Muslims in our community as vulnerable to heightened acts of violence.”
Following the altar service, the group, carrying photos of the Orlando dead, walked several blocks to “La Raza Park,” refusing to call it by the name on a sign on the park’s 38th Avenue side — Columbus Park — due to the name’s anti-indigenous historical roots. There, they shared stories, sang and listened to a powerful spoken-word performance by two mourners. They held hands in solidarity and sorrow and tears.
White people attending the ceremony were asked to don orange safety vests to escort the mourners to La Raza Park. Renee Morgan of Lafayette said she wore one because “even though I’m queer, I have a lot of privilege, being white, and I want to do what I can to create space for people to grieve.”
But as the group walked toward La Raza Park, they were reminded about the fear some say they experience on a daily basis.
A female Denver Police officer drove by, slowly, as the group walked down the street. She stared at the group, and dozens of faces stared back, with several people wondering aloud if she was going to come back.
She didn’t come back.
Photos and videos by Marianne Goodland