Cancelation of controversial basketball game doesn’t deter racial justice protesters

Racial justice advocates met this morning to protest a canceled “Law enforcement vs. Youth” basketball game that they didn’t want to happen in the first place. They said the game would have been a wrongheaded move and wanted to make their criticisms known.

Denver Police planned the game, which would have pitted local kids against police officers, as part of an anti-gang violence program this weekend. The program was canceled earlier in the week — purportedly unrelated to complaints from the activists — but protesters nevertheless showed up today to oppose what they call the police department’s preference for symbolic reconciliation over real changes in the relationship between police and the community.

At New Hope Baptist Church at 9 A.M., demonstrators voiced their concerns to city official Paul Callanan, who directs the city’s gang reduction efforts and helped plan the game. They then held a rally outside the church and marched up and down Colorado Avenue singing and holding up signs.

Danette Hollowell is a Denver resident with two teenage daughters who were originally planning to play in the game. But Hollowell was troubled by the fact that children couldn’t participate unless their parents signed waivers absolving Denver law enforcement of liability if they were hurt.

“Do you realize how weird that might’ve sounded?” Hollowell asked Callanan. “We are in strange times right now, and for people to ask parents to sign waivers absolving the Denver PD of any harm to their kids is a questionable practice right now.”

Callanan, who directs the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, or GRID, replied that the waivers are standard practice.

GRID is an arm of Denver’s Department of Safety that seeks to “suppress and prevent gun and gang violence in Denver”, according to its website. GRID planned a “Youth Violence Prevention Summit” to take place at the church today. It included educational programs as well as a series of basketball games between law enforcement and children who attended the event.

Other protesters found the game to be a distasteful public relations move.  Black Lives Matter 5280 and SURJ Denver have presented demands for greater accountability and transparency in the Denver Police Department, and they saw the basketball game as a way to appease them without meaningful reform.

“We are not asking for symbolic basketball games, we are looking for deep, structural change,” Reverend Anne Dunlap said.

In response to the charge of cheap symbolic gestures, Callanan said that the event was a violence-prevention effort and nothing more.

Those in charge say the games were called off because of a funeral at the church. But one of the lead organizers of today’s protest, Hasira Soul Ashemu, is sure GRID canceled the event because of his group’s complaints.

“When we spoke to the head pastor at this church, he was fully aware that there was a funeral,” Ashemu said. “We know that the reason [GRID] canceled it is because the community came together and raised their voices. That’s not something that they’re in a tactical position to admit.”

But Callanan maintained that “the event was canceled not so much because of the protesters, but because of other things that are going on [at the church].” He didn’t specify further.

In a rally after presenting their case to Callanan, event organizers stressed that the protests were on behalf of Denver’s youth.

“We’re not here against GRID, or whatever,” said Tawana Davis. “Let’s release the egos, people. It’s not about you. It’s about these young people.”

Photo Credit: Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent

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