On May 30, Denver’s third night of protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man allegedly murdered by police in Minneapolis, thousands gathered in Civic Center Park, hoisting signs with slogans reading “No Justice, No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter.” Traffic cones and graffiti covered most of the statues, empty tear-gas canisters littered the streets and scorch marks scarred the vast lawn. Police in riot gear, holding paintball guns and foam bullet launchers, lined the streets surrounding the park.
Without warning, the officers began throwing metal canisters into the crowd. As they clinked to the ground, explosions boomed, and some of the canisters sprayed a grayish-yellow mist into the air. Protesters, gagging on the mist, stumbled towards the Capitol building, pushing aside the masks they wore to protect them from the coronavirus.
In the Western United States, Denver’s protests were early flashpoints for violent conflicts between protesters and police, resulting in more than 300 arrests and a curfew starting Saturday, May 31. In 2010, Denver outranked other U.S. cities for publicized incidents of excessive police force, and ever since, it has grappled with police reform. A highly developed network of protesters was primed for action when word of Floyd’s death on May 25 spread.
“Denver has a long history of abuse in its police departments,” said Alex Landau, who co-founded the Denver Justice Project after he was beaten nearly to death by police in 2009, after he asked for a warrant during a traffic stop. “There is more going on out here than people just expressing their feelings.”
Protesters have marched on Denver’s streets every day since May 30, with the peaceful afternoon assemblies routinely devolving into chaos as the sun went down. In early June, the tenor began to shift. Police Chief Paul Pazen joined the afternoon protest, marching arm-in-arm with protest leaders at the front of the crowd. That night, fewer officers arrived in riot gear, and the protest did not escalate to the violence of previous nights.
Though the police have toned down their presence, Pazen defended the initial show of force in public statements, calling it a response to vandalism, looting and water bottles and rocks being thrown at officers.
Protesters say that, in many instances, police officers escalated the violence unprovoked. Meanwhile, peaceful bystanders were reportedly caught in the crossfire: A tent in one of the park’s many homeless camps caught fire Thursday after being struck by a police projectile, and protesters were hit with rubber bullets while marching or simply standing. Journalists have also reported being targeted by police fire, even with their press credentials visible. (When I was covering the protests in late May, a police officer kicked a canister of tear gas into the pool of photographers I was standing near. The chemicals sprayed onto my face and blinded me for several minutes.)
Many in Denver carried signs and posted on social media, comparing the video of Floyd’s killing to the 2015 death of Michael Marshall, a homeless Black man with schizophrenia who had been arrested for trespassing. A deputy pinned Marshall to the ground, face down, during a psychotic episode at the jail. An autopsy later found that Marshall died by choking on his own vomit.
With a megaphone in hand, Tay Anderson, a member of the Denver School Board, led chants of “No justice, no peace,” and “I can’t breathe” through downtown last week. Anderson — at 21, the youngest Black man elected to office in Colorado — first stepped into the public eye as an organizer for Black Lives Matter in 2016, when he was still a student at Denver’s Manual High School.
From the front of the crowd, Anderson politely ordered the marchers to stop at traffic lights to let cars pass, and he did not tolerate protesters who sought to stir up trouble. While there has been some vandalism and violence against police officers, both the police and protest organizers blame those actions on a smaller group.
On Friday afternoon, Anderson called off a group of white protesters who ran after a police car. In a pattern that would become habitual as the weekend passed, he repeatedly rebuked agitators for harassing the police and defacing property. Since Monday, when the police presence began decreasing, other protesters have also joined in policing the crowd. Reports on social media described protesters taking fireworks from a man who appeared to be attempting to launch them at police.
“The police officers have escalated things. There is no reason for them to show up in their riot gear to a peaceful protest.”
“The people starting this are definitely not allies,” Anderson told me when I called him after the march. “We’ve asked folks to please just go home. We don’t have a need to tear up our city.”
While Anderson has condemned vandalism and violence against police, he says that the police reaction was disproportionate. “The police officers have escalated things,” he said. “There is no reason for them to show up in their riot gear to a peaceful protest.”