Since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last week, protests have erupted throughout the country and around the world in a collective outcry against police brutality and the generations of pain left in its wake.
“The death of George has been a tipping point,” said Lindsay Minter, a community leader who helped organize peaceful protests at the Capitol in Denver on Saturday and in Aurora on Sunday. “We are tired. We can’t take it anymore. Stop killing us. The heart and the soul of the black and brown community, but specifically the black community –– we’ve had enough.”
There’s been a stark contrast between Denver’s peaceful daytime protests that began Thursday and the nighttime chaos, which has included police officers launching tear gas, pepper balls and 40 mm foam rounds into crowds of protesters to force them to disperse.
Organizers of the day protests stress the vandalism that’s occurred under the cover of night –– broken store windows, office buildings covered in graffiti and dumpsters set on fire –– does not accurately represent the protests. And the ones causing damage are not the people who are marching peacefully throughout Denver by day, passing out water, snacks and sunflowers.
“Organizers and leaders across the city have come with the intention of making sure that we are promoting peace and not trying to promote the destruction of the city,” said Tay Anderson, a Denver Public School Board director, who helped lead some of the day protests.
At a news conference Sunday afternoon, Mayor Michael Hancock agreed. “We had three successful demonstrations yesterday, where people expressed their outrage over the death of George Floyd, without any violence or destructive acts,” Hancock said.
At the same news conference, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said property damage caused during the night protests is “nearly as inexcusable as the horrific killing itself.”
Anderson, 21, said the nighttime mayhem is drowning out black organizers’ cries for justice for Floyd and others who’ve experienced police brutality and injustice.
“From what I’ve personally witnessed, it’s been usually white folks that are in the crowd that have agitated and started throwing stuff. Then, that’s when the riots start,” Anderson said, adding it seems unclear what the protesters coming at night are hoping to accomplish.
“Because it doesn’t seem like it’s directly about George Floyd, which is the reason we’re gathered here,” he said.
The difference between night and day
When Anderson left the protest at 5 p.m. on Saturday –– when the gathering was scheduled to end –– he urged others to go home, too. Many did, but thousands of demonstrators did not.
“I live down the street from the Capitol, so I hear the explosions,” Anderson said. “I hear the police cars, I hear everything. It sounds like a war-zone at times. It breaks my heart that it’s come to that.”
He said he understands the pain people are carrying, and the need to release it. “But we need to figure out when’s the time and the place, because last night, a civilian was run over, with three law enforcement officers,” Anderson said on Sunday.
“We have to be better than this. And our city and our public institutions did not deserve to be tarnished, especially some of the statues that actually had significance to communities of color,” Anderson said.
Minter, 38, who spoke to the crowd during Saturday’s daytime protest along with other community leaders, said she was disappointed by how little media coverage there was about the daytime demonstrations, which she said “showed the real heart of the people.”
As she was leaving the protests around 3:30 p.m on Saturday, she said police threw tear gas on the sidewalk next to her and her boyfriend.
“If you’re doing that to the people who are showing up to be peaceful, right when they are leaving, that’s a way to agitate and to antagonize,” said Minter, who is a track coach in the Denver Metro Area.
She said the purpose of the demonstrations is simple. “We are just trying to make sure that all of our kids are safe at the end of the day,” said Minter, who is part of a group of activists pushing for an independent agency to oversee the Aurora Police Department. “We are out here protesting for our kids.”
The day protests have been a place for members of the black community to feel safe and express their grief together, she said. “It’s kinda a spiritual thing. You need lament sessions, you need places that are safe to be able to cry out in public and say, ‘Hey, I don’t feel good about this. I am suffering. My heart hurts.’”
Minter brought her teenage cousins to the demonstrations on Saturday. She wanted them to witness history, but made sure they left the Capitol grounds by 5 p.m.
On Saturday, some demonstrators lay down for nine minutes, their hands behind their backs, chanting “I can’t breathe,” memorializing Floyd with some of the final words he uttered as Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the back of his neck until he lost consciousness. Some remained sitting up. Chauvin has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder in Floyd’s death.
“You’re not going to get me or my family to lay down on the concrete. We don’t need any practice with that,” Minter said, recalling a time when she and her best friend were forced to the ground on St. Patrick’s Day because Denver police officers said their car matched a description in a robbery. The suspects ended up being white males.
“I’ve had that in my life,” said Minter, who graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2004 with a degree in political science. “And I don’t know very many black people who haven’t. We are tired of laying on our bellies and saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ It’s time for us to stand up now.”
When the crowd was encouraged to lie down for nine minutes, Minter said the white male next to her was coughing and was having trouble breathing while chanting, “I can’t breathe.”
“It was a moment of humanity,” she said. “He was obviously in distress, and nobody’s putting 200 pounds worth of weight on him. And he was still struggling. It was hard to watch, and I’m sure it was hard for those people laying on the ground to feel that. It was a powerful moment.”
“I was just trying to understand why intimidation was necessary”
Hundreds of people resumed protests in downtown Denver on Sunday and Monday afternoon, sprawled across the Capitol lawn and steps, packed into Civic Center park’s Greek Amphitheatre and taking to the streets for a march.
The first stop at Sunday’s peaceful march was outside Denver’s downtown jail. A parade of protesters — some of whom carried signs while others held up their arms as if to say “don’t shoot” — flooded West 14th Avenue before stopping in front of the jail where police officers were lined up behind a fence. The officers wore tactical gear, with some clutching shields and others holding guns pointed at the ground.
Here, Denver resident OJ Johnson, 27, stepped forward to talk through the fence to Elias Diggins, chief of operations for the Denver Sheriff Department. “I was just trying to understand why intimidation was necessary,” said Johnson, who moved to the U.S. from the U.K. in 2009. He said he joined the protests for the first time on Sunday because he feels he has to be his own protection.
“I can’t trust a cop if they end up killing everyone who looks like me,” said Johnson, who noted that his mother calls him every morning from the U.K. to make sure he’s alive. She’s worried about police brutality.
He plans to continue protesting. When he reflects on the past few days, he said “failed leadership” at the national level comes to mind. But he takes pride in the way Denver residents have coalesced to speak up.
“I’m proud of a lot of people who have never spoken up before actually taking a stand on something,” Johnson said.
He understands why protesters are turning up the volume on their demonstrations. “If you want this to stop, maybe listen to people,” Johnson said. “Listen to people, see how you could fix it from the bottom.”
Sheevenson Desravines sat along the slope of the Capitol’s lawn on Sunday afternoon with a cardboard sign reading, “no justice, no peace.”
“I have not endured any injustice from the police, but I am a black man,” he said. “The worry is, am I next?”
Desravines, 29, took part in protests on both Sunday and Friday night. He didn’t personally witness any rioting or looting.
“People are protesting peacefully, which is the best thing we can do to show that we’re not here to cause trouble,” he said, “but we’re here to show what’s happening, we’re not liking it and we want it to change for the better.”
People talked during the day protests about the pain and anger they felt. How their hearts hurt, Minter said. They shared their own experiences with police brutality and loved ones killed by police.
“We were sharing about our experiences. We were gathering and talking during the marches, listening to the people who were next to us as we were hitting the streets,” Minter said. “People were talking in the crowd and chanting and the band was playing. It was like a second line for George.”
A “second line” refers to a tradition originally seen in New Orleans, where mourners celebrate the life of a person after they die by dancing in the street to live jazz music.
Born and raised in Thornton, Minter is a former law enforcement officer. She worked for the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. “So, I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I know what I would never have done. I know how I was trained. And I’ve suffered a lot at the hands of law enforcement. For being a woman, for being a black woman and for trying to bring change to a system that’s broken.”
She said the destruction of property that’s been seen around Denver during the nightly protests is part of the march toward change.
“I’m not going to be the person lighting the match, but it’s what gets the attention,” Minter said. “And without all aspects of a protest, nothing changes. So I’m not here to condemn or not. I am not here to judge anybody’s pain.”
“But I don’t appreciate the people who just think this stuff is fun,” she said, adding that when destruction has occurred, the blame has often been placed on the organizers, even if the damage didn’t happen on their watch.
The feeling of the Saturday protest is what Minter will look back on. “The love that was in the air, and the pain,” she said. “It was cathartic.”
Other memorable moments have included interacting with a Native American elder who came to protest police brutality, she said, and how many different religions were represented. “Any time you have Wiccans and Amish people together on the same side, you know it’s a different point in history,” Minter said.