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Student activists, Melissa Boateng, 17, and Shania Brace, 17, lead protesters onto Peña Boulevard, stopping traffic and forcing cars to turn around in Denver, June 6, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Minutes before a group of young protesters was set to begin its own Black Lives Matter moment on Saturday, the skies opened up.

Heavy rain mixed with wind gusts and swirling dust sent demonstrators sheltering in groups near cars at Strive Prep – RISE near Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. Most of the protesters, most of them teenagers, stuck around even as the rain pelted them. 

They’re resilient. They’ve had to be their entire childhoods.

Many of the students at the demonstration have grown up almost in a cycle of tragedy. From being born in the wake of 9/11 to living through the Great Recession to witnessing countless school shootings and mass shootings, students’ worlds have come undone again and again. And with a global pandemic, a second economic downturn and a moment of reckoning with the country’s deep roots of systemic racism, they’re approaching adulthood on another wave of tragedy. 

But it’s also the beginning of change and students are standing up in masses to add their voices to the choir of people demanding it. They recognize that their job is to lead, rather than sit back or stand behind other generations fighting for change. And some students are channeling the hardships they’ve witnessed into motivation to become directly involved in condemning the racism and oppression that grips their communities.

“We don’t know anything else,” said Haley Valdez, who graduated from Strive Prep – RISE in May. 

“I think that because we have grown up in so much of this, it also gives me hope that we will be more active in politics and that we’ll be more active in speaking up about social issues because we’re experiencing them,” the 18-year-old student activist said. “We’re literally living through some of the most awful things.”

Valdez collaborated with four of her fellow graduates to create an initiative called Denver Metro BLM — Black Lives Matter — which held its first protest on Saturday afternoon with more than 200 people marching from Strive Prep – RISE to Peña Boulevard. They marched and chanted, and laid on the ground crying out “I can’t breathe,” in tribute to George Floyd, the black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer restrained him, kneeling on his neck 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Bethel Boateng (left) and Natalie Boateng yell “I can’t breathe” for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while lying down on Peña Boulevard during a youth-led Black Lives Matter demonstration in Denver, June 6, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A second protest on Sunday morning, filled with Denver Public Schools families, teachers, administrators and board members, brought more than 1,000 people to downtown Denver’s Civic Center park. The day started off with a rally, followed by a 2-mile march along East Colfax Avenue to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in City Park and almost nine minutes of silence on bended knee for George Floyd.

The demonstrations added to 11 consecutive days of protests in Denver and cities across the country, where scores of people have railed against police brutality and honored the memory of black people who have died in police custody, including Floyd.

Some of the protests have turned violent, with confrontations between police and demonstrators. But many have remained peaceful, including those led by students this weekend. At Sunday’s event, Denver police officers stood out in the heat to hand out water bottles to protesters. One participant fanned an officer keeping watch and distributing water on East Colfax Avenue as he strode past.

MORE: Law enforcement warns of unintended consequences with Colorado Democrats’ sweeping police accountability bill

Melissa Boateng, 17, took the lead organizing Denver Metro BLM and its Saturday protest, eager to turn her emotion into action after seeing how much the stories of those like Floyd and other black people killed were affecting some of her friends and one of her sisters.

She said she knew she had to do something, not only for herself but also for her two younger sisters, her parents and the community, and she used a Zoom call to coalesce friends and former teachers in planning. 

Melissa said her drive to protest has been prompted by having to grow up in a world where the color of her skin “is seen as a crime.”

“You’re not even safe being at your own home,” Melissa added.

Sharing that feeling with others compelled her to rise up.

Protesters lie down on Peña Boulevard, blocking traffic and chanting “I can’t breathe” for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to call attention to George Floyd’s killing during a youth-led Black Lives Matter demonstration in Denver, June 6, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It motivated me to fight for my community, to fight for the future of my sisters and to fight for the future of the youth in this community,” Melissa said.

The neighborhood where Denver Metro BLM held its protest is diverse and has a lot of families. In 2017, black people accounted for close to 30% of the neighborhood population and Latino people represented more than 40% of the population. That same year, nearly 70% of families in the neighborhood had children, according to the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab.

At Sunday’s demonstration, Pyreese Miller, an incoming junior at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, found himself near the center of much of the action, including onstage during the morning rally and at the front of the blocks and blocks of marchers as they walked across Denver, following in reverse the Marade route people follow each January in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

His white shirt was emblazoned with the three words that protesters uttered, just as Floyd did, while lying down the day before: “I can’t breathe.” 

MORE: Colorado’s Jason Crow launches effort to boost police accountability, federal misconduct investigations

Pyreese, 17, is a black man who sees systemic racism ingrained in the country, though he said he hasn’t been targeted with it himself.

Racism has always existed, he said. “It’s just now being shown, and if we don’t change it it’s just going to get worse and more innocent people are going to die.”

The student acknowledged the layers of tragedy his generation has experienced.

“But I feel like this is only going to make us better as a generation,” he said, “because we’ve already been through the worst and once you’ve been through the worst, there’s only one way to go and that’s up.”

Denver Public School students march from the state Capitol down East Colfax Avenue to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in City Park to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in Denver, on June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

They’re young and they’re tired

Chants throughout Saturday and Sunday’s youth protests echoed those of other demonstrations over the past week and a half, as students called out “Black Lives Matter,” and “No justice, no peace,” and raised their voices with the names of some who have died because of police brutality, like Floyd and Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor was shot at least eight times in her apartment by police officers late on the night on March 13. Officers entered her home without knocking to investigate whether a man thought to be selling drugs was using her apartment to get packages. 

The energy of the protesters on Saturday and Sunday never wavered. Many young people are fired up, in part because they’re tired.

Shania Brace, 17, said she is worn down by seeing tragedy after tragedy play out and is eager for the protest she helped push forward with Denver Metro BLM to lead to change.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she said.

Shania, who graduated from Strive Prep – RISE in May, said she and her four co-organizers are all tired of repeatedly seeing headlines about another black man or another black woman who has been killed. 

Shania, who is biracial, said she is chasing a future where her siblings, especially her younger brother, feel safe. She doesn’t want to have to see him worry about being targeted.

Denver Public School board members lead a Black Lives Matter demonstration to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in at Civic Center park, Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Denver Metro BLM leaders are stepping beyond speeches and chants in trying to upend structural racism. In all their tiredness, they lay down for Floyd on Saturday right on Peña Boulevard, forcing cars headed toward them to turn around as police cars on the side of the road protected them.

Lying down was an act of standing up against police brutality and racism, they said. 

The protesters’ moments on the ground in some ways mirrored a demonstration held Sunday, when protesters at Denver’s Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial also fell silent for Floyd and other black people killed by police.

A police officer joined the crowd, kneeling for part of the eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Pyreese sees real potential in the current Black Lives Matter movement sparking lasting change. He’s encouraged that more police officers, like Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, are being charged. And he’s glad that some police officers are taking part in protests.

He’s also encouraged by how much attention the protests has absorbed across the world and believes the movement is making more strides than it has before.

“It’s getting heard more than it has in the past,” Pyreese said.

Dakota Patton has started to build his own following throughout the Black Lives Matter movement. The 24-year-old Loveland resident has attended Denver protests all week with a friend he considers a brother. At one demonstration, they grabbed the microphone and their message resonated with those listening and they’ve been speaking at the demonstrations every day since.

Denver Public School student Brianna Johnson speaks to a large crowd of demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter march organized by DPS Board members to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in Civic Center park, Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Patton said some of his personal experiences have propelled his own protesting.

“I know I’m protesting because I’ve grown up in all-black communities, all-Latino communities and all-white communities, and I’ve seen the oppression, I’ve seen the white privilege and I’ve seen police brutality,” he said.

Patton, who is biracial, recalled an incident when he was personally victimized. At age 14, he and a white friend were accused of breaking into cars. The pair were innocent, he said, but police officers deployed dogs on them and forced Patton face down onto the ground, handcuffing him behind his back with an officer on top of him. His white friend was able to sit on the curb, without handcuffs. They asked the pair questions but would only let Patton’s friend answer.

Patton said he went into that interaction with police expecting it to unfold as it did, after his parents had given him “the talk,” warning him about the possibility of that kind of instance with police. The moment didn’t necessarily change him as a person, but it’s a reality that spurs him to stand up at protests.

Demonstrators raise their fists and take a knee during 8 minutes of silence to honor George Floyd at a Black Lives Matter demonstration organized by Denver Public School board members to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in Civic Center park, Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Outrage tempered by hope

Both Saturday and Sunday’s protests were overflowing with emotion as demonstrators paraded, many with signs in hand and many raising a fist into the air to symbolize the black power sign. They were as quiet as they were loud, as they softened into moments of silence in remembrance of black lives lost.

For all the grief and heartache expressed over those lives, the throngs of young people also marched forward on a hopeful note. On Sunday, they waved their signs left to right in unison while music blared, they competed in quick dance competitions along East Colfax Avenue and people of many races banned together in pursuit of change. 

Denver Metro BLM’s handful of leaders, who also registered protesters to vote after Saturday’s demonstration, have already drafted a list of demands “to begin healing the decades-long violence against the Black community.” Those demands are directed at local and state governments, and police departments in Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs — which the group wants to see reallocate their budgets.

Those demands include having “all historically oppressive Colorado police precincts” fund and participate in weekly Friday community barbecues, and having 55 paid internships for Colorado high school students in police departments, hospitals, schools and other community places. Those would be “in overly policed” areas of Aurora, Colorado Springs and Denver.

Students who have risen up to elevate their voices as they try to shatter racism have a sense that they can make the kinds of differences that generations past haven’t yet.

Students and community members march past East High school during a Black Lives Matter demonstration to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I believe that this is a people problem, and if we can turn this and create good people then naturally over generations we’re going to see a change,” Patton said.

He noted that the tragedies he and his peers have lived through and witnessed have fortified him.

“It’s made me very strong,” he said, “and it’s made me able to endure a lot.’

Valdez, of Denver Metro BLM, believes that students can make a unique difference for the Black Lives Matter movement, which starts with the way they talk to each other as well as to younger students and younger siblings, like her own 8-year-old brother.

“I’ve taught my brother to listen to people and to tell his own story, and he has become passionate about hearing other stories and about learning,” she said.

The fight for change will extend beyond one march and one week, potentially beyond one year, said Michael Anderson, a second-grade teacher at Meadow Point Elementary School in Aurora who also attended Denver public schools.

Wielding a bright pink sign that on one side read, “Educate Don’t Subjugate #BlackEducatorsLivesMatter,” Anderson, 35, attended Sunday’s protest to show his support and “hopefully inspire change.”

“As a black male educator, I wanted to be present,” he said.

Anderson sees this moment as one to seize for real change after years of suffering.

“I believe that students of color have been growing up experiencing a lot of tragedies for generations,” he said. “Now there’s a bigger spotlight and easier ways to communicate to assemble for change.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...