When Black Hammer came to Beaver Pines, a sparsely populated neighborhood on the high desert about 25 miles west of Telluride, they came for the soil.
They were about two dozen leftist revolutionaries, almost all people of color. In Denver and other U.S. cities, the group’s chapters had spent the pandemic handing out food and personal protective equipment while planning their signature project: Hammer City, a utopian settlement high in the Rocky Mountains free of coronavirus, cops, money and white people. Together they would renounce private property, work the land and build power.
Commenters on Facebook and Twitter widely ridiculed the concept as a “cult” doomed for failure. But the activists raised more than $60,000. On May 3, 2021, Augustus Romain Jr., the group’s commander-in-chief, posted a photo of 10 people standing among sagebrush with raised fists and a declaration on Facebook: Black Hammer had “liberated” 200 acres of land somewhere in Colorado. The soil, they wrote, was rich.
Black Hammer never said where their new community was. Within weeks, the group suddenly stopped its dispatches from the desert.
But donations continued pouring in, eventually cresting the $100,000 mark, according to the organization’s fundraising webpage. Critics online wondered where the money went when the Hammers left Colorado. Tureyel Quan, the Black Hammer Organization chief of staff, declined an interview for this article, citing bias in media coverage of COVID-19 vaccines, which the group opposes.
After Black Hammer narrowly failed to purchase its land, Hammer City joined the rich history of failed utopian projects in Colorado.
In the Beaver Pines subdivision and the community around nearby Norwood, population 600, the Black Hammer Organization left an impression. When the activists decamped May 17, what remained was a partially built footbridge, a property sign riddled with bullet holes and a local man shaken after an armed standoff.
Undeveloped parcels mostly held by absentee owners
Wildlife photographer Randy Stephens lives in a solar-powered cabin in Beaver Pines. When he’s not tracking cinnamon bears and full moons to photograph, he takes care of his daughter’s horses on his 41 acres or drives the 20 minutes to run errands in Norwood.
The small town can feel a world apart from glitzy Telluride, which is 45 minutes away, residents said in interviews. Norwood offers sweeping views of the Lone Cone, the westernmost peak of the San Juan Mountains, and the land rolling west toward the Utah border. From Norwood, it’s about 6 miles as the crow flies to Beaver Pines, a remote spot that offers the opportunity to live quietly or off-the-grid, said Teddy Berger, a real estate agent based in Montrose. Of the 16 lots in Beaver Pines, many still are undeveloped and held by absentee owners as far away as Los Angeles.
“There’s not a lot going on out there,” he said.
At 8,200 feet, it’s often frigid in the winter. The temperature was fluctuating wildly in early May, with highs in the 80s and lows in the 30s. That’s when Stephens noticed several parked cars blocking the community’s only road.
It was May 9. Near the cars, he saw a few people he didn’t know on Beaver Pines Lot 11, vacant land listed for sale. According to Stephens, he pulled over twice in the next few days and asked the newcomers to move their vehicles. They refused, saying they had bought the land and could do as they pleased.
A week passed. On May 16, Stephens was frustrated when he found cars still in the road. By then, about two dozen people had congregated on the 40-acre lot, a plain of sagebrush that slopes into a sparsely-wooded valley. They were of many races and ethnicities, Stephens recalled, and they ranged in age from children to adults in their 30s.
Stephens pulled over and began yelling at them.
As he later told sheriff’s deputies, that’s when three armed men fanned out across the pasture and approached him. One of the men drew a handgun. Alarmed, Stephens said he pulled a shotgun from behind his seat and pointed it at the man’s head.
Behind the armed trio, the group chanted “Go!” at Stephens, he told police. The standoff was short-lived. Stephens is adamant he told the men he didn’t want a shootout and they all lowered their weapons.
Stephens, shaken, drove away and called the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office.
His report kicked off a law enforcement investigation to identify the armed people. That night, Stephens placed another call to Deputy Paula Martinez. He’d seen the group again as the day waned.
This time, two women sat atop a car parked at a different point in the community road, where three men wore bullet proof vests and camouflage and toted what looked like AR-15s. They looked like a “militia,” he told Martinez.
Deputies recognized the group from Twitter
Earlier that day, at the department offices in Telluride, Martinez ended her call with Stephens and briefed two of her colleagues.
One, Deputy Grant Markwell, had seen a post on Twitter that a “militant” group named Black Hammer planned to build a “city” somewhere in Colorado. Martinez found the group’s Facebook page. In a conference call with the FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the sheriff’s deputies were told Black Hammer was a “radical, paramilitary organization” that wants to “take back the land from white people.”
Black Hammer also describes itself as militant, but a “symbol of hope for the colonized poor and working class.” Their presence in western Colorado was key to their goal of liberating Black and brown people by creating a sanctuary, the group says on its blog, The Black Hammer Times.
Chase Robinette, who went by Secretary-General Anco, said in a February 2021 video series that the pandemic, police brutality and other issues disproportionately facing people of color necessitated the construction of Hammer City. “Colonized people,” he said, “need their own land, their own space, their own modes of production in order to advance an anti-colonial struggle any higher.”
The activists dedicate much of their time to posting a near-constant stream of content online. Romain, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, has taken the moniker Gazi Kodzo. Their TikTok page has more than 300,000 likes.
It’s unclear how many members Black Hammer has recruited and where the organization has legitimate chapters. Social media accounts exist for affiliates from Chicago to Kenya, said Rebecca Federman, an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League who monitors their social media. Like Romain, other Hammers take noms de guerre.
Mostly, the activists post monologues about leftist theory or livestreams of community events. They sometimes tote sledgehammers but not usually open-carried firearms.
In Denver, a small chapter of Hammers held rallies and candlelight vigils for COVID-19 victims in 2020, often at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Aurora. Michael Diaz-Rivera, a Black Lives Matter 5280 activist, attended a few Black Hammer meetings that year. He remembers donating some small bills toward their project that would be somewhere in the mountains.
But he didn’t join the group. Diaz-Rivera recalled Black Hammer activists arguing Anne Frank didn’t deserve sympathy because she would have become a European colonizer — an oppressor — had she survived the Holocaust. That argument later caused a firestorm on Twitter and became a signature Black Hammer talking point. Before they arrived in Beaver Pines, the activists tweeted they would stay warm in their mountain colony by burning copies of Anne Frank’s diary.
“I definitely get cult-like vibes from that group,” Diaz-Rivera said.
Black Hammer rolled out its fundraising campaign in July 2020 and released renderings of Hammer City. It would take the shape of a huge, circular structure, as depicted in one image, or a series of dome-shaped homes as shown in another. Hammers would harvest crops and live guided by a constitution.
Black Hammer never said why they chose Beaver Pines, a subdivision with a homeowner’s association and strict limits on land use. Water rights, which have long shaped ambitions to settle in the region, were not available for Lot 11, Berger said.
Jason Hanson, a historian at History Colorado, said there’s something about the state, perhaps the natural beauty, that attracts people with utopian ideals.
He noted that socialists founded nearby Nucla, just 15 miles from Norwood, as a communal project in 1894. Dearfield, the majority Black settlement outside of Greeley in the early 20th century, was built as a refuge from racism, he said. Persecution also pushed scores of 19th-century Jewish immigrants to Cotopaxi, an ill-fated agricultural community on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Its founder also lauded the “rich” soil of southern Colorado. But the community withered away after several seasons of failed crops and brutal winters.
Today, the public usually doesn’t learn about such attempts to build insular communities unless something goes wrong, Hanson said.
Building a bridge over a drainage ditch
After Stephens reported the standoff to the county sheriff’s office, Markwell and another deputy drove out to Beaver Pines. They found several people using lumber and stones to build a footbridge across a drainage ditch.
Romain and other Hammers had been proudly showcasing the bridge, and their land, online.
“We are building the first structures of Hammer City RIGHT NOW!” Romain posted on Twitter the day before, along with three ways to donate online.
But the land wasn’t theirs to develop.
Police contacted Lucas and Marcy Pitman, the Utah-based owners of Beaver Pines Lot 11. Marcy Pitman did not respond to an interview request. The land was since sold to a Telluride-based builder.
The Pitmans had been working with Berger, the Montrose real estate agent, to sell the parcel to Robinette – or Secretary-General Anco – for about $100,000, Berger said.
He says Robinette never mentioned his intentions for the land beyond practicing “some high-altitude farming technique.”
Robinette moved through the process and even put $10,000 down for the purchase. But the deal fell apart when, on May 14, Robinette missed a key deadline to sign the closing documents, the Pitmans told police. Then, when they heard that armed people were squatting on the land and wandering the Beaver Pines loop road in paramilitary garb, they refused to sell, Berger recalled.
Near 5 p.m. on May 17, Markwell called Robinette, who apologized to the sheriff’s deputy for being hard to reach; he’d been in and out of cell service while another person handled “construction” on Lot 11.
Markwell told him the bad news: Robinette and his friends were trespassing. They had to leave immediately.
“We will definitely be out tonight and won’t be coming back,” Robinette said.
Stephens had been on edge. That evening, he heard bursts of gunfire coming from Lot 11. Then, it was quiet.
Sheriff’s deputies watched a caravan of cars leaving Beaver Pines at 6:30 p.m. Later, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters drove to the property and found the footbridge remained unfinished. The real estate sign advertising Lot 11 was riddled with bullet holes, and the road was sprinkled with 4-inch timber screws.
A Sun review of Colorado court records did not find Romain and Robinette were charged with crimes related to trespassing on Lot 11 or the standoff with Stephens.
Black Hammer never told donors why Hammer City was not built. In mid-June, the activists simply posted photos of themselves canvassing in downtown Denver, and at the end of the month, they relocated to Atlanta.
The next month, The Black Hammer Times published a blog explaining why they “ran off with the Hammer City money.” The cash would now be used to fund the construction of settlements “all over the world.” Black Hammer has raised more than $112,000 to date, almost double their haul since the cohort arrived outside Norwood.
The small group of activists in Atlanta has since focused on distributing mutual aid to impoverished residents. Online, Romain is adamant Black Hammer is stronger than ever. But it appears the group is unraveling.
In late July, the organization’s New York chapter accused Romain of manipulating and abusing his acolytes, especially young people “fresh out of high school or college.” The chapter also claimed Romain and Robinette frivolously spent the Hammer City money while rank-and-file members suffered homelessness and abuse.
Romain and the core group of activists now focus on opposition to COVID-19 vaccines. Romain recently forged an “alliance” over the issue with right-wing activists such as Proud Boys co-founder Gavin McInnes. The cohort in Atlanta apparently does not include Robinette, who reportedly left Black Hammer amid internal turmoil at the end of the summer. Romain has also said Black Hammer will change its name.
In Beaver Pines, life is once again quiet, Stephens said.
Sometimes, when he tells the story of his brush with Black Hammer, people ask him why he didn’t shoot them. He’s been offered shotgun shells.
He’s adamant he’s not “some prejudiced, redneck bastard,” and said he would have welcomed the activists as a good neighbor had they treated him kindly. In any event, he’s glad the standoff resolved peacefully — not least because his shotgun wasn’t loaded.