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Charles Johnson (center) and protesters march down Tejon Street in Colorado Springs on June 11, 2020. (Nick Penzel for PULP)

A Month After Minneapolis: How activists are forcing Colorado to change after George Floyd’s death

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In the three weeks since George Floyd’s death, the fight against racial injustice has spread from the voice of protestors, to the ears of city hall members, to the pens of lawmakers along the Front Range of Colorado.

Colorado protests turned into demands for action in only days. Across the Front Range, each movement has taken on its own shape and form.

In Denver, the protests sparked lawmaking with the recent creation of Senate Bill 20-217, a bill calling for police accountability.

Protests in Colorado Springs and Pueblo spun down two different paths, both seeking an end to police brutality.

After a year of very public police shootings and a lack of transparency, Colorado Springs activist organizations look to create a community led, police oversight board.

In Pueblo, the Black Lives Matter protests have prompted the Black and Hispanic communities to advocate and seek for reform.

What is unmistakable, however, is the speed at which the Black Lives Matter movement has gained national support and elicited a demand for change, opening a contentious conversation between activist groups, lawmakers, and police chiefs.

Denver

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Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod celebrates the passing of law enforcement reform legislation in Denver on June 19, 2020 (AP)

Denver has seen a quick shift in policy. Protesters have successfully made their voices heard by the Colorado Legislation, demanding state-wide, police accountability. And it’s been less than a month since George Floyde’s death.

Senate Bill 20-217, Enhanced Law Enforcement Integrity, was passed last week in the capital concerning the integrity and accountability of Colorado law enforcement. Under SB 20-217, by July 1st, 2023, Colorado police forces will no longer have qualified immunity; will be required to wear body cameras, to publicly release all incident related footage, and to limit their use of physical and deadly force, among other more restrictive policing measures.

Colorado Gov., Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Juneteenth – Friday, June 19th.

Colorado State Rep., Leslie Herod, a sponsor of the bill, believes her work is far from over and that change extends past policing. “We’re not done just because, you know, we passed one bill. There’s still a lot more work to do,” she said.

Herod said communities and city councils across the state are looking to change the way Colorado law enforcement is funded and seek to remove School Resource Officers from schools. Apart from that, she said many community members are demanding accountability across the board.

“We have to do better in housing dedication, business development, health care,” she said. “It’s not just about one bill or one person. It’s really about a movement and a cry for accountability and end to racial injustice,” she added.

To Dr. Apryl Alexander, a leader of Denver’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) Chapter 5280, this movement and this cry for accountability, is nothing new. She’s worked for years to change the systematic racism present on a state and national level. But since the death of George Floyd, Chapter 5280 has gained visibility.

“I think now there’s a heightened awareness of our work so there will be more engagement with the public about what we’re doing,” she said. “For us, it’s simply a continuation of doing the work we’ve been doing for these last five years,” she added.

The 5280 Chapter has a platform and a set of goals which include the demand to end the war on Black people, the demand to repair for past and continuing harms against Black people, the demand for economic and educational equity, and the demand to divest from the police and invest in Black communities, among others.

Alexander said Chapter 5280 is currently talking to the Denver City Council about divesting from the Denver Police Department (DPD) and investing in the Denver community.

“That can include increasing the budget for education, increasing access to affordable housing, resolving issues related to food deserts, increasing mental health and physical health programs,” she said.

Working alongside other activist groups, Alexander said Chapter 5280 also wants to see an abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“We need to abolish ICE given the amount of Blacks, Latinx, Refugees, Immigrants in the ICE facilities…” she said. “There was a period of time in which we didn’t have ICE and we were managing as a country quite well.”

Going forward, Chapter 5280 will focus on Denver-based issues — such as DPD reform — while promoting the national Black Lives Matter platform as the November election approaches.

“We’ve been doing direct action and we’re just going to continue the same kind of direct action we’ve been doing,” she said.

Alexander believes the election in November will be critical to the success of the movement. As the election nears, she said the Chapter will hold forums to discuss key issues on the ballot.

Colorado Springs

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Kevin Mitchell (right), a community organizer in Colorado Springs addresses Colorado Springs City Councilmember David Geislinger (left) at rally for police reform on June 11, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Nick Penzel for PULP)

Without an official Black Lives Matter Chapter, Colorado Springs saw smaller organizations step up to advocate for racial justice in the wake of the protests.

These organizations are frustrated with the brutality of the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD). 19-year-old De’Von Bailey’s death was one of multiple unjust CSPD shootings the Colorado Springs community endured in the recent past. Since the resurgence of Colorado Springs activism in late May, many community members have demanded CSPD accountability.

Two activist groups submitted proposals to Colorado Springs City Council and Mayor John Suthers in a meeting on Tuesday, June 16. One of the groups, “Back to the People” proposed the creation of a citizens accountability advisory board, or committee, that would work with the City Council to oversee the CSPD.

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Darrick Matthews, a member of Back to the People, a Colorado Springs activist group pushing for change, speaks to protesters on June 11, 2020. (Nick Penzel for PULP)

Derrick Matthews, a member of Back to the People, said his group wants to create a citizen advisory board, consisting of eleven Colorado Springs citizens, six representing each district of Colorado Springs, and five coming from the area most affected by the police department.

Matthews added their proposed advisory board would work with the City Council to reallocate the CSPD budget, potentially focusing on training, certifications, and social workers to work alongside the police.

According to Matthews, an alternative proposal was made by the another activist organization, “The Austin Group,” in the June 16 meeting with City Hall.

The Austin Group proposed that City Council President, Richard Skorman, create a president commission committee. In this proposal, Skorman would appoint a Chair and Co-chair of the committee. The committee would be completely independent from City Council and would operate under Mayor John Suthers. It would, however, also work to oversee CSPD, Matthews said.

Matthews said an official decision has not yet been made of which committee to use — the advisory board or the president commission committee — if either. He said the decision will be made on Tuesday, June 23. In the meeting on the 17th, he said there had been talk about creating both committees, as they could work independently from one another — one operating under the City Council, the other under the Executive Branch of Colorado Springs.

Should neither proposal pass on the 23rd, Matthews said he and other activist organizations will apply more pressure on the city to turn towards police reform.

“Nobody out here is playing, we’re not playing games, it’s not play time,” he said. “Our goal is to… use non-violent ways and apply pressure to let them know that’s not okay.”

Even if change seems to be happening fast, it’s not quick enough for some, leaving many frustrated they aren’t seeing immediate reform.

Charles Johnson, an activist of “Men of Victory and Excellence” (MOVE), said he is disappointed with the process of creating an advisory board.

“I think it’s just upsetting. We have to wait another week….”

That’s after an original meeting was held on June 10th to discuss the creation of an advisory board to oversee CSPD. No conclusion was found on the 10th, which prompted the meeting this week.

“Sometimes it feels like you don’t accomplish much, and sometimes it feels like we’re taking a step backward just in life, it gets overwhelming…. It’s trauma that comes with our lives … our everyday lives of being a black man, a black woman, a black child, so sometimes it feels like we’re not accomplishing enough.” said Johnson.

Pueblo

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Black Lives Matter protestors marck on Pueblo’s Historic Riverwalk. Around 300 people marched in downtown Pueblo on June 1, 2020. (PULP Colorado)

Pueblo presents a unique situation for the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Puebloans make up only 2.6% of Pueblo’s population. Pushing for police reform, the local NAACP Chapter acknowledges their relationship with the Pueblo Police Department (DPD) is good, but not perfect.

Unique to Pueblo in the demand for police accountability is the activism of the various LatinX communities, which compose a majority of the Pueblo population inside city limits. Generations of racial divide have plagued these communities since the Chicano movement of the 60s and 70s.

Rita J. Martinez, the chair of El Movimiento Sigue — a movement fighting for Chicano rights in Pueblo — said they stand with the Black Lives Matter movements, as people of color in Pueblo see the same injustices.

Our Chicano, Mexicano population is over 50 percent and that’s where our police brutality and police killings have reared their ugly face. Within the last three months we’ve had at least three killings,” said Martinez. “They’re still people of color and it’s still the same issue,” she added.

Martinez said that police are sent on calls that they are not always qualified to handle.

“From an educational point of view, send the people out there who know, that are trained in that, and that’s part of this whole defund police movement that’s going on,” said Martinez.

She added that one of her goals is to help to abolish School Resource Officers (SROs) as she said they contribute to the criminalization of students of color — sometimes as early as elementary school.

“The school to prison pipeline is a real thing. Our funding should be going for true education and not building more prisons to house more kids,” said Martinez. “It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Sure they need more prisons because they are causing more kids to be criminalized at this point,” she added.

BreeAnna Guerra Rodriguez, the organizer of the first Pueblo protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, said she is pushing to defund the Pueblo Police Department (PPD). She wants to use those funds to help the community, and contribute to addiction, mental health, and education programs, among other things.

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BreeAnna Guerra Rodriguez. (Courtesy photo)

“If you look at white suburban neighborhoods, that’s already happening, they have excellent resources for education, for addiction and they don’t rely heavily on police forces,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is still finding a way to move towards divestment from PPD, but wants to open the conversation to the community starting with Pueblo’s Juneteenth celebration.

The Pueblo Police Department receives $31.6 million in funding per year .

Roxana Mack president of the Pueblo’s NAACP chapter wants Juneteenth to be the start where community voices their concerns on systematic racism and other issues of interest.

“For Pueblo, we just want to have the conversation. We want people’s voices to be heard and we want those that can make decisions and policy changes to hear those voices,” she said.

Crystal Kennedy, a community activist for Pueblo, is focused on getting young people to understand their vote matters to local reform.

“A lot of the younger generations aren’t really aware of what voting actually is in state and local type aspects as opposed to voting for the president,” she said. “That’s a really important thing especially with our younger generation growing up because they’re the ones that need to make this change possible,” she added.

Correction: The orginal version listed Pueblo Police Department funding at $3.3million. It has been corrected to $31.6 million.