As our Chris Walker reported last week, videos of Denver police officers taking the blankets and tents of homeless people went viral, prompting a letter from the ACLU demanding that such practices end immediately — and over the weekend, Mayor Michael Hancock ordered the cops to cease the actions.
But it wasn't just pressure from social media that preceded Hancock's move. Hancock blinked after attorney David Lane announced his plan to file for a temporary restraining order against the policy first thing this morning.
Lane calls Hancock's response "the first great victory" for the Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition (LCRC), a collective of attorneys in Colorado formed in recent days to fight against what Lane fears will be an onslaught on civil rights during the administration of Donald Trump.
"We need a bird's-eye view to be cognizant of various constitutional violations," Lane says. "The best example is when Trump starts praising stop-and-frisk" — a law enforcement technique often associated with racial profiling that involves stopping pedestrians on any conceivable pretext and searching them for weapons or contraband. "This is a clear signal to police forces all over the country that the federal government likes stop-and-frisk — and it wouldn't surprise me to see stop-and-frisk implemented in the metro area."
How could the LCRC fight the implementation of such a policy? "Say I get a call from someone who was stopped for two minutes because they're black," Lane continues. "Before, I'd have to say, 'You were detained for two minutes, and it was unconstitutional, but we don't have the bandwidth to go to federal court to do anything about it.' But now, with this coalition, I will be able to put out the message that this agency and officer did a stop-and-frisk, and ask if anyone else has these kinds of cases. And maybe the ACLU has four and maybe [Denver law firm] Rathod Mohamedbhai has three. Then we'll have that knowledge and immediately be able to do something about it — such as going to federal court with a group of plaintiffs, which radically increases the strength of the case."
The LCRC was formed less than a week ago, but Lane says the homeless-blankets measure shows that it's already working.
[Here's a video of the blanket confiscation, first posted on Facebook by Denver businessman and marijuana advocate Kayvan Khalatbari.]
Attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who's on the cover of the current Westword print edition, "had previously filed a case to overturn the Denver ban on urban camping," Lane notes. "Working with Jason, my law firm entered that case and told the city attorney we were going to be seeking an immediate temporary restraining order Monday morning [December 12] in federal court if they didn't order police to stand down and stop seizing items of survival from the homeless. The ACLU wrote a letter demanding the same thing, and the combined forces of all of us, including [advocacy organization] Denver Homeless Out Loud, resulted in the City of Denver standing down. So clearly, we can be a very effective group."
Lane acknowledges that Denver's urban-camping ban predated Trump's election — but he fears the new president-elect's influence is capable of making a bad situation worse from a civil-rights perspective.
"As my grandmother used to say, 'A fish stinks from the head down,'" he says. "Donald Trump essentially gives permission to law enforcement to violate the Constitution, gives permission for civil-rights violators to go ahead and violate civil rights — and we won't let it go without a fight."
At this writing, Lane estimates there are approximately 100 members in the coalition, all from Colorado and most based in the metro area — and he's hoping it will become a model for states across the country. "We have public defenders and members of private law firms: immigration lawyers, police-misconduct lawyers, free-speech lawyers, disability-rights lawyers, education-rights lawyers, employment-discrimination lawyers, housing-discrimination lawyers. And we'll all be able to work together. Say you're an immigration lawyer with clients who are being targeted out of a specific jurisdiction, and the way police are finding out various people are here without documents is through illegal searches and seizures. An immigration lawyer might not have the wherewithal or the knowledge to know how to go to federal court to get this stopped, whereas a police-misconduct lawyer would. So a number of lawyers are going to be right there to advise and assist."
He expects members of the coalition will be busy during the Trump years.
"I've gotten into trouble by making this comparison, but I'm going to do it anyway," he allows. "But I believe Donald Trump when he tells us what his game plan is. People say, 'Give him a chance. Maybe he won't be so bad.' And I say, 'That's what people said about Hitler, who also told everybody right before he got elected what his game plan was — and he implemented it.' Donald Trump has told us what he wants to do, and that includes unmitigated attacks on the Bill of Rights. And I believe he means what he says and says what he means — so we're not sitting around waiting for something to happen. We're forming a coalition, and when we see violations, we will respond immediately."
That includes what happened in recent days involving the homeless community.
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"I cannot imagine what in the world inspired Mayor Hancock and [Denver police] Chief [Robert] White to think it was a good idea to take our most helpless population in society, people living in the streets, and steal their tents, blankets and sleeping bags when there are sub-zero temperatures coming," he says. "What kind of human beings can do that? I don't know the answer — but I know we will fight these kinds of civil-rights violations with everything we've got."