As people began shouting at Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks during an October 4 meeting at Brother Jeff's Cultural Center, Jeff S. Fard – better known as Brother Jeff — grabbed the microphone.
“I hope that everybody’s hearing what’s taking place,” the moderator said sternly. “Trust me, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in this space, but this ain’t heated!... I’ll stand up when it gets heated...but I believe that we can go back and forth and hear what people are saying.”
Ironically, this statement seemed to acknowledge exactly how heated the discussion had become.
Billed as a “community conversation with Councilman Albus Brooks,” the Tuesday night meeting at Brother Jeff's Cultural Center had drawn over three dozen community members. And more than a few were fired up about Brooks, as seen in the following video.
Among the more contentious topics addressed during the two-hour meeting were rising home prices in Five Points, the expansion of I-70, Brooks’s support of the urban camping ban, police violence against the black community, and a recent Twitter exchange that led a local nonprofit to return a $1,000 donation to Brooks — which Westword had reported a day earlier.
A few of the speakers represented well-known organizations in Denver, including Amy E. Brown of Black Lives Matter 5280, Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud and Candi Cdebaca of Project VOYCE.
But other community members took the District 9 council rep to task as well, prefacing their questions to Brooks with statements like, “I’m extremely disappointed in you,” and “Councilman, why do you think you’ve lost so much popularity?… Why do you think you’ve fallen from grace with the community?”
For his part, Brooks remained admirably poised, attentive and courteous throughout the meeting. He pointed out, rightly, that not all elected officials in Denver are willing to open themselves up to their constituents in such a fashion. “You’ll never see us turn down a meeting with anyone," Brooks said.
"I've been through hell and back this summer," the councilman noted, adding that he was excited to share new “perspectives and values” that he’s gained after battling an extremely rare form of cancer, a fight that included surgery to remove a fourteen-pound tumor close to his spine.
Before taking questions, Brooks laid out his office’s top three priorities: finding opportunities for youth, working on housing (he pointed to his recent push with at-large councilmember Robin Kniech to pass Denver's affordable-housing plan) and facilitating economic development in the Five Points neighborhood.
During the question period, Brother Jeff read aloud from queries submitted by audience members on index cards. One involved the unauthorized-camping ordinance (urban camping ban) that Brooks sponsored in 2012. The ordinance remains controversial — especially as one of the main enforcement tools used during the ongoing homeless sweeps in Denver.
“Would you have done anything differently now?” Brother Jeff read from one card.
“There are a lot of things I would have done differently,” Brooks responded, before elaborating on how he wishes the roll-out of the ordinance in 2012 hadn't been so fast and had been a more collaborative process with service providers and homeless individuals.
But when subsequently asked if he would support a repeal of the camping ban if a majority of the current Denver City Council voted to strike it down, Brooks said he would not side with a repeal, “because there's not evidence it's criminalizing the homeless.”
That line drew considerable ire from crowd members like Terese Howard, who later told Brooks that the camping ban is tearing apart the homeless community in Denver – not through arrests, but through verbal “move on” orders.
Another tense moment came when Brother Jeff mentioned a just-published Westword article describing how a local nonprofit, Project VOYCE, returned a $1,000 donation to the councilman's office following a contentious Twitter exchange.
After acknowledging that he had “called out” at least one constituent on Twitter, Brooks said, “I shouldn’t have engaged at that level. This is about our community; it’s not about personal beefs."
As moderator, Brother Jeff pressed Brooks about the nature of donations and whether Brooks ever expected money to buy influence, as some members of Project VOYCE believe Brooks insinuated in a (now-deleted) tweet.
Brooks responded that he's not in anyone's pocket, including those of developers, and pointed out that all of the members on Denver City Council have many of the same donors.
“Everyone gets to every councilperson. It’s called 'smart donations,'" Brooks said. “Here's an example.... Me and Raphael Espinoza…I’m probably the antithesis of who he is, right? But he has the same donors as I do, because at the end of the day, all of these people have to work together in the city. And so that’s the point I’m trying to make: From [the donors'] perspective, it’s smart to try and build relationships, and [donations] are how they build relationships."
After reading questions from the notecards, Brother Jeff turned the microphone over to people in the audience, which is when the evening truly got heated. Here's another video excerpt from the meeting.
In a follow-up phone interview, Brooks told Westword, “Obviously there were character and personal attacks, which I don’t think are beneficial to what we’re trying to do, which is create a community where people aren’t displaced and is vibrant.
"One of the things that we were disappointed in was that folks didn’t stick around to talk about solutions [after the meeting ended],” he added. “I’m going to continue working with Brother Jeff to look at community-access points to these discussions, so we can start looking at some ways we can implement at a policy level."
While Brooks did take plenty of fire at Tuesday's town hall, he also received some praise on social media following the event, including from Brother Jeff:
“It gets hard when it gets slanderous," Brooks told Westword. "But I welcome a difference of opinion and think it makes a better city. Last night was evidence of that.... I feel like I grew tremendously in the meeting, because I learned a lot from specific examples that I haven’t heard before that were compelling to me."