Music News

Wheelchair Sports Camp's New Song Shoots Back at the Cops

Wheelchair Sportscamp mastermind Kalyn Heffernan.
Wheelchair Sportscamp mastermind Kalyn Heffernan. Andrew Rios

Former mayoral candidate and furious Wheelchair Sports Camp MC Kalyn Heffernan has not been sleeping well...and that's unusual. But lately, things have been keeping her up at night: the pandemic, the police murders, the protests, the law enforcement attacks on demonstrators, the escalation of white supremacy, and the worries that mass mobilizations around the country will lead to an uptick in the pandemic, causing more black people — already hit hardest by COVID-19 — to suffer and die.

"Remember how two weeks ago we were laughing at the white supremacists for protesting, but now we’re going to put the highest-risk people in a protest and give this fucking KKK guy his race war?" she asks. "I’m nervous...I’m nervous."

With all that to fret over, Heffernan would normally hit the streets and demand change. The 33-year-old, born in Denver, has always been on the front lines: during Occupy, at other uprisings against police violence, even at Standing Rock. She was arrested during a multi-day sit-in — turned shit-in — with the disability-rights group ADAPT, demanding that Senator Cory Gardner oppose the rollback of the Affordable Care Act. But the danger of COVID-19 is keeping her away from these protests. 

Sort of.

At first, Heffernan went to her balcony and shouted at cops staged nearby, but "rioting from my apartment" wasn't enough, she says. Then, like many others, she broke out goggles and an N95 mask, covered herself as best she could, and went out to see what was happening downtown.

She stationed herself on what she thought was a safe corner near the Colorado Capitol. Within a few minutes, an SUV full of cops pulled up, and one law enforcement fan of her music yelled, "Wheelchair Sports Camp!" At that moment, a few youths behind Heffernan chucked a rock at the window of the SUV, and the police opened fire with non-lethal weapons.

Heffernan made a beeline out of there and headed home.

"There were enough pissed-off kids and youth that were like, 'I don’t give a fuck,'" she says. And while that makes a protest a challenging place to be for someone who's trying to protect her immune system — Heffernan has osteogenesis imperfecta and travels by motorized wheelchair — she understands and shares their fury. "I’m not blaming them," she explains. "They have every right."

But there are many forms of direct action that could be as effective, if not more so, than mass gatherings, she adds. People could stand six feet apart and shut down all of Colfax Avenue — the longest street in the United States. "If we spread out, we can take over so much more ground," she says. "And we could have more disabled people and elders."

For now, though, she's staying home, where she's been writing the music for Phamaly Theatre Company's upcoming hip-hop-inspired production of Alice in Wonderland, which was scheduled to take place at the Denver Performing Arts Complex next month but has now been postponed because of COVID-19. Though she's staying busy, "I’m having a really hard time not being out," Heffernan says. "It’s just eating me up."

So she decided to drop a new song, "187bpm_demo," which she had planned to release on a new album. It's a noisy rager she wrote about time that she spent with Lynn Eagle Feather, the mother of Paul Castaway, a suicidal indigenous man who was holding a knife and threatening to kill himself when Denver police officer Michael Traudt gunned him down in July 2015. Traudt was later spotted with a tattoo from the anti-government militia the III Percenters on his hand.

click to enlarge Machete Mouth is one of the rappers on Wheelchair Sports Camp's new track. - LARES FELICIANO
Machete Mouth is one of the rappers on Wheelchair Sports Camp's new track.
Lares Feliciano
Heffernan wrote the song around the time of her 2019 mayoral campaign, which started as an April Fool's joke but soon helped set the agenda for the race, forcing discussions about ending the urban camping ban, the city's lack of accessibility for disabled people, prison and police abolition, trans and queer rights, and more. At debates, she confronted incumbent mayor Michael Hancock's record, accusing him of criminalizing homelessness, failing to be accountable for police murders, and cozying up with predatory developers who were building projects that were gentrifying low-income communities of color and destroying the best of Denver.

She organized seventy-plus musicians to create a noisy jam session outside of the Denver Performing Arts Complex because the city-run institution had been siccing cops on buskers, and she blasted the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for funding efforts to protect the urban camping ban.

While Heffernan was as salty-mouthed as ever on the campaign trail, she garnered respect from her fellow candidates, a few of whom did their best to ally themselves with her — gestures she mostly refused. She doesn't play with respectability politics. She wore a fake mustache through most of the campaign, queering her candidacy and mocking the straight-man posturing integral to electoral pageantry.

The whole process had her seething and exhausted. So when she set out to make music, it was revolutionary, militant and dissonant.

As she wrote "187bpm_download," she had not just Castaway in mind, but countless other victims of Denver police violence: Jessie Hernandez, Ryan Ronquillo, Michael Marshall and so many more.
click to enlarge Left to right: Key Lady and KOKO LA of Rare Byrd$, and Machete Mouth. - VERITY CLARE
Left to right: Key Lady and KOKO LA of Rare Byrd$, and Machete Mouth.
Verity Clare
With rapid-fire, raging, punk-tinted instrumentals from Gregg Ziemba on drums and Wes Watkins on synths, siren-like horns from Joshua Trinidad and devastating vocals by Machete Mouth and KOKO LA, the song is a terrifying sonic assault, a poetic theater of cruelty, lyrical chaos and noise weaponized.

If you think protests are violent, try this track. It's enough to torch the system.

Proceeds from the song, which costs a minimum of $10 to download on Bandcamp, will go to the Colorado Freedom Fund, to pay for immediate bonds and prison abolition efforts. That group works to free people from jails and also advance criminal-justice reform.

Here's the full statement from Wheelchair Sports Camp about the release:

We would like to offer this song of rage, anger, and grief to the ongoing fight for liberation. For those on the frontlines of today's uprising and for the generations of movements before that paved the way, taught us how, and who gave their all for us to be here. Most importantly, we are offering this song to the FUTURE we are dreaming, we are growing, we are building. For the FUTURE FREE OF POLICE. For the FUTURE FREE OF COLONIAL VIOLENCE. For the FUTRUE FREE OF CAGES. For the FUTURE FREE OF IMPERIAL INSTITUTIONS. This is for the organizers at home and for the organizers without homes. For the street medics, the harm reductionists, the abolitionists, the healers, the cooks, the freedom fighters, the leaders, the elders, and the BEAUTIFUL YOUTH called to action.

This song was written with Paul Castaway, Jessie Hernandez, Ryan Ronquillo, Michael Marshall, Sandra Bland, Ibrahim Abu Thuraya and the countless others heavy on our hearts here at home and afar. But today, we are forcibly grieving Tony McCade, Nina Pop, and the countless other queer, trans, black, brown, indigenous lovers in the midst of honoring Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera's legacy. Today, we are forcibly grieving and honoring Elijah McClain, Iyad Halak, Saheed Vassell, Paul Childs and the countless other disabled black, brown, indigenous lives who matter. Today, we are forcibly grieving Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and the countless other black women caretakers including the so many missing, murdered indigenous women. Today, we are forcibly grieving Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, Roxana Hernandez, and the countless others kept in concentration camps left to die. Today, we continue to grieve and honor Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and the countless unarmed black youth taken from us. Today, we yell, we sing, we rap, and we rage to this song while forcibly grieving and honoring Quintin "Q" Donelson, William Lamont Debose, George Floyd, and the countless other black fathers who matter. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Today, we live in such persistent trauma, rage, stress, and grief, that we cannot even honor every name or lost life without forgetting to mention the too many black, brown, indigenous, disabled, queer lives that mattered. Cus the list goes on and fucking on and fucking on and fucking on....
Fuck your hashtag performative activism, say it till you mean it, and mean it till you put your privilege into direct action.

Let us burn the banks, and protect the sacred. Let us tear down the walls, and grow our gardens. Let us destroy the empire and every corporation ready to re-elect white supremacy. Let us build our sanctuaries and burn Amazon, the meat packing plants, and capitalist machines sacrificing lives right now. We are not here to reform, replace, rebuild, redo, and re find ourselves back under the oppressor's command & control! We are here to dream, imagine, plot, plan, mobilize, strategize, organize, build, grow, and sustain this new future into reality. Let us carry on the Denver spirit of organized resistance like our ancestors trained us and let us rely on our comrades around the world making it happen today. There's no time like NOW.

We love ya'll
Protect yourselves, Protect each other, Power to the People
Heffernan hopes that momentum from the protests will fuel an ongoing mass movement for abolishing prison, ending police and state violence, and supporting black liberation.

"I think the real thing I want to make sure we’re all focused on is the future," she says. "I want to burn this shit down, too, but I want us to be strategic and mobilized.

"I’m watching the KKK-white-supremacy-militia state be so organized and mobilized and strategized," she says. "They’ve got hundreds of years of experience, so I just really want to put this energy into that future that we’re growing and we’re building, and being very intentional about what we burn and what we protect and what we destroy and what we build."

Download "187bpm_download" at Bandcamp.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris