Between 1,000 and 2,000 protesters gathered outside of the immigrant detention center in Aurora on the evening of July 12, by far the largest protest outside of the facility in recent memory, according to activists.
"I think the most people we've had at a protest until last Friday was maybe a couple hundred people," says Jennifer Piper with the American Friends Service Committee.
But after a group of protesters took down the American flag over the GEO Group facility and replaced it with a Mexican flag, what could have been a moment of unity among pro-immigrant activists turned sour. Activists are now trying to figure out what, exactly, went wrong.
The crowd gathered in Aurora to protest not only the detention facility there, which is run by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but also immigrant detention centers across the country.
The demonstration included two groups: those who were participating in the Lights for Liberty vigil, which had similar iterations in over 600 locations across the world, and those who participated in the March to Close the Concentration Camps, most of whom eventually joined the Lights for Liberty vigil after they finished marching around the facility. The march was organized by groups including the Green Party of Colorado, the Denver Communists, the Boulder Democratic Socialists of America, and the Coalition to Close the Concentration Camps, among other entities.
The two events came just as immigrant-rights groups were preparing for a possible ICE raid in Denver. So far, there has been one confirmed operation, according to the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
"A couple of nights before the event, we met with them," says Dana Miller, one of the organizers of the Lights for Liberty demonstration, about coordinating with the groups that were marching before the vigil. "The terminology that was used was that they would respect our vigil. The question is: What does respect actually mean, or what did it mean in that room? And also, the people in that room, I don't know if those were the people that actually stormed that GEO center. I don't know. I can't say if the storming of the GEO center was directly due to the organizers of the other march or if it was spontaneous."
A member of the Boulder Democratic Socialists of America who attended the protest but was not involved in planning says that the decision to enter GEO property was spontaneous. "One of the guys who had been marching with us, I don't think he had been affiliated with any group, he had this big Mexican flag, and he crossed the barrier and was running around the ICE parking lot waving it. Everyone seemed pretty stoked about it," says the individual, who asked to remain anonymous because the Aurora Police Department is offering $4,000 for help in identifying people involved in the flag incident.
Frankie Donez, an organizer of the March to Close the Concentration Camps, says that he knows the flag-carrying man, who is, in fact, Mexican. "He was one of the people most affected by this issue," Donez says. "I think that they were practicing peaceful civil disobedience in an appropriate manner to express their discontent with concentration camps."
Donez and the individual from Boulder Democratic Socialists of America both say that after the man with the Mexican flag ran onto GEO property, people followed. "Young indigenous and Latinx folks crossed with him, and then a bunch more people started to cross," says the person with Boulder DSA.
But controversy arrived as soon as the protest ended. Local media posted photos and videos of three flags that had been raised over the facility by protesters: a Mexican flag, a defaced Blue Lives Matter flag, and a flag that included "Fuck the Cops." Right-leaning media outlets seized on the opportunity to frame the protest as anti-American, and Republican politicians and commentators weighed in, demanding that elected officials, even those who weren't at the protest, condemn the desecration of the American flag.
"Whoever did this is a despicable, anti-American person. If it was an illegal alien, they must be deported. Cowards wearing masks defacing our flag. This conduct should be condemned by every area elected official. Let’s see who stays silent," George Brauchler, a district attorney and one of the state's most prominent Republicans, tweeted the day after the protest.
Governor Jared Polis was one of the first politicians to condemn the removal of the flag. But he also took a shot at politicians for not condemning the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border: "Of course I condemn the desecration of our flag, who wouldn’t? Now will you condemn the ongoing and even more serious offense to our flag and values of putting children in cages and tearing families apart?," Polis tweeted, adding photos of children in cages and the infamous photo of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande while attempting to cross into the U.S.
Of course I condemn the desecration of our flag, who wouldn’t? Now will you condemn the ongoing and even more serious offense to our flag and values of putting children in cages and tearing families apart? @GregAbbott_TX @cologop pic.twitter.com/u2IrqFc11A— Jared Polis (@GovofCO) July 13, 2019
Democratic politicians involved in the protest also condemned the flag incident. "We want to make it very clear that we strongly condemn the desecration of the American flag. Each of us has deep roots to the military and honor those who serve," said Aurora City Councilwomen Allison Hiltz, Nicole Johnston and Crystal Murillo in a joint statement. "We also are committed to speaking up against human rights abuses, even when a small group tries to distract from the issue."
Congressman Jason Crow, whose district includes Aurora and who has been pushing for more oversight of the GEO facility, wasn't at the protest but did send a staff member. "I condemn the desecration of the American flag. I fought to defend our flag and the values it represents," Crow said in a statement. "To deny the dignity and decency of people in detention is an affront to those values. I support the peaceful protesters who were there to raise awareness of conditions at immigration detention centers and thank the Aurora police for their professionalism at the event."
The flag incident is also fueling tension between organizers of the march and the vigil.
"We unequivocally denounce the actions of rogue protesters who stormed the for-profit detention camp and replaced the American flag with the Mexican flag yesterday. These protesters put the undocumented families who were attending a peaceful vigil at the same location in danger of being arrested and caused harm to the immigrant rights movement," Cristian Solano-Córdova, communications manager for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, wrote in a statement. CIRC helped organize the Lights for Liberty protest.
The Boulder Democratic Socialists of America individual who spoke to Westword rejects the condemnation. "The impulse to defend the American flag being flown over a concentration camp is really alarming. If we, the United States, have concentration camps, I think anti-American sentiment is more than justified, particularly from indigenous and Latinx people who have been racialized and oppressed by this nation since the settlers first came here."
Piper of American Friends Service Committee is curious to know more about the people who changed the flags. "I wanted to hear from the people who switched out the flag. I want to know what motivated them," she says.
Those involved in organizing the two protests are also clashing over allegations of collaboration with police.
"I’m so frustrated with CIRC. I’m calling on CIRC to stop collaborating with the police. I think the line is blurring between Aurora PD and ICE," Donez says. CIRC tells Westword that it does not collaborate with the police. Organizers of the Lights for Liberty protest spoke with the Aurora Police Department before the event, putting the police on notice to expect a large crowd.
Donez and other organizers of the march wonder why organizers of the Lights for Liberty protest told the crowd at one point that the Aurora Police Department had ordered people to disperse, when the APD itself says it made no such order. Patty Lampman, the organizer who made the announcement, sent Westword this statement, declining to comment on the police activity:
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"Organizers were disappointed that an event which started as a peaceful vigil turned into something else, distracting from our goal of bringing light to the inhumane conditions of immigrant, refugee and indigenous populations occurring in the Detention Centers across this country.
"Even though the event did not go as planned we still were able to provide an opportunity for the voices of the community to be heard as well as drive money and donations to organizations in the community doing the work on their behalf. Lastly, we were able to engage and educate more people in the community about the issues facing our immigrant, refugee and indigenous community and how they can get involved."
Despite the infighting, Piper is feeling optimistic about the protest. "I think these are good problems to have. If you're fifty like-minded people who show up every month, you stay fifty like-minded people who show up every month. You don't grow. And I think you grow when more people join these types of movements and more people want to make justice happen."
Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigration-rights activist living in sanctuary in a church in Capitol Hill, wants everybody who was involved in the protest to move on. "We're calling for unity. We welcome any ally, any person that wants to join the movement."