Denver's Marade, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., usually attracts thousands of people, who march as one united community from City Park to Civic Center.
But on January 18, the 2016 event was interrupted by demonstrations by local activists, including Black Lives Matter 5280 co-founder Amy E. Brown, who took the podium at Civic Center Park, uninvited, and offered a riled-up crowd pointed criticisms of Mayor Michael Hancock.
When the mayor later defended himself in his own speech, many in the crowd jeered and yelled — and the episode made headlines around town.
Although Black Lives Matter 5280 has been gaining members and clout since it formed last May, Brown's speech put the organization on the map for many. To find out more about the group and what it has planned for Black History Month and beyond, we touched base with Brown.
Westword:Amy, How did Black Lives Matter 5280 form in Denver?
Amy E. Brown: About a year ago, just about everyone from our core membership began doing work together in Denver around state violence and police brutality, within a different group that we're no longer a part of [Brown declined to name the group]. But we began to form deep relationships that were, unfortunately, strengthened by work we did around the murder of Jessie Hernandez, and in amplifying that story. And a few of us realized that it's really easy, even among individuals with the best intentions, to replicate patterns we've seen in historic movements [in which] very charismatic black males — often church-based males — take the leadership role, and in such a way that the working contributions of others, especially black women, get lost in the shuffle. So three of us [Brown, Bianca Williams and Reverend Dawn Duval] decided that we really wanted to find a way to bring people together around black women leadership. We began exploring to see if we could bring Black Lives Matter to Denver, and we embarked on that process in April of last year.
In bringing Black Lives Matter to Denver, did you reach out to existing chapters in other cities across the country to get their support?
Bianca [Williams] had actually been in contact with someone from the national organization, and she learned that this was a possibility [for Denver]. So we worked with national to get information on how to move forward.... The biggest guidance they gave us was to be open to the process within our city. There is no playbook for how to do this work; there is no manual for how to start a Black Lives Matter chapter, because the realities on the ground in every city are so different. So, really, the greatest thing national gave us was the freedom to feel out what this work is going to look like in Denver, to truly serve Denver's oppressed populations.
Where does Black Lives Matter 5280 fit within the existing activist communities in Denver? What did you see that was not being done already by activist groups?
I wouldn't say that it’s [a question of] what's not being done. I would say there is a shortage of groups that are centered around leadership by women of color, of queer women of color. That's a problem everywhere and is lacking here in Denver. As far as where we sit in terms of other organizations, we have great and very active relationships with a wide array of organizations and activists here in Denver [like SURJ, Sole Progressive, the Denver Justice Project, Alex Landau]. We really enjoy shedding the idea that Black Lives Matter 5280 is going to solve every problem in Denver, and embracing the idea that there are amazing groups here tackling these issues already who have been working on them for years. Building a coalition with these groups — like we did for the Marade — we're all able to amplify our work and amplify the message.... It's a two-way street as to how we can help groups amplify their messages, bring new audiences, incorporate Black Lives Matter messaging, and how we can tap all these resources in Denver.
Has having a leadership that is female-fronted and open to different sexual identities caused people to join you who felt marginalized and uncomfortable in the activist community before? And do most of the people you work with tend to be younger?
Yes, we skew younger as far as our demographic goes. But we are very dedicated to figuring out how we can be serving and engaging cross-generationally, because we know this fight is multi-generational, and we need everyone.
As for what we hear from folks, here's an example: At our Wednesday-night community meeting [last week], there was a young woman who identified as mixed race, who talked about how when she looked up and saw black women on the microphone at the Marade, she felt a physical surge of power within her. And we do have a couple of queer black women who have come up to us and said, 'It's amazing to hear a group that isn't just nice to, or permits, queer folks, but intentionally provides a safe place for queer black folks.' That's been something that was missing before in Denver's black communities. [Queer people] are participating now, because when they wanted to before, they may have felt homophobic undercurrents, or didn't necessarily feel safe or seen.
Let's talk about the MLK Day Marade. There's been a lot of press around your speech at Civic Center Park that day. What was the planning process for that like?
There were a number of actions that took place that day, far beyond the speech at Civic Center. I would say there were probably five organizations and fifteen individual community activists involved, all of whom played integral parts in the phases of the day. The planning process was really beautiful, I have to say. It was one of those rare experiences where people were aligned with a vision, and with all the coalition partners we worked with, people would float these thoughts or ideas or visions with the preface of "I know this sounds crazy, but..." and then the entire room would immediately say "Yes, yes, we're doing that. That is possible."
From beginning to end, we worked for a month. That's important to me, because later on, some misreporting that bothered me was that this was a random act of twenty angry people — but, really, it was planned, and it was organized, which is why it was successful. For a month we had meetings, one-on-ones, coffees, practices, physical run-throughs — and these were all people with day jobs, night jobs, and families who set aside time to make sure it was safe and powerful and successful. It's also important that Denver knows this wasn't just Black Lives Matter; a huge coalition came together to do this work, and we would not have succeeded without that coalition.
Were you nervous at all about how the demonstrations would go, or whether you'd be able to speak before the crowd without an invitation?
I'm a native of Denver, and I know what the Marade represents here, and that it is a very real fixture within Denver's black community. I was personally nervous about the response of our senior black community, knowing that we were bringing change to a long-held treasure in our community. My hope was that people would be able to get past the momentary discomfort with disruption and hear the message, and recognize that we were speaking truth — and not just truth to young black people or Black Lives Matter, but were truly voicing community concerns and things that Dr. King cared about and would have wanted prioritized on a day honoring him. Most of the communication we've gotten shows that once people got to the message, there was strong support there.
As far as being nervous about being able to speak, whether or not we got to a podium, I knew we would say our words. We had such an intricate plan — even though that original plan didn't work out. Our working assumption was that we'd do the speech via bullhorn at the statue, and very possibly be arrested and not make it to Civic Center. But once we left the statue chanting "Black Lives Matter Here" and people followed, from that moment on, the people were dictating to the city what this day was going to look like, and the people reclaimed the day and took it to Civic Center.
There was an interesting moment when Mayor Hancock got up to speak after you gave your speech at the podium at Civic Center Park. He very emphatically countered your claims by stating, "I have not turned my back on this city." What do you say to his rebuttal?
I don't know how he can explain the realities on the ground that face the black community if his back has not been turned. And I don't know how he explains things getting worse and worse instead of better if his back has not been turned. And perhaps the term "back turned" is not the right phrase; maybe "too busy selling Denver to the highest bidder" is the right phrase. Perhaps he's been too busy courting businesses and developers for the city.
One of the other things that Hancock said in his speech was, "We don't just celebrate black lives; we celebrate all lives." Do you think that "all lives matter" is something that marginalizes or trivializes your movement?
I think it's a direct assault. It's an affront to the idea that black lives matter. I don't believe it's just flipping a slogan around. I believe saying "All lives matter" in response to [anyone] saying "Black lives matter" is you saying "Black lives DON'T matter." It's saying they are not worthy of being centered. And of all places — Civic Center — of all days — MLK day — of all people — a black, elected leader in Denver — that [Hancock] could not center black lives when the public was begging and giving the words to say and he refused to say them, that's a refusal to affirm black lives.
It was a powerful sequence of events, so what's been the response since the Marade? Have you faced criticism? Have you seen support? Have there been more people who want to join Black Lives Matter 5280?
Overwhelmingly, it's been incredible amounts of support, whether it's messages, e-mails.... Last Wednesday's community meeting was our first since November, and it was the largest community meeting we've had. We asked new folks to raise their hands, and roughly 75 percent of the room were new people. And many of them said, "We didn't know you were here until MLK Day." We had black folks coming to us saying, "I've been looking for you, for ways to do this work. I'm so glad you're here."
And that's not to say we haven't gotten push-back — we definitely have. Some of it [includes] questions that are important, like what does it mean for black people to be disrupting — or, as I prefer to say, reclaiming — a day that was put together and organized by black people? What does that mean when the disruption is between black folk? That's a critique we've gotten and a conversation that I think should be had. And then there's just pure, nonsensical hate speech, which is not something I take seriously.
In your speech at the Marade, you mentioned a host of issues: changing the name of Stapleton, looking at development and affordable housing, ending the camping ban, demilitarizing the police, reducing prison populations, providing mental-health services, dismissing the officers who restrained Michael Marshall — which all together is a very packed agenda. So does any of it have priority, and how do you go about tackling so many things simultaneously? Does that run the danger of watering down any particular effort?
I think that if we were doing all of that, it would water down the work. As I said before, we're in a city where a ton of people are already working on these issues. So we know Denver Homeless Out Loud and the ACLU are doing huge work around the Right to Rest Act and decriminalizing homelessness. So we try to amplify that message and plug into that work as much as we can. And we have other friends doing workshops and teach-ins to help people with criminal records and mental-health challenges access housing. We're looking hard at development in Denver, for what the plan is for the community in Swansea. And with Stapleton, we continue to work with residents of that community to look not just at that name, but look at the community as a true representation of what happens when white supremacy takes hold of institutions — that it's all encapsulated by the fact that it's named after a Klansman, [former Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton]. With regard to the firing of the six officers, we prioritize that because the Marshall family has prioritized that. In fighting for justice for Michael Marshall, he is no longer with us, so at this point our fight must be for his family. And we honor and respect that.
So I think part of it is plugging in with organizations because we know we can't tackle all of it. And we know that these are long, long processes. We have no illusions that tomorrow prisons will be gone. We're aware that some of these things we'll be working on for the rest of our lives, because these systems have been built up strategically for decades...but it's also not just our job [to solve them]. There are highly paid elected officials — who have administrations and agencies and well-paid staff and researchers — whose literal job is to make plans to serve the city of Denver. So sometimes when people ask us the "plan" and we don't have the plan, it's because we're not the ones who are supposed to make them.
I think that the [Marade] speech kind of laid out for us: How do we want to road-map this work? What are the short-term and long-term visions? What is the chessboard looking like here?
Can you share any future plans, or which chess pieces you're planning to move first?
There are next steps around the Stapleton campaign. The initial hope was that the community of Stapleton, who expressed immediate horror at the name, would take this on for themselves to represent the community they say they want to be. And they didn't, so we've had to go back and really educate people as to why the name matters, and why the name is symbolic of a lot of other things that are problematic of that community.
For those who don't know, can you explain why the name Stapleton is offensive?
Benjamin Stapleton was literally the candidate of the [Ku Klux] Klan in Denver. He was a mayor [in the 1920s] who brought in an entire administration of Klansmen. So the idea that we have things named after him, and now have resistance when we try to change that name, is beyond my understanding. It's not representative of the community we say we are...and when we did our first fliering last fall, it became clear most people didn't know the truth.
What's the response been like from elected officials regarding changing the name Stapleton?
Disappointingly nonexistent. We expect leaders to embrace this opportunity to set an example for the community — of hearing what people are saying and being proactive about positive change. We will absolutely name that Chris Herndon is a black city councilman, and we would very much have appreciated his support in changing the name of a town named after Stapleton in his district. So the silence of our leadership has been quite disappointing.
Are there other campaigns you are working on?
We will be in solidarity, celebrating #BlackFuturesMonth [a national campaign during which, each day in February, Black Lives Matter will release an original piece of art and an accompanying written piece to reclaim Black History Month and encourage conversation about systemic racism and violence against Black people.]
We're also beginning to make moves around calling upon elected leaders to abolish slavery from the state Constitution, because at this point in the 13th Amendment, there's a clause that allows for slavery in punishment for a crime. A lot of people don't know about the clause. So Together Colorado is launching "No Slavery, No Exceptions," and we'll be mobilizing around that and support the effort in a variety of ways. On February 11, at Shorter AME, there will be a major action around the "No Slavery, No Exceptions" bill.
We also invite people to our community meetings. Our next is on February 28, and there will be details on our Facebook page.
Any last things you'd like to add?
I think if you look back to the Marade, if the mission of that day was to reclaim MLK Day, then the people did that. That day was reclaimed. And it will never be the same, because once people are able to see their own power versus the assumed power of elected officials, things are never the same. Listening to the people tells a much bigger, powerful story about that day and days to come in this city.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.