Environment

Today's State of the Climate Rally at the Capitol Almost Didn't Happen

Today's State of the Climate Rally at the Capitol Almost Didn't Happen
Lindsay Bartlett
Today’s State of the Climate rally, designed as a response to Governor Jared Polis’s State of the State address, almost didn’t happen.

Harmony Cummings, founder of the Green House Connection Center, will be speaking at the 11 a.m. rally, which is sponsored by United for Colorado’s Climate, a group comprising forty of the state’s climate-related organizations. After working in the oil and gas industry for eight years, Cummings decided to devote all of her efforts to environmental justice; she became part of United for Colorado’s Climate after hosting Earth Day parades and healing ceremonies in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea, where her business is located. In November 2021, she and other members of the group delivered a letter to Polis with climate-related demands. He has yet to respond, she says.

By holding the State of the Climate rally as the state legislature begins its session, organizers hope to reinforce the idea that climate change is one of Colorado’s most pressing issues. But when United for Colorado's Climate applied for a permit to hold the rally at the Capitol, it was denied.

First, it was denied a spot at the west steps. Then it was denied for Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park, despite having the $500 minimum donation required to secure a permit there. Finally, organizers were told the Capitol was denying all permits for the week because of Polis’s speech. At that point, the organizers contacted the ACLU of Colorado, concerned that Polis’s free speech was being prioritized over their own.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, says he was surprised by their call. By his recollection, the ACLU hadn’t come across problems with free speech on the grounds of the Capitol since the Democratic National Convention was held in Denver in 2008.

Silverstein calls it an “extraordinary suppression of speech” to deny permits for an entire week. “People who have something to say to state government gather at the symbolic target of their speech, which is the State Capitol,” he notes. “The ACLU has always believed that free exercise of the right to speak out on public issues, the right to discern, the right to freely discuss public issues…is the core of democracy.”

After hearing from United for Colorado's Climate, Silverstein contacted the Colorado Attorney General's Office and the Colorado State Patrol, which oversees security at the Capitol, to notify them that the ACLU saw blocking permits for the week because of Polis’s speech on one day as a suppression of rights.

According to Doug Platt, communications manager for the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration, since 2011 the department has had a legacy policy of closing the west steps to permits during the first week of the legislative session and the week of the anniversary of the Columbine shootings to avoid security problems. After being contacted by the ACLU, the department revised the policy.

“We just reviewed it for contemporary circumstances and determined that it wasn’t necessary anymore,” Platt says.

And so the rally will go on today, with a land acknowledgment by Renee M. Chacon, Ean Thomas Tafoya as DJ and Lucy Molina as the emcee, as well as a gospel singer, drummers from the band Odessa and a fire dancer. “An important part of engaging people, especially in this work that is impossible and tragic and heartbreaking, is to find joy in different ways,” Cummings says, explaining the lineup.

She says the rally's goal is to draw attention to the group's climate demands, which include declaring a climate emergency for the state, phasing out fossil fuel production in Colorado by 2030 and decarbonizing Colorado’s electricity generation sector. Cummings hopes that attracting a large number of people to the rally, as well as big names like House District 6 candidate Elisabeth Epps, RTD District B director Shontel Lewis and possibly journalist David Sirota, who co-wrote Don't Look Up, will put pressure on Colorado’s elected officials to act.

click to enlarge Harmony Cummings is dedicated to environmental and social justice after leaving the oil and gas industry. - HARMONY CUMMINGS FACEBOOK
Harmony Cummings is dedicated to environmental and social justice after leaving the oil and gas industry.
Harmony Cummings Facebook
Cummings’s other goal is to refocus environmental policy discussions on the suffering that climate change and pollution cause. She recognizes the challenge, because "the opposition is huge,” she says. “I know that firsthand, because it was my job to calculate profits in oil and gas.” And so she's created a kinetic art piece of the Colorado flag on fire, emblazoned with the words “We are on fire, Polis.”

Cummings campaigned for Polis when he ran for governor, knocking on doors in Spanish-speaking communities and telling residents to vote for him. She says she wasn't a huge Polis fan then, but worried about the harm that his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton, might do. When Polis recently appointed Stapleton to serve on the Colorado Economic Development Commission, she says it felt like a betrayal of her early support and campaigning. “What I want to say to those folks is that I'm sorry and I was wrong,” Cummings says.

“It just shows me that there's the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the capitalist party,” she adds. “That's where we are right now, and it is clear where his interests lie in listening to the speeches that he has already given. It's just about business and saving money for households…but you know what costs a whole lot more is when your house burns down or when you can't drink the water.”

She'll be talking about that, and more, at the State of the Climate rally. “It's scary now, and things are getting real,” she concludes. “If the events of the past few weeks don't make people want to live their lives differently, then I don't know what it really will take between the fires and the shootings and just all the systems that are failing us.”
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Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire