Over Three Dozen Arrested During Climate Protests at Polis State of the State Address

At least 38 activists from groups including Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement were arrested.
At least 38 activists from groups including Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement were arrested. Chase Woodruff
At least 38 people were arrested today, January 9, during a series of climate-change protests at Governor Jared Polis’s annual State of the State address.

Groups including Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement staged demonstrations in and just outside of the chamber of the state House of Representatives, where lawmakers had gathered to hear Polis deliver his second State of the State speech as governor.

In his address, Polis touted the progress that his administration has made on climate issues, including measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector and the creation of an Office of Just Transition to aid workers affected by the shift to clean energy. “If we want to preserve our way of life for future generations, then we all need to lead on clean air and climate,” he told lawmakers.

But as Polis hailed Colorado’s climate leadership, more than two dozen demonstrators were arrested for disrupting his speech with a variety of demands but a simple message: The state’s shift away from fossil fuels isn’t happening fast enough.

“The climate crisis is happening right now, and we have to act,” says Erinn Peet-Lukes, an activist with Extinction Rebellion. “We have to be bolder and swifter than what the governor has proposed. And we wanted to make sure that in his State of the State, he has a plan to tackle this.”

Shortly before Polis entered the chamber, a group of about a dozen protesters in the House gallery unfurled two banners, one of which called for an end to fracking at a site near Greeley’s Bella Romero Academy, a predominantly low-income and Latino school in close proximity to a controversial oil and gas well pad.

Colorado State Patrol officers quickly removed the gallery protesters and placed them under arrest. Not long afterwards, a separate group of demonstrators with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group, began chanting just outside the House chamber. State Patrol officers, who had warned the group against chanting and other disruptions, escorted the group of more than twenty protesters to the Capitol’s south steps — where they learned that they, too, were being arrested.

A public information officer for the Denver Police Department said that a total of 38 people were arrested, 33 of whom were handcuffed and transported to the Downtown Detention Center. Five minors, all Sunrise Movement activists, were cited and released.

“This was genuinely a surprise to us,” says Ellory Boyd, a senior at Boulder High School and one of the Sunrise activists who was given a citation and released. “We were not expecting anyone from Sunrise to be arrested today. It won’t deter us. It will only make us more determined to move forward with our actions and continue demanding change from Governor Polis.”

Boyd and her fellow activists were cited for disrupting lawful assembly, public building trespassing and unlawful conduct on public property. The protesters who were jailed face similar charges, and some could also be charged with obstructing a peace officer, according to Sergeant Blake White of the Colorado State Patrol.

“We support lawful assembly and voicing your freedom of speech and all that,” White says. “But when it crosses the line, and it disrupts the Senate or House or anything going on, then we’re going to take action.”

The demonstrations are the latest in a series of direct actions by Colorado climate activists in recent months. In November, four people were arrested when Extinction Rebellion activists blocked traffic near Cherry Creek Shopping Center on Black Friday. The Sunrise Movement held a brief sit-in at Polis's office in December.

In his State of the State speech, Polis echoed what he'd said to a special congressional climate panel in a field hearing in Boulder last year: Colorado's leadership on climate issues is in large part taking place within the private sector, spurred on by market forces and innovation.

"The truth is that due to price reductions and technological advances, the shift toward renewable energy is already happening, and it’s being driven by the private sector that sees a profitable future in renewables," Polis said during the speech, hailing the announcement just made by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association that it plans to close its three coal-fired power plants in Colorado and New Mexico by 2030.

For a new generation of climate activists, though, that's too slow a timetable, and too much of a hands-off approach. In the face of a "climate emergency," they want to see a much more aggressive program of government intervention in the energy sector, including a plan to end new fossil-fuel development by 2025.

"Our plan was to get a large group of activists, led by young people, into the Capitol and make sure that [Polis] was able to hear our demands," Boyd says. "We're demanding change from a system of corrupt collaboration between the fossil-fuel executives and our government, Democrats and Republicans."

This post was updated at 5 p.m. January 9 to increase the number of confirmed arrests from 25 to 38.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff