Protest Watch

Protests Update: Statue Fire Arrests, Elijah McClain Violin Rally Sprayed

A screen capture from a Twitter video showing the burning statue base outside the Colorado State Capitol late on June 26.
A screen capture from a Twitter video showing the burning statue base outside the Colorado State Capitol late on June 26. @pinklaurenade
Yesterday, June 28, marked one month since protests got under way in downtown Denver following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Since then, the vast majority of demonstrations here over racist policing and related subjects have been peaceful. But a rash of statue topplings over the past week culminated late on June 27 with a fire on the Colorado Capitol grounds that triggered multiple arrests and chastisements from Governor Jared Polis. And earlier that evening, cops busted up a rally in Aurora calling for justice for Elijah McClain, during which tributes to the 23-year-old victim's love of violin were juxtaposed with riot squad tactics that made international headlines.

Statues such as one in Washington, D.C., depicting Confederate General Albert Pike have become symbolic targets for protesters nationwide, prompting President Donald Trump to sign an executive order stating in part that "a penalty of up to ten years' imprisonment" can be imposed on anyone who damages a monument or statue on federal property. But unlike states in the American South, Colorado has few Confederate memorials; back in 2017, Denver7 could only find six, with just two of them on public land. So after taking down the Civil War Monument at the Capitol that actually depicted a Union soldier, locals took down a nearby salute to Christopher Columbus — and the city removed a Kit Carson statue before it could be targeted.

With these monuments gone, statuary options around the Capitol became quite limited, and vandals resorted to setting the base of the Civil War Monument ablaze. Here's a video of the results:
Neither the Denver Police Department nor the Colorado State Patrol, which handles security at the Capitol, have provided much information about the law enforcement action prompted by this conflagration, leaving Polis to take the lead.

"Good news: Three suspects have been apprehended and we hope this also provides a breakthrough into other ongoing investigations regarding destruction of public property," he wrote on Twitter. "There is a right way and a wrong way to have an open and honest conversation about our history. Destruction and vandalism are not the answer. To be clear, no matter what your feelings about public art, our state respects the rule of law, and there are proper legal channels for reflection, conversation, and change."

The following day, Trump issued a tweet that addressed statue assaults in general. "Since imposing a very powerful 10 year prison sentence on those that Vandalize Monuments, Statues etc., with many people being arrested all over our Country, the Vandalism has completely stopped. Thank you!" he declared.

The rally for Elijah McClain on June 27 attracted hundreds of individuals, many of whom swarmed onto Interstate 225, temporarily shutting down the highway. But the portion of the lengthy demonstration that got the most attention was an Aurora police crackdown during the evening memorial, while violinists played in memory of McClain, as seen in this clip.
The U.K. Sun headlined its piece about what went down "BITTERSWEET SYMPHONY: Moving Elijah McClain violin vigil is stormed by riot police who pepper spray protesters in jarring footage."

The Aurora Police Department objected vociferously to assertions by 9News that "smoke" was used to clear protesters, tweeting, "Aurora Police Department did not use tear gas last night during the protest. The reports that we used tear gas are FALSE. Pepper spray was used after a small group of people gathered rocks/sticks, knocked over a fence & ignored orders to move back. Tear gas was not used."

The APD added that "three people were taken into custody for violating lawful orders after warnings were given."

No word about whether any of them was armed with a violin.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts