Denver DA Won't Prosecute Climate Protesters Arrested at Capitol

Activists from groups including Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement were arrested on January 9.
Activists from groups including Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement were arrested on January 9. Chase Woodruff

The climate change activists arrested earlier this month during protests at Governor Jared Polis's State of the State address won't be prosecuted, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said today, January 23.

Thirty-three people were arrested at the State Capitol on January 9 during a series of demonstrations in support of more aggressive action on climate change. Activists, who included members of advocacy groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, faced a variety charges including disrupting lawful assembly and trespassing.

After meeting with the Denver Police Department and the Colorado State Patrol, which initiated the arrests, McCann says she will seek dismissal of the charges.

“I support and appreciate peoples’ First Amendment right to protest and express their opinions; however, they cannot disrupt official proceedings inside the State Capitol,” McCann said in a statement. “Since most of these climate change activists spent a night in jail, I’ve concluded that prosecuting them further for criminal conduct is not warranted given all of the circumstances."

Shortly before Polis's speech began, about a dozen protesters were forcibly removed by State Patrol officers from the gallery of the Colorado House of Representatives after chanting, unfurling banners and, in at least one case, gluing themselves to a banister. Roughly ten minutes later, a larger group of activists with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activist group, began chanting and singing just outside the House chamber; they expected to be escorted out of the Capitol building, but were surprised when they, too, were placed under arrest.

Several Democratic lawmakers had previously called for the charges to be dropped, including Representative Jonathan Singer of Longmont, who argued that the punishment didn't fit the crime. Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted in support of the arrested activists.

"I'm elated," says Arn Menconi, a climate activist and former Eagle County commissioner who was arrested in the demonstrations. "And grateful to all the people, from Representative Singer to the other politicians and leaders, who supported us."

Menconi criticized law enforcement's treatment of the arrested protesters, some of whom spent over 24 hours in jail. He lost income because of his arrest, he says, because he was temporarily unable to drive for Uber after three misdemeanor charges popped up on his record.

"This was oppression for speaking truth to power," he says. "The science is saying act immediately, and there's no more time left, and the state legislators haven't introduced a bill of any significance. All we're hearing is speeches and aspirational goals."

Activists' demands included a plan to phase out of oil and gas extraction in Colorado, and specifically an end to fracking at a site near Bella Romero Academy, a Greeley school serving predominantly low-income and Latino students where a controversial drilling project began in 2018.

"Speaking out for environmental injustices is the right thing to do," says Ean Tafoya, an activist with Green Latinos and one of the protesters who was arrested. "Bella Romero is just one of many schools impacted by some phase of the fossil-fuel industry. Our children deserve better. Our workers deserve better. We all have the right to health and safety."

McCann, however, warned activists against similar demonstrations in the future.

"I strongly urge these protesters to work with their elected officials to effect the change they seek, and warn them that if they engage in future actions that disrupt official state business, criminal charges will be considered," McCann said.
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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