At 6 p.m. tonight, June 12, the ongoing protests in downtown Denver that started after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis will be supplemented by a march inspired by a law enforcement slaying that took place much closer to home: the May 1 gun-down of 21-year-old William DeBose near the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Branch Library at 1498 Irving Street.
If you haven't heard about the DeBose homicide, you're not alone. "It got very limited media coverage," says Lillian House, a march organizer as well as a Denver-based representative of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. But she considers the DeBose case another example of people of color in Colorado who've died at the hands of law enforcement — not just Elijah McClain, Michael Marshall and De'Von Bailey, but also Marvin Booker, Paul Castaway, Ryan Ronquillo and Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant.
Much of what's been circulated about DeBose's death to date has been from the viewpoint of the Denver Police Department, which House sees as following its usual playbook: "Kill someone, and then afterward, assassinate his character."
Early news reports were largely drawn from a May 4 press briefing delivered by DPD Lieutenant Matt Clark, who told journalists that at 10:22 p.m. on May 1, officers from the gang unit saw a car driving westbound on I-70 at a high rate of speed prior to a merge onto I-25. At that point, they requested help from the department's helicopter, which tracked the vehicle from the air as the pursuit proceeded.
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Eventually, the car exited the highway and stopped in the parking lot of the library just off West Colfax Avenue. DeBose stepped out of the vehicle along with a woman later identified as Sierra Martinez, his common-law wife. Clark said that DeBose initially cooperated with officers before beginning to run — and during the foot chase, Clark continued, he drew a gun and pointed it at one of the cops. In response, officers opened fire, striking DeBose several times; he died at a nearby hospital. According to Clark, a loaded handgun was found near DeBose's body.
Here's that DPD press conference:
Press briefing, Officer involved shooting on 5/1/2020. 3200 W Colfax Ave https://t.co/8bLyCCgdgM— Denver Police Dept. (@DenverPolice) May 4, 2020
Since the shooting, Martinez and other family members have expressed doubts about the DPD account and repeatedly asked for the release of body-camera footage as well as the autopsy report. Thus far, however, none of this material has been made publicly available, which House finds telling.
"We've seen this happen enough times that we know we can't just trust the police's version," she says. "We want to see the body-camera footage and the autopsy report, because we don't believe there was justification for his death. It's very fishy to everyone who's heard about it. We know they've killed lots of black and brown people in our community for no reason, so we're not just going to take their word for it."
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Since there's no evidence that DeBose was in a gang, House sees the DPD's mention of the gang unit's participation as blatantly pejorative. As for his alleged possession of a gun, she notes that it would never have come into play if "they wouldn't have followed someone for speeding with such an aggressive mobilization of police force. That alone is excessive force, and it's completely reasonable that a young black man would be scared for his life after being surrounded by so many police."
In House's view, DeBose's death is yet another argument in favor of defunding the police. "What we're fighting for is an entirely different system," she says. "We want to overthrow the system as it exists now, which has an oppressor class — and without the need to oppress people, there's no need for a police force as it exists today. Whether we'd have community policing is something else, but you couldn't call it police in the same sense as it is now. It would be a completely different institution."
The march for DeBose "will start at the Capitol, and we're hoping people in the area will join in with us," House continues. "We'll be walking through neighborhoods and hopefully getting the word out to more people that it's not just police in Minneapolis or Louisville or Ferguson who are dangerously racist. It's also police on our own streets."