Denver in Decay: Steffan Tubbs on Controversial New Documentary

An image from the new documentary Denver in Decay.
An image from the new documentary Denver in Decay. Mountain Time Media via YouTube
Denver in Decay, a controversial new documentary by Steffan Tubbs, will make its debut at 7 p.m. tonight, September 17, on the website of radio station 710 KNUS before migrating to YouTube. And Tubbs, the afternoon-drive host at the outlet, is girding himself for backlash over his withering criticism of state and local officials in regard to their handling of the Mile High City's homelessness crisis and downtown protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

"There are going to be a lot of people who are very angry and upset about this film coming out," Tubbs predicts of the launch, which falls on Constitution Day. "But instead of being angry at me, maybe they should look at themselves in the mirror."

In addition to being a longtime Denver radio personality (he was a staple at KOA before being fired over a domestic-violence beef for which charges were later dropped), Tubbs has made a series of films under the imprimatur of his Mountain Time Media company. Most of his previous efforts have spotlighted veterans and military matters, with the exception of Droughtland, about the struggles of farmers and ranchers in southeastern Colorado. But, he says, "What we've seen over the past three or four months screamed at me to do a film — the violence and the seeming lack of any voice or response from elected officials, Democrats or Republicans, to what was happening."

The tipping point "was the second night of back-to-back-to-back-to-back riots in Denver," he continues. "If you weren't there, it would be easy for you to say 'This is just a little part of downtown' — but it's a lot more than that. So I thought it was a good time to look at the homelessness problem and some of the violence we've seen during the COVID times."

As Tubbs acknowledges, "A lot of people will feel this is completely politically driven. But from day one of doing this project, we have tried to make it as down the middle and bipartisan as we could make it — although, not surprisingly, many, many, many people, most of them Democrats, wanted nothing to do with it." Among those who declined interviews were Mayor Michael Hancock, who recently criticized the film in advance during an appearance on KHOW, and Governor Jared Polis. Nonetheless, Polis turns up in the doc anyhow, answering a question from Tubbs during a press conference to address the spread of COVID-19.

Here's the trailer from the film, including a look at the Polis segment and appearances by former mayoral candidates Jamie Giellis and Penfield Tate:

Tubbs stresses that the film doesn't demonize the homeless, citing a sequence in which an unhoused woman answers a question while a single tear rolls down her face. But he admits that he doesn't emphasize the fact that the vast majority of participants in Black Lives Matter and police use-of-force demonstrations were non-violent, and that only a handful of individuals took part in fire-starting, window-breaking and other destructive activities.

"I would say the film is focused on the problems — and those would be the homeless problem and the violence problem, both of which were tolerated," he says. "The approach is that I think most people know there were peaceful protests going on. The Denver news media did a terrific job of going, 'Look: Everything's peaceful! There are no problems here!' But there were a lot of problems."

One program singled out for condemnation is Denver's Road Home, then-Mayor John Hickenlooper's 2005 plan to end homelessness in the city within a decade — "which was five years ago," Tubbs says. "Now, that may have been an unrealistic goal, but the facts speak for themselves. It's not our fault that the facts are what they are. Denver's Road Home was a disaster, and the lack of attention to the violence and destruction and graffiti is a fact, too. I blame both sides: the governor, the mayor and Republican leaders, too. People just kind of sat back and looked at this issue and what happened over the summer and went, 'Well, that sure is unfortunate.' But that's not a good enough answer for me, and that's why we tackled it."

The film takes the unusual tack of calling out those who refused to go on camera: Tubbs names Denver City Council members Candi CdeBaca, Chris Hinds and Robin Kneich; U.S. Representatives Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter; Colorado Coalition for the Homeless president and CEO John Parvensky; and Denver School Board member and protest leader Tay Anderson, among others. The mentions "are in the credits, and during the film, too," he explains. "We play a sound bite from Mayor Hancock, then fade to black, where it says, 'We reached out multiple times to Denver Mayor Hancock...'"

More positive references are made to those who donated money to finance Denver in Decay. "We used crowd-sourced funding," Tubbs reveals. "We got so much interest from people contributing $5 or $10 or $25, and people who gave $100 or more have their name in the credits. A lot of people likened it to signing a petition — making it known to anyone who watches that they feel the things we talk about in the film are serious and not necessarily lost causes, but that we do need to take on these two major problems."

According to Tubbs, "The goal for the film is to make sure that people understand not only what's gone on during COVID times in Denver and what I've been calling the Summer of Hell 2020, but that they look back and realize these problems started a long time ago. We want to shine a light on the problems and make sure everyone's on the same page. That way, maybe we can start with a clean slate — say, 'Past policies, ideas, wishes, none of that has gotten us very far.' And if tolerating violence is the new norm, they need to know what they're in for in the city and county of Denver and throughout the state."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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