“This is Lillian with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. What’s up?”
While hundreds of protesters blocked access to the Aurora Police Department’s District 1 headquarters on July 3, Lillian House took a call from APD chief Vanessa Wilson, who told her that the precinct was receiving “calls for service.”
“That sounds like a real crisis,” House replied, “but we have a primary crisis in our community. And it’s that these killer cops are still on your force. … Why don’t you call some of the departments that come in to provide reinforcements for repressing us and ask them to serve some of your calls?”
The PSL and other socialist groups in the area have been asking questions of local police departments for months and never getting satisfactory answers. So when APD officers came out with their gear, House and fellow PSL leaders left the scene.
Two months later, the 25-year-old House, along with two colleagues, was charged with attempted kidnapping eighteen police officers, among other crimes.
Lillian House enters the coffeehouse on Colfax wearing a homemade mask with little flowers. She sits down with her bag still slung over a shoulder and puts her hands in her lap. As she speaks, she is calm and resolved, patient and to the point. It is not unlike the way she speaks through a bullhorn, though she is considerably quieter now.
She makes her living through thrift stores, selling vintage clothing online. “It’s amazing hours for organizing,” she says. And that’s what she’s focusing on these days.
While attending the Pennsylvania State University, where her parents had hoped she’d study medical science, House learned about the climate crisis and became drawn to matters of justice. She switched to sociology and, after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department in 2014, began attending events organized by Black Lives Matter, founded by four Black queer feminists calling for intersectional justice. “That was a transformative moment for me,” House recalls. “The seriousness of it. I couldn’t not go deeper into that fight. But I didn’t know what I could do yet.”
She started connecting dots. “When Bernie Sanders ran in 2016, socialism became a real concept I could actually think about,” House says. “And I saw that was happening for other people, too.” Socialists understood that the concentration of political and economic power in a handful of greedy, out-of-touch oligarchs had brought this country to the brink of social and ecological collapse, she saw. “I agreed with socialism,” she explains. “I realized I could do something about that. I could actually fight seriously toward the struggle for that goal.”
Today, facing serious charges collected as she fought for that goal this summer, House finds herself at the vanguard of that revolution in Denver — almost by accident, but certainly not by mistake.
House moved to Colorado Springs with her partner in 2017. She was interested in serious organizing but didn’t find a lot of socialist tendencies in the Springs beyond a handful of leftists — no one who “was really serious about building a movement,” she remembers. She started driving to meetings of the Denver branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, when that PSL branch, founded in 2016, had only two members. She joined, and quickly established herself as a leader.
The PSL was formed in 2004, in part as a response to the Iraq War. Joel Northam, who joined another branch in 2016 before moving to Denver, says the PSL had two things that other socialist political groups often lacked: discipline and a coherent anti-imperialist politic. Congress had passed authorizations to use military force in 2001 and 2003, opening the door to the invasion of Iraq and to the War on Terror at large. Over the next seventeen years, those authorizations allowed three U.S. presidents to invade and attack countries in the Middle East and Africa with little to no oversight. Opposition to the war was politically dangerous for American politicians, but the PSL recognized their right to resist the U.S. occupation. “Some of our founding members traveled to Iraq during the 1990s during the sanctions of that era, sneaking in food and medicine,” Northam explains. “It was, from the beginning, explicitly an anti-war, anti-racist party.”
And soon it was everywhere. If the cops killed someone, if there was a labor struggle, a housing struggle, the PSL was in the streets. “We are also in the streets when the U.S. government is trying to overthrow the Bolivian government,” Northam notes. “We recognize that the U.S. military is the global arm of capitalism. We don’t want sanctions. We want that to end.”
Gloria La Riva, the PSL’s candidate for president in 2020, was on the ballot in fifteen states, running on a ten-point plan that included honoring Native treaties, closing military bases, and replacing capitalist economy with a socialist structure in order to save the environment.
Eliza Lucero joined the Denver branch of the PSL a year ago. The first protest she’d attended was a march against mass incarceration organized by the evangelical college that her father was attending in Chicago. “He’s an evangelical pastor,” she says. “We moved around.”
Lucero grew up in a small town in upstate New York that was “very right wing,” she says. “Like, Confederate-flags-in-New-York right wing.” Her parents were evangelical Democrats who had their issues with gay marriage and abortion, “but they also always taught me that just because we believe this doesn’t mean it needs to be law,” she explains.
“My parents are extremely supportive of my organizing,” she adds. “They say, ‘You socialists are being more like Jesus than us.’”
By the time Lucero joined the PSL in Denver, House was already organizing actions. “Lillian embodies a revolutionary,” Lucero says. “She is fearless and disciplined. She is our fearless leader. She means everything to me.”
House and other members of the PSL attended a vigil in Aurora the night after Elijah McClain died.
A 23-year-old musician and massage therapist, McClain was on his way home from an Aurora convenience store on August 24, 2019, listening to music and dancing. He was wearing a partial face covering to keep warm; because of a chronic illness, he suffered from weak circulation and got cold easily, so it was not uncommon to see him in a mask. Someone called the police to report a person behaving strangely, but explicitly stated to the operator that he did not appear dangerous.
With his music playing, McClain did not hear the three Aurora police officers approach, and was startled by the sudden confrontation. “I am an introvert,” he told them. “Please respect my boundaries.”
But within seconds of making contact, the three officers had grabbed him, dropped him to the ground with a carotid chokehold, then knelt on his 140-pound body for nearly fifteen minutes. On body-camera footage released to the public, McClain can be heard pleading with the officers. “I can’t breathe,” he says. “I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house.” He tries to adjust under their weight. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, I just, can’t breathe correctly.” McClain then vomits because of the pressure on his chest and neck.
About fifteen minutes after the police made their initial contact, McClain went quiet. By then, other officers had arrived, as had paramedics, who administered ketamine in a dose large enough to sedate a man twice McClain’s size. In the body-cam footage of the incident, officers can be heard checking on each other. “You good?” “You okay?” They did not check on McClain, who was not okay. As he was loaded into the ambulance, he went into cardiac arrest; he died in the hospital six days later.
The PSL demanded accountability for McClain’s death at Aurora City Council meetings in the following months, at packed public hearings. During one meeting, councilmembers urged civility and order, asking those there for public comment to wait in the hallway to be called in one at a time. The seventy protesters in attendance refused, and public comment continued. On November 10, 2019, the PSL joined a rally organized by the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action demanding justice for McClain. Aurora police prepared for violence with steel barriers; there was none.
Less than two weeks later, 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young said that no charges would be filed against the three officers involved in the McClain case.
After that, the protests stopped for a while...but the outrage remained.
Six months later, on May 25, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. As protests over his death and those of countless others — including Elijah McClain — broke out over the length and breadth of the country, the PSL emerged as a leader of the large, direct-action demonstrations in Denver calling for justice and radical police reform. Its members became trusted organizers: structured, uncompromising and clear in their direction and demands. House, Lucero and Northam became vocal, familiar figures at protests, wearing the PSL’s signature red shirts as they marched through the streets, rode on the back of trucks, and stood on the steps of civic buildings in both Aurora and Denver.
When Denver City Council decided to close the doors of a regular Monday night session in mid-June, the PSL called a public town hall on the steps of the Denver City and County Building, which drew over 100 attendees.
Then the leaders shifted their focus back to Aurora. “We partnered with community members, Terrance Roberts from the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action, the McClains and other local activists to organize something for Elijah’s case in Aurora again,” House remembers. “We had 5,000 people show up to that first march in June.”
The first part of that June 27 march took protesters out onto Interstate 225, which had been blocked by the Aurora Police Department. That action was peaceful, with no injuries or arrests, the Aurora Police Department later tweeted.
The rest of the day was not as calm. Protesters returned to the Aurora Municipal Building, where families and other demonstrators had gathered for a special violin vigil for McClain – and were soon pepper-sprayed by the APD, which had backup from surrounding law enforcement agencies. The department is now being sued by vigil attendees, including Lindsay Minter and Pastor Thomas Mayes, both members of Mayor Mike Coffman’s Police Accountability Task Force. Mari Newman, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit and represents the family of Elijah McClain, calls that police action “another perfect example of the suppression of free speech.”
On July 3, more than 600 demonstrators gathered outside the District 1 station of the Aurora Police Department, saying they wouldn’t leave until justice was done and the officers involved in McClain’s death fired. Vanessa Wilson — who’d been named interim police chief after Nick Metz, the chief when McClain died, resigned at the end of 2019 — asked to talk to House. The PSL leader proceeded to put Wilson on an amplified speakerphone as hundreds of attentive demonstrators cheered her on.
“This is Lillian with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. What’s up?”
House was arrested on September 17, flanked by a fleet of police vehicles as she drove into her Denver neighborhood. Eliza Lucero was in her home when eight officers arrested her; they then paraded her through a parking lot before taking her to Denver County Jail to be booked. That same day, Joel Northam was confronted at his home by a swarm of officers in tactical gear who arrived in the Denver Police Department’s largest toy — the armored, military-grade MRAP, originally built to protect against mines and insurgent ambushes during the Iraq War — along with approximately ten police SUVs.
The irony of an MRAP appearing was not lost on Northam. MRAPs were gifts to local police forces from Barack Obama’s administration, when it realized the military had more of them than it could use. The influx of military-grade equipment transformed the police in the United States, Northam says, and he sees connections between U.S. foreign policy and domestic justice. “Black people are not American citizens,” he says. “We are captive nations. In order to stand guard over those captive nations, the U.S. government uses the same military apparatus and attitude that it uses overseas in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
PSL member Russell Ruch was also arrested, as was Roberts of the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action, and Trey Howard, another protester.
Lucero was charged with nine counts, Northam with seventeen, and House with the lion’s share: twenty-four tied to actions on various days, twelve of them felonies, including conspiracy to commit theft from a person, engaging in a riot without a weapon, attempting to influence a public servant, inciting a riot with damage — giving command and obstructing a highway — and, most notably, first-degree attempted kidnapping of an entire precinct of the Aurora Police Department.
Northam and Lucero were charged with that one, too.
After eight days in jail, Lucero, Northam and House are all now out on bond. At a court appearance in Adams County on November 10, their preliminary hearing was rescheduled for January 12. House has an additional summons in Arapahoe County.
DA Young says that protesters prevented eighteen officers from leaving the police station, that they’d barricaded entrances and secured doors with wires, ropes, boards and other large objects.
“The idea that police officers armed to the teeth inside their own armory were trapped inside by a peaceful protest is completely absurd. We made it explicit to the police chief,” House says. In a video of that protest, House can be seen reassuring Wilson that the protesters were not there to breach the building or initiate violence: “We are not going in and we are not going out.”
But eventually, the police had had enough. “The way they decided to end that night was not to fire the killers, but instead to send in riot police and tanks to violently put down the protest,” House recalls. “And at that point, we left.”
House contends that the protests weren’t violent, but instead well-attended, multi-generational, high-spirited demands for accountability. But because they were seen as “threatening to the impunity of the police here and to the officials that have been insulating them from any kind of justice,” the PSL leaders were charged, she says.
On November 5, attorneys for House, Northam and Lucero released a joint statement: “Our clients were engaged in conduct and speech protected by the United States and Colorado constitutions. We are greatly concerned by the government using its power to retaliate against peaceful and lawful protest. We look forward to litigating our clients’ rights in court.”
Newman, too, believes the charges were politically motivated. “When we compare the failure to prosecute any of the people responsible for murdering Elijah McClain with the outrageously overzealous prosecutions in retaliation for the members of PSL and others exercising their First Amendment rights, when you see the prosecutorial decision-making against people who are concerned about police racism and violence but no prosecution against actually racist and violent police, you know something is wrong,” she says.
The Denver Labor Association, which represents 90,000 Denver workers and their families, passed a resolution in support of the arrested protest leaders, which includes the broad recognition that “this is a serious assault and a threat to our most basic democratic rights which under pin every movement for justice.” It continues: “If you can characterize a peaceful protest outside an office of someone in power as a kidnapping, what does that make a picket line? This is a clear distortion and violation of our first amendment rights to speech and assembly.
If it is successful, the chilling effect will be great.”
Terrance Roberts was born and raised in Park Hill. “I ran with the Park Hill Bloods for years,” he recalls. He learned about organizing in prison, where he ended up incarcerated for four years after a confrontation that ended in gunfire. While there, he started studying activists, religious figures — Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. “Anybody trying to do positive things in the community,” he says, adding that he fell in love with those people the same way he’d fallen in love with gangbanging when he’d first heard N.W.A.
While in prison, he also found that he had influence. He’d earned his stripes during years with the Bloods, and now when he wanted to make peace, he had the credibility to do so. He could stop fights. He knew how to talk to people, how to redirect violent energy in constructive ways. He organized football games, community meals, got different groups to do things together — Blacks, whites, Hispanics, anyone open to his ideas. “We had a good thing in the yard. And the whole yard rolled with me,” he says.
When he got out, Roberts took those lessons from prison back into the community. He started a free after-school program, the Prodigal Son Initiative, for neighborhood kids. He organized rallies, bringing together people from warring gangs for cleanups and barbecues. He bought everyone camouflage shirts so that they could wear the same colors: black and brown. “More kids came, more families came, and Bloods and Crips both came, too,” he recalls. He called these events “Heal the ’Hood.”
Accused of attempted murder in 2013 – a rap he eventually beat – Roberts took time off from organizing. But after McClain’s death, he got back into it. “We were organizing stuff on our own in Aurora, and PSL came with signs,” he explains. He organized the November 10, 2019, march on the Aurora police headquarters, when he met House and other members of the PSL “before really anyone cared about Elijah McClain,” he remembers.
“It was love at first sight,” he says. “They do the work. None of those guys I grew up gangbanging with were there with us. But PSL— there goes Lillian, this white lady, standing right there next to me. They are everything we are asking allies to be. We don’t always agree politically, but we don’t care about that. I care about justice, and so do they.”
A growing number of people in metro Denver care about justice, and are organizing for revolutionary shifts in government. When eight months ago can feel like yesterday, and tomorrow remains equal parts predictable and uncertain, they meet in Zoom rooms, parks, book clubs and study groups; they are phone-banking, knocking on doors, still bringing demonstrations to the steps and doors of power. Some are burning ballots, while others have been elected by ballot. Concentric circles of action continue to gather at the intersection of state violence and exploitation, in cyberspace and the space between the City and County Building and the Colorado State Capitol, reminding everyone that, as the Denver Communists’ Ben Cole says, “You don’t hate Mondays. You hate capitalism.”
Many of the socialist groups in Denver share foundational beliefs but are drawn to different tactics. The Denver branch of the PSL functions primarily as a direct-action organization, while big-tent groups like the Denver Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, also established in 2016, is most proud of the inroads they have helped create for revolutionary socialists in local office. On track to reach 1,000 members by the end of the year, Denver’s DSA focuses primarily on grassroots organizing and mutual aid, interviewing and endorsing local candidates.
Between Denver and Aurora, there are now at least six elected officials affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America. Candi CdeBaca, a fifth-generation Denver resident, joined in 2018, building her campaign for the Denver City Council’s District 9 seat around the local chapter of the DSA. “I never picked a political home growing up. My family wasn’t the type of family that participated or trusted government at all, really,” she says. “I intended to run unaffiliated.”
When she began her campaign in 2017, she had a rude awakening. “The parties own the databases that you need to run a successful campaign,” she notes. Without voter contacts, records, preferences and fundraising platforms that establishment parties had been building over decades, it wasn’t clear how a candidate could build broad competitive support. But then in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history when the young political outsider beat a seasoned establishment Democrat incumbent, using a socialist platform as a member of the DSA to become the U.S. Representative from New York City’s 13th Congressional District.
CdeBaca decided to do the same. In June 2019, she won her seat on Denver City Council in a run-off election with the district’s own establishment incumbent.
CdeBaca had gotten her start in neighborhood organizing fighting the I-70 expansion, a project decades in the making in the historically poor and environmentally contaminated neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, where she was raised, that sit at the fault line of industrial capitalism in Denver. For CdeBaca, it became a case study in economic exploitation and the effects it has on people in an area where “we know that we have 70 percent higher rates of cardiovascular death, asthma, respiratory disease, than other places in the city,” she notes. “So you are using public dollars to benefit a small group of people who can afford to use a toll lane at the expense of Black, brown and poor people, whose health has been harmed by this highway since the time it was put in.”
The damages don’t end there. “Simultaneously, we are incentivizing the use of gas and oil. It was an all-around illustration for the disregard capitalism has for human life and prioritization we have for profit generation,” she says. “Every argument justifying that expansion boiled down to capital. Generating more revenue, however they justified it. Driving more people to the city to spend money, get people to the mountains to spend money — it all boiled down to money. There was no democratic process. It was a couple of people making decisions with agencies and entities working together without the people being involved, especially the people who were affected.”
And it wasn’t conservatives that she had to persuade to listen to the community; it was Democrats. “That’s what always kept me away from calling the Democratic Party my home,” CdeBaca says. “It was just clear that the party didn’t care about me or my community. They were going to go along with whatever could make more money or generate more revenue.”
“The biggest impediment to making any substantial change is the Democratic Party,” says Eric Goodman of the Colorado Socialist Revolution. A chemical engineering dropout turned plumber, he spends his time studying socialist theory and history. Under that theory, establishment Democrats, and their reoccurring historical counterparts, are seen as misguided opportunists, fled to by fearful moderate apologists or corrupted capitalists. They use the identity politics of race, class, gender — whether completely conscious of it or not — in order to isolate discontent and keep groups busy fighting each other, to distract and divide any movement that threatens the current power structures.
“None of these mainstream political parties are going to address the needs of the people,” Northam says.
As a member of Denver City Council, CdeBaca has remained committed to being a voice in rooms of power for people who have not historically had a seat there. She has mounted challenges to the council at large, acting as a whistleblower, streaming closed council meetings to constituents. At a recent meeting, as other councilmembers attempted to gut the Fair Elections Fund, a grassroots campaign finance reform passed by Denver voters in 2018, CdeBaca pushed back and tweeted: “Defund fair elections before the police? GT*OH.”
“Without getting candidates like Candi CdeBaca into office, that doesn’t happen,” says Kaley Laquea, communications chair for the DSA.
The DSA’s role in her campaign was “critical,” CdeBaca says. “We have less than 20 percent voter turnout citywide for local elections, and even less in many precincts across my district. They showed up, really, for anything and everything I needed.”
Amy Schnieder, the DSA’s elections chair, describes CeBaca’s election as her proudest moment in the organization. Chris Hinds was also elected to Denver City Council in the 2019 election; he became a second DSA affiliate on the council. Allison Coombs and Juan Marcano, both members of Aurora City Council, are also members of the Denver chapter of the DSA. Tay Anderson, at-large director on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, joined the DSA this fall.
Schnieder says that members of the Denver chapter of the DSA focus on electoral politics because they “recognize there is a system in which we live,” she explains. “As much as we may want to dismantle it right now, that’s not going to happen. So you have to learn to work within it and still be able to make change that’s not just performative. Like defunding the police — that’s an electoral issue.”
Before joining the DSA, Anderson introduced a resolution that successfully ended DPS’s contract with the Denver Police Department, removing police officers from schools in the district. “That’s a real change that’s going to impact lives,” says Schnieder.
“That’s a revolutionary reform,” Laquea adds. “Removing police from public schools says, where else do police not need to be?”
The police did not need to be anywhere near Elijah McClain that night in August 2019, House says, and while her case works its way through the system, she continues to demand justice for McClain. “It is very clear that Elijah shouldn’t have died that night,” she explains. “He was not suspected of committing any crimes.”
While investigations into McClain’s death continue — in addition to Aurora’s own probes, the feds have launched one, as has the Colorado Attorney General’s Office — only one of the officers who accosted him that night in August 2019 has been fired...and that was because of his response when he was sent a selfie taken by other officers near the site where McClain had been stopped. “To this day, Elijah’s killers are still on the police force, except for one, who was fired not because of his death, but because of an additional scandal,” House points out.
Wilson is now Aurora’s official police chief; Young, who found no reason to charge the cops involved in McClain’s death, was term-limited and will soon leave the DA’s office.
Meanwhile, House is looking at charges that could bring her more than a decade in prison.
“Lillian exemplifies anti-racism and solidarity in word and deed,” says Northam. “Her leadership has been instrumental to advancing the movement here.”
The Denver branch of the PSL continues to participate in direct action and encourage support for House, Northam, Lucero and Ruch, as well as Roberts and Howard; although it doesn’t reveal membership numbers, it’s grown exponentially, Northam says. While local DSA officials lead the charge for radical socialist reforms and fresh blood in office, that group reports a 30 percent increase in membership over the past several months; on November 7, the DSA’s national membership grew by 1,000 people in a single day; it added 10,000 in October and now numbers around 80,000 members. The Denver Communists and the Colorado Socialist Revolution are seeing record engagement, too, and other socialist organizations around the city report similar rates of growth.
In socialist theory, there’s an understanding that energy for revolution cannot be created. Energy must rise from the circumstance like steam, and that energy powers the pistons of the movement...if the pistons are there.
With the election over but for court challenges, activists around the country, including in Denver, are regrouping and contemplating how to prepare the pistons of tomorrow, planning what to do next.
“We are still here,” says Northam. “We are still doing this work. There will be more.”
Update: This story was updated at 1 p.m. November 10 to add that the preliminary hearing for the defendants was rescheduled for January 12. It has also been corrected to note that House, Lucero and Northam were charged with attempted kidnapping, not kidnapping.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.