Lynn Eagle Feather has had a complex reaction to the ongoing rallies in downtown Denver that began after the in-custody death of Minneapolis's George Floyd last month. As the mother of Paul Castaway, who was killed by a Denver police officer during a mental-health crisis in 2015, the proud Native American agrees with activists who believe local law enforcement is a racist institution. But her one visit to the demonstration site early on in the protests, during which she says a cop shoved her, was, in her words, "triggering" — and in recent days, she's watched news coverage of politicians and public figures who've joined advocates with increasing disgust.
"With [Denver Police Chief Paul] Pazen and [Denver Mayor Michael] Hancock marching with them, and the Broncos, this is — excuse my language — a shit show," Eagle Feather says. "It's a circus, and it's getting old."
She's also frustrated by protesters who haven't done their homework. In her words, "I would like young people to know that they will never know the struggle — especially the ones who are non-people of color. They will never know the struggle of looking for your next meal, of making sure you have a place to sleep, especially if you have children — and I was homeless for a while. And they will never know what it's like to have a gun pointed at you and of losing someone to police."
Eagle Feather experienced the latter on July 12, 2015. According to an account by the Denver District Attorney's Office, she was babysitting her grandchildren at her then-home in a trailer park at 4545 Morrison Road when Castaway, whom she believed to be drunk, busted into the residence — she'd previously kicked him out — and poked her in the neck with a knife.
After Castaway allegedly broke several household items and split, Eagle Feather headed to the nearby Denver Indian Center and dialed 911. "He's mentally ill and drunk," Eagle Feather told the operator. She added, "Please hurry!" and "I'm so scared!" — and also suggested that her son had been doing meth and was suicidal.
At 6:22 p.m., Denver Police Officer Michael Traudt, who had been on the force for just over a year, arrived at the scene alongside fellow officer Jerry Lara, and amid their investigation, they spotted Castaway.
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An excerpt from Traudt's description of what happened next, from the decision letter released by the DA's office, reads:
He started walking. There's a chain-link fence between where our vehicle was and where he was. So I pulled my patrol vehicle up, my fully marked patrol vehicle, and then got out of the car in full uniform. I announced myself as a Denver police officer. I said, "Denver police. Stop!" And he looked at me, he made eye contact with me and my partner, and then he kept walking up the chain-link fence. As I started to close distance between me and him, he took off running southbound along the chain-link fence. I then gave chase, I aired it to dispatch that we were running southbound through the trailer park in the 4500 block of Morrison Road.
Before long, Castaway put the knife to his own throat and told Traudt, "Kill me, you fucking pussy," the officer recalled. Traudt said he responded by repeatedly saying, "Drop the knife!"
Instead, Castaway ran, and Traudt gave chase as neighborhood kids scattered — actions caught on the video released by the DA's office.
What followed was a face-off between Paul, who was still holding the knife to his throat, and Traudt, pointing his service weapon at him. Officer Lara said he was in the midst of transitioning to a Taser when Castaway began advancing toward Traudt — at which point Traudt pulled the trigger three times, striking Castaway twice. Castaway died from gunshot wounds to the torso.
Here is the aforementioned video. Warning: Its contents may disturb some readers.
One key matter related to Traudt's decision to fire is what's known in law enforcement circles as the "21-foot rule," which states that deadly force is justified against a knife-wielding individual who's within that distance from an officer or someone else — the theory being that the suspect could cover seven yards of ground before an officer could draw a weapon and defend himself. But in recent years, this approach has been widely criticized by organizations such as the Police Executive Research Forum, whose executive director, Chuck Wexler, spoke to us earlier this year about the phenomenon colloquially known as "suicide by cop."
If someone is in crisis, Wexler said, "the most important thing you can do is communicate with this person — and that doesn't mean pointing a firearm at them and barking orders. If you have a bank robber who's stabbing people, that's a different situation. That's a use-of-force situation, not a medical emergency. So you have to make safety a priority. You start to step back from the person, not move toward them, because a police officer can't do what they need to do if they're not safe. We're not asking officers to take more risks. We're asking them to take care of their situation first, make sure they're safe, and then communicate."
Nonetheless, the Denver DA's office cleared Traudt of all wrongdoing, and a lawsuit filed by Eagle Feather was dismissed with prejudice. She blames the latter on ineffective counsel and is currently looking for new legal representation to re-file it.
In the meantime, Eagle Feather has fought to keep the memory of her son alive. On the first day of the protests, she put on what she describes as "a ribbon dress that's very sacred to my people" and headed into the crowd carrying a photo of Paul. She held the image out to one police officer, "and he started putting his hands on me and started pushing me back," she allows. "I said, 'Get your hands off of me! You guys murdered my son! Don't touch me!' He said, 'You have to move back.' I said, 'I can't move back. I can't breathe.' And then he took his hands off me and started pushing other people."
She wound up racing to safety; she says she was nearly hit by a rubber bullet while doing so. She was so badly shaken by what happened — "I'm 63 years old, and I can't be running like that," she says — that she hasn't returned.
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The one positive to come out of her time at the demonstration was her interaction with a few participants who knew Paul's story. "They told me, 'We just said his name today,'" she recalls. But other protesters based in the Five Points area, where she lives now, were considerably less informed.
"What are you doing in Five Points?" she asks. "A few years ago, you wouldn't have been caught walking around here at night, and now it's all snobby, gentrified white people who don't know the struggle. I say, 'Go home to your million-dollar condos your parents bought you and get out of my neighborhood' — because they ignored me when I was trying to tell them my son was killed by Denver police."
Even staying at home hasn't allowed Eagle Feather to feel safe; she says the helicopters overhead instantly bring her back to the terrible day when Paul was gunned down.
She would like protesters to see the video showing how Castaway died and for them to "learn about historical and intergenerational trauma" and the racist history of Colorado, going back to the days when many of the state's most powerful politicians, including Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton, were in thrall to the Ku Klux Klan. In her opinion, doing so would help them realize that "this isn't about one man dying. It's about a whole nation of people dying. We are the forgotten ones."