As thousands of people started pouring into Denver’s streets on May 28 to protest police brutality and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, community members — some first-time organizers — scrambled to put together events for the days to come, using Facebook and word of mouth.
Their calls to action were not always clear, but the emotion was raw, and the drive to do something fueled the crowds.
On Saturday, May 30, after hours of confrontations with police in riot gear left protesters regrouping in Civic Center, coughing but determined, a 25-year-old black man in a purple Rockies “Keep Calm and Rock On” T-shirt, black slides and black socks started leading chants with just his voice. Someone eventually handed him a small, crackly megaphone, and he led the crowd sitting in front of the State Capitol and a line of police with cries of “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Then he asked everyone to kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd.
After police violently pushed protesters back to the street, the man walked with a group of almost a hundred people toward the Governor’s Residence at Boettcher Mansion, then back to the downtown police station. The night descended into arrests, lobbed rocks, tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bangs and dumpster fires that lasted long after the 8 p.m. curfew, which he was adamant about breaking. “I am not for all the vandalism, but we’ve got to protect our rights and make sure we get our point across,” he said as he headed toward Colfax Avenue.
Ten days ago, Neil Yarbrough was just a Colorado transplant moved to voice his pain and frustration. Today he’s the face of the week-old We Are Love Denver, the most controversial organization to emerge from the protests.
Other activists have accused the group of trying to slow the momentum toward structural reform with its calls for unity and peace, of silencing women of color, and of diluting the messages pushed by more established community organizations. Reddit threads label Yarbrough as COINTELPRO, a government plant designed to co-opt the protests. Twitter threads share every shred of his identity on the Internet — even his Houston high school football stats.
Tay Anderson, the youngest member of the Denver School Board, who also led chants on May 30 and at other protests, tweeted on June 7 that he is not involved with We Are Love Denver and made a mistake when he joined the group at protests.
Elisabeth Epps, a prominent activist who founded the Colorado Freedom Fund, started questioning the group from the moment it announced itself on Twitter, and her criticism has only escalated since then.
Why is We Are Love Denver now the focus of so much hate?
Neil Yarbrough, who was raised in Houston, says that he moved to Colorado for a fresh start, and so he could smoke weed without getting in trouble. In Texas in 2016, he was charged with felony possession of marijuana, between five and fifty pounds in his car. He says it was three pounds, and decided to fight the charges. After spending two months in jail, he posted bond and left for Aurora, where he waited two years to go to trial...before being told that his case was dismissed.
In the meantime, he studied for a career in real estate, boxed with his friends and worked different jobs, including bouncing at clubs. When Ahmaud Arbery was shot in Georgia in February, Yarbrough, a runner himself, says he spent many days running in his memory before #runwithmaud began months later. And three days after George Floyd was killed on May 25, Yarbrough joined the first night of the Denver protests. On the second night, he was tear-gassed.
After the third night, Yarbrough’s breakout night, he returned to the streets the next day, emerging as somewhat of a de facto leader for the shifting masses. By June 1, he’d earned enough notoriety that he ended up marching arm in arm with Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen at the head of that day’s rally. He’d talked with Pazen that morning, and says he felt the police were ready to have a dialogue. “I thought it would be a good idea, because they have to trust us and we have to trust them if we are trying to move it forward,” Yarbrough explains.
Later that night, he led a massive march around Denver that ended with thousands silently kneeling in a downtown intersection. There was little police presence beyond a spooky DPD voice coming from the top of the building, declaring that protesters were breaking the law and could be subject to arrest. Yarbrough wandered through groups of young people, using a new, bigger megaphone to tell them to go home.
The next day, Epps tweeted her resignation from the DPD Use of Force Committee, an oversight committee that monitors the police. “We met last Thursday with Chief Pazen. Hours later, you gassed me. You shot my back and legs up—from behind. Plenty of Black folks will shuck & jive for ya, it just can’t be me anymore,” she wrote.
On June 3, at around the same time that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock walked through downtown with the crowd, telling protesters that he stood with them, Yarbrough mediated a virtual town hall with Pazen. “He invited me into a space and I respect that,” says Pazen. “We want to work with any group and any organization to help us keep our city safe.” That night’s protests ended peacefully, with swaying phone lights and the official launch of We Are Love Denver on Twitter:
“This is the beginning of a new chapter. Forward towards justice, united in love.”
We Are Love Denver, which had no website or Facebook presence itself, immediately began re-tweeting and posting on Instagram information about rallies organized by other groups. For a moment, it seemed like it might create a centralized platform for protest information. Asked by Epps on Twitter whether the group supported the proposed police-reform legislation that had just been introduced at the Colorado Statehouse, it responded, “Of course.”
We Are Love Denver had yet to organize any protest actions of its own, Yarbrough says, but on June 4, an activist named Isabella Dominique started a Twitter thread criticizing the prior night’s protest and attributing it to the group.
Dominique criticized certain speakers, including one who said that “all lives matter” and a young white boy speaking; a “concert”-like display of phone light swaying; and the lack of elevation of women of color to speak. Her tweet and another individual’s tweet that linked actions by the mayor and the DPD chief to We Are Love Denver sparked a Reddit thread that gave birth to the ever-evolving theory that Yarbrough and the group were government plants looking to co-opt the protests and silence the movement. Dominique’s original tweet was retweeted almost 900 times and liked over 1,200 times.
Reddit users made posters that appeared at the June 3 protests, accusing We Are Love Denver of being tools of the police. While the Internet exploded, We Are Love Denver struggled to keep up with the accusations on its own social media accounts, but eventually gave up.
Yarbrough describes the start of We Are Love Denver as a bunch of people coming to the aid of a stranded car. Someone brings gas, another fixes the engine, everyone pushes, and before you know it, the car is going 100 mph down the highway. While the group includes a few white “allies,” he says, it’s “black-led.”
But as some people flocked to rally around We Are Love Denver, Dominique grew increasingly uncomfortable with its emphasis of peace, love and unity. “That shouldn’t be the message, that is already the foundation,” she says. If white people show up to a protest pushing that message, Dominique thinks there’s a risk they could miss the point.
“Those protests have to have been way more dangerous than Minneapolis,” she says. “Obviously, physical danger can be scary, but to gaslight people into making them think they are making change is so terrifying, because then they go home the next day and are like, ‘We did it’,” she explains. “That’s really how you diffuse a movement.”
Dominique is from Denver, and recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she received a degree in communications and political science from American University and was involved in the leadership of multiple social-justice groups, including the NAACP. On June 5, she joined with the Denver Party for Socialism and Liberation to speak out on issues of police violence directly in Colorado.
On that same day, We Are Love Denver tweeted that “We have not heard enough from black women at all and we cannot let their voices be forgotten. We do not mean to amplify the voices of anyone associated with the police. This has occurred and it was absolutely wrong.”
“This platform is dedicated to fighting institutional racism, oppression, and police brutality. We want to unite Denver. Right now we’re looking to reach out,” it continued.
The group added that it supported “our people” but didn’t agree with every method. “Please bear with us as we figure this out.”
But the tweets did nothing to placate the online masses, and things devolved further that night when the crowd split mid-march between a We Are Love Denver faction with Yarbrough and a Party of Socialism and Liberation group with Dominique.
While one side returned to the Capitol, the PSL group marched to the police station, with Yarbrough running after them to try to unite the crowd. Videos spread of Yarbrough shouting, only to be drowned out by chants of “Let her speak!” as Dominique attempted to talk. Yarbrough says he was only trying to keep everyone safe and together in a unified march, but the incident only widened the divide between demonstrators.
On June 6, We Are Love Denver hosted the protest, which included the Denver Broncos and other athletes; it was the largest march yet. And later that night, Dazha Mannani, a 34-year-old Denver native and mother of three, spoke out on behalf of We Are Love Denver. She says she’d been at the protests every day, and joined the group simply as a way to create a platform to share black experiences, including her own. “I didn’t know it was going to take off like that,” she says.
Speaking in front of the crowd, she addressed the online accusations and acknowledged the mistake of working with the mayor and the police. “We were naive, but you have to understand that this group has come together in just two fucking days,” she said, adding that the mission of We Are Love Denver was to address the issue of institutionalized racism.
“And as for the slap in the face we received for our ignorance, because we have never had the platform to speak, that is my bad,” she said. She then finished with a loud “Fuck Mayor Hancock! Fuck the racist-ass police!”
“It’s not fair that people are making up these lies,” Mannani says now.
During these protests, Denver’s Black Lives Matter organization, BLM 5280, has hosted only two events — the May 29 rally and a car rally this past week. Apryl Alexander, a BLM 5280 member and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver, says that the group has also been hosting a Rage and Resilience hour daily on Instagram, raising money for bail funds and protesters’ medical bills.
BLM 5280 has yet to meet with We Are Love Denver, but Alexander says that her group has received many messages concerned with the lack of black women’s voices. “For our new organizers, I think learning who’s in the community, who’s doing what, making those connections would be helpful,” she notes. “We want to work together; we don’t want to duplicate resources or step on toes. We have to come into alignment together, because, again, there are so many community organizers already doing this work that we need to be more collaborative in our mission and goals.
As for BLM 5280,” she adds, “we have a lot of goals. We have a mission that is bigger than this one moment.”
John Bailey, longtime director of the Colorado Black Round Table, has been watching the protests evolve. He’s available if the younger generation of change-makers wants to talk; if not, he wants them to get out there and do what they think is right.
“You have to learn by doing. We need as many folks as we can speaking out on this issue,” Bailey says. “This has gone too far. The pain is too deep. The issues are too complex. And folks are not going to walk away from this.”
Tay Anderson, who’d stood alongside Yarbrough at one point, says that he did his homework too late on We Are Love Denver.
“I think they are co-opting the movement with different innuendos that I don’t agree with,” Anderson said on June 6, after leading a march for public schools. While that march had police escorts, he explained that was different than working with the police: “Locking arms and marching with the cops is one thing. Having them do their job and block off the streets so no one gets hurt is another thing.”
Another newly formed group that had earlier joined with We Are Love Denver, Colorado Attorneys Against Police Violence, on June 6 released this Facebook statement:
“Our investigation into WALD is ongoing, and should we become aware of information that meaningfully assuages our concerns about WALD and its messaging, we would welcome them to our table and fully support their cause,” the group wrote.
The lawyers pointed to a “newly printed, shiny banner,” “fancy” stereo equipment, and “rigid” organization of the June 5 protest as far different from the actions of the week before.
And Colorado Attorneys Against Police Violence take issue not just with how the group is now operating, but with what it is saying. “What was promoted were messages of love and unity — while a nice message, not the right message for this time,” it said.
Yarbrough has barely slept in the last week. He describes the last days of Internet mayhem as a high school rumor on a citywide scale.
And is he a cop? “No,” he says, adding that as a black man who’s had his own struggle with the criminal-justice system, being called a cop is particularly hurtful.
He’s not a cop, and the group isn’t employed by the cops or the mayor, he insists. He’s never even spoken to Michael Hancock.
All of the funding and equipment for We Are Love Denver has been donated by protesters, according to Yarbrough. While there are two GoFundMe campaigns listed for the group, Yarbrough denies that he set up the one with his name. The other was created on June 5 by Jerame Raziel VinGrimm, who claims to be a founder of We Are Love Denver but says he wants to use the funds raised through this campaign to take the march to Washington, D.C.
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As for Dominique’s criticisms and the scuffle for the mic on June 5, “I apologize if she felt as if I was ignoring her or I was being disrespectful to her as a black woman,” Yarbrough says. “At the end of the day, I still love her and I am still fighting for her, and I think we are still fighting for the same thing. We just have different ways of going about it.”
He says he hopes to be able to work with Epps and Dominique, and also continue the dialogue with the Denver Police Department. But in the meantime, a new website has appeared accusing We Are Love Denver of being "police collaborators."
As the rumors fly, Yarbrough acknowledges that he made mistakes and is learning. He says he may be approaching the issues differently than other activists and organizers, but he believes in the purpose of We Are Love Denver: to create a safe platform for dialogue and expression.
“We have to trust in each other, and we have to see each other in a positive light,” he says. “When you see another black man or black woman, we have to believe in each other.”