Holiday revelers at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center suddenly found themselves surrounded by police-brutality protesters last night. The scheduled "die-in" started around 6:15 p.m., when the assembled activists began to sing together. After someone gave the pre-arranged signal -- one blow of a whistle -- the hundred or so protesters lay down together.
Patsy Hathaway, whose adopted black son was brutally beaten by Denver police back in 2009, led the group in the chants that have been heard around the nation for months: "Black lives matter," "Hands up, don't shoot" and "I can't breathe."
The protest was organized by local activists including Hathaway and Jamie Laurie, better known as Jonny 5 of the Flobots, and the die-in included two songs, including a version of the popular Hunger Games song "The Hanging Tree" -- rewritten to tell the story of Eric Garner, a Long Island man who was killed by police in June after being held in an illegal chokehold:
Are you, are you
ready to believe
we blamed a man
who said he couldn't breathe
strange things did happen here
no stranger would it be
if we blamed a man
who said he could not breathe
As the activists lay scattered on the floor, calling back what Hathaway yelled out, passersby stopped to take pictures and ask what the protesters were doing. One man walking by yelled out, "Hands up, don't shoot," in solidarity.
Standing in the group, Hathaway held up a picture of her son, Alex Landau, from that night five years ago, and told his story. With his right eye swollen shut and blood all over his face, he is hardly recognizable. (Read the Westword cover story about his case here.)
Soon the prone protesters begin to hum a song everyone there could recognize: "Amazing Grace." Hathaway helped one woman to her feet, and she began to sing out the words. One by one, the other protesters rose and began to sing, until they formed a walking choir. They moved among the mall-goers who had congregated around their demonstration, handing out fliers that ask the question, "Is police violence inevitable?"
Eric Walker was not a participant in the protest, but since he's from St. Louis, he says he has sympathy for the cause. "Unless someone speaks up, nothing happens, good or bad. No one has to listen, but someone has to speak up," Walker explained as the protesters began to march, holding up their arms in a gesture of surrender.
This was not the first protest that James Duncan has joined; he continues to participate because it's the right thing to do, he says: "I study statistics and there's definitely a bias going on that's just unmistakable. It's wrong."
Duncan joined the group as it made its way around the mall, all of the protesters singing "Amazing Grace" and urging the people they passed to join in.
One of the loudest voices belonged to Kenny Wiley, a local activist with Coloradans for Justice who has worked with The Flobots on other protests and political events. "I felt it was really important to send a message to the nationwide effort that Denver cares about justice," Wiley explained. "I think it's powerful when people can use their voices metaphorically -- or in this case, literally -- to let people know that their city cares, and that the country cares, about justice."
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Many of the protesters were brought to tears as they chanted; even their chant leader, Hathaway, was not immune. After all, she has firsthand knowledge of just how bad police brutality in Denver can get. "We're going to expose what's been going on in Denver," she said. "We've been working hard, and we're not done."
But the protesters also recognized how complicated this issue has gotten. After telling her own story, Hathaway called for two minutes of silence for the police officers killed in New York over the weekend: "Please join me for a moment of silence for all people who have been senselessly killed -- most recently, officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos."
For Wiley, last night's event was the best he's seen so far. "There was a truly multi-racial effort, and a multi-generational effort," he said. "We really came together because we wanted a non-violent, transformation debate."
And the movement is continuing. Wiley said there is talk of possible mass mobilization for the Martin Luther King Jr. Marade in January. Until then, though, even activists can enjoy the holiday season with their families. Have a tip? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.