Denver’s Black Lives Matter! Conference

In the few short months that it has existed, Denver Freedom Riders has already begun to make waves in the city. The organization, founded by Anthony Grimes after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, has met with Mayor Michael Hancock to discuss safety, education, community, and jobs. In addition, State Representative Rhonda Fields and State Senator Mike Johnson have introduced a bill in the legislature to improve police operations.

I first heard of this organization via Occupy Denver’s post on Facebook about the Black Lives Matter! conference that took place after the Martin Luther King Day parade. Denver Marade marcher with MLK picture in front of Denver Post building, Jan 2015So after taking my rented 14mm lens to the Marade, I went to the conference. The third floor of the McNichols Building was packed with hundreds of people. I sat in the back, in front of some kids who unfortunately were more interested in playing games and twisting a plastic bottle behind my back than in listening to the speeches.Denver Black Lives Matter conference crowd Jan 2015

The conference began with music, shifted to a speech by Grimes and a panel discussion, and then went into breakout sessions. After hearing Alex Landau talk about how he was badly beaten by Denver police because he asked if they had a warrant to search his car, I wanted to hear more stories. I stayed in the main room to listen to the Freedom Riders who recently went to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Lacey’s passion for the cause was memorable. Noting that she was poor but also a symbol of white privilege, she urged the crowd to support black women and men and said she would be fighting for this cause for the rest of her life. (In the photo below, Grimes introduces the Freedom Riders. Lacey is on the right.)Denver Black Lives Matter conference Anthony Grimes and Freedom Riders 2 Jan 2015

Clarence Allen (who I believe goes by Kamau Waset, but I had a hard time hearing the first name he gave) said that tear gas and rubber bullets were in use in Ferguson. He said there were snipers on the rooftops, hired mercenaries from the Klan. Given that another Freedom Rider said there were tanks on every corner, I can believe the part about snipers. But I do wonder where he got the idea that they were Klan. He also mentioned that his mother, Rosemary, had been on a FBI list because of her involvement in civil rights protests. He said, “It’s a battlefield everywhere you go when you’re black,” and that what was needed was systemic change, which this country didn’t get with King.

Sarafina mentioned that she saw helicopters flying over the protests (which isn’t really that surprising, given how militarized the response was, and they could have been news helicopters as well) and officers charging the crowds. But she also said the protestors weren’t much of a threat, despite media portrayals to the contrary, and that there was beauty in the Ferguson protests and a great sense of community. (In the photo below, Quincy Shannon, one of the organizers of the conference, speaks before the breakout sessions began.)Denver Black Lives Matter conference Quincy Shannon and Freedom Riders Jan 2015

I support the goals of the Freedom Riders. Here are a few (from a flyer passed out at the event): 2. “Supporting and identifying youth-led community accountability and advisory groups in at least four “meet-up” spots in the areas most affected by youth-related crime, violence, and policing: Montebello, Northeast Park Hill, Five Points/Whittier, the West Side. These groups will define justice in the community and identify ways to involve law enforcement in service to the community.” 3. “Innovation in the field of education through which students learn skills that support their civic engagement…” 7. “An immediate action plan for placing a moratorium on the development of new private prisons and the closure or removal of existing private prisons in Colorado.”

And those were from just one side of the flyer, dealing with local issues. One of the demands on the “national” side was to pass the End Racial Profiling Act.

All this reminds me of the concept of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, usually used by indigenous groups protesting government or corporate intrusion onto their lands. There is such a lack of communication at the base of all these issues. I know that sounds simplistic or even naive. But if whites and people of color in the United States had meaningful conversations about their different experiences with law enforcement, it would make a start toward solving these problems.

But I often think I am too cautious for groups like the Freedom Riders or Occupy Denver. I don’t want to be arrested. I want to travel, and I worry that an arrest record would keep me from getting visas. But I do want to support them. I do believe that what they are doing is a form of restoration—usually far removed from the kind of environmental restoration I usually write about—but just as necessary to our well-being.