It has been a devastating month for communities across the United States. In the wake of the recent deaths of two black men—Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota—at the hands of police, followed by the killings of police officers in both Dallas and Baton Rouge, conversations around racial justice, biased policing, and violence are at the forefront of Americans’ minds. Here in Denver, Black Lives Matter 5280, the local chapter of the national movement, grieved the recent tragedies with a 135-hour vigil in downtown’s Civic Center Park. The “sit-in for healing,” which was reserved for people of color, marked one hour for each of the 135 black individuals killed by police in the U.S. so far this year (that number is now even higher).
During and after last week’s vigil, we talked to Black Lives Matter 5280 co-founder Amy Emery-Brown about Denver’s BLM community and what this moment in history means for the Mile High City.
5280: What galvanized the formation of the Denver BLM chapter?
Amy Emery-Brown: We are all community organizers in different walks of life, and had been organizing in Denver in various ways. As we learned the nature of the work we wanted to do, we were also learning how we wanted to do it. Black Lives Matter, as a national network—the structure, that it’s lead by women, that it’s lead by queer folks, that it centers women and queer folks in the work of building black liberation—was really a unique space for us to be able to do work that’s really important to us.
What is that, specifically?
Building a beautiful, loving, loved-on black community in Denver. I shouldn’t say ‘building of,’ because it’s already there. It’s reminding ourselves that the community is there.
What was the goal of the 135-hour sit-in at Civic Center Park?
The goal was to simply provide space for people of color who have been actively living in trauma for generations. We know as individuals, our core is all black, each of us has a different story of how one of these tragic incidents of police execution of a black citizen has uniquely hit us for one reason or another. In Denver, because of its racial make-up,1 it’s easy to feel like you’re alone. Each of us in our core has a story like that. We really truly just wanted our folks to know, there is a place. You’re not alone. People know what’s happening. People know it’s excruciating, and there’s a place for you to be where you’re not alone.
Editor’s note: A 2015 Census projection estimates 10.1 percent of Denver County’s population identifies as black or African American.
Now that you’ve completed the vigil, what are you thinking right now about this moment in Denver, and what are your concerns for the future?
What I’m focused on right now is making sure we build on the foundation that was laid with the community [during the vigil]. Making sure that the sense of family and security that was created in the park, that we’re able to keep those relationships going and build on them. Really, for us it’s just making sure we don’t let go of what was built in the park, because there was absolute magic built there. What concerns us is what has always concerned us: gentrification, massive rapid development, rent that is making it harder and harder for people who look like us to survive in this city.
Would you say the mission of Black Lives Matter 5280 is extending beyond the issue of race relations in Denver?
Absolutely. Black Lives Matter, as a national network, part of what’s incredible about it is that it allows the organizers in cities to really do what is needed based on the reality in their location. So Black Lives Matter 5280 is going to look quite different from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and Black Lives Matter on the west coast and east coast. Here, white state violence is a huge piece of the conversation and always will be. We in Denver are aware that gentrification is one of the most active forms of violence against black people, poor people, brown people. We’re having conversations around gentrification, around what it would look like to have a cooperative model for businesses, community accountability—things like this that go much deeper than race relations. White oppression and these things take tricky forms, it’s not as simple as, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’
Did you have a chance to catch the mayor’s State of the City speech on July 11? Do you have any reactions to it?
I really couldn’t believe my eyes. To quote A Tale of Two Cities is such an understatement, but we truly have an administration that is living a reality detached from just about every marginalized group you could name in this city.
Do you think this disconnect is the biggest problem?
I think the biggest problem is that he wants that disconnect. He’s viewing Denver as a tool to sell, a marketing piece, a building block in some manufactured legacy of his. I, and folks in Black Lives Matter 5280, people we’re in the community with, we see [that] Denver is only as good and rich and diverse as the people in it, and he is systematically driving them out.
If you could go up to Mayor Hancock right now and say, ‘Hey, this is what I want you to do,’ what would you say?
I would ask him to spend 5.6 days [the length of 135-hour vigil] on the ground with homeless folks in Denver, trans youth in Denver, Black Lives Matter activists in Denver, folks mourning police murder in Denver, and I would like him to get back to me after that. That’s what I would like for Mayor Hancock to do.
What do you say to people who counter the Black Lives Matter movement with #AllLivesMatter?
Folks who are confused and want to help can Google ‘why is it problematic to say all lives matter when activists are saying black lives matter.’ Google that, and a number of very helpful resources will come up. I would also ask they visit Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and I would encourage white folks to have that conversation with white folks, because it is not the job of people of color and black people—who are functioning in grief and trauma and trying to love on ourselves and love on each other—[to tell you] why we’re allowed to say that we matter.
What can Denver readers who want to support the movement do?
Something we’ve learned from being out here is that folks—especially white folks who genuinely have good intentions and genuinely want to stop the state of emergency we’re seeing in our nation with race relations and brutality—I really think what they can do is spend some very intentional time with each other examining white supremacy and white privilege. There is this immediate reaction to the idea of racism that completely shuts down [people’s] ability to explore what generations and generations of systems have inevitably done to how they operate with the rest of the world.