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Early this week, Denver School Board member Tay Anderson typed his name into Google and came a cross a disturbing list of suggestions from the search engine. Included in the list—among those declaring his board victory last year—were “Tay Anderson shot” and “Tay Anderson shot in back of head.”
“Never in my life would I have had to think I had to bullet-proof-vest shop,” said the 21-year-old, who has become one of the most vocal leaders at Denver’s rallies protesting police brutality nationwide. “To be 21 and going through this has been stressful.”
Inside his Capitol Hill apartment, Anderson was ending an online board meeting. He was texting other Denver protest organizers—offering support and telling them he was just a call away—and accepting congratulations from city and state officials for his work. Someone from the Kraft (mac and cheese) empire called from New York to offer a thank you. He had an interview planned that night with CNN.
That Anderson is having his voice heard is nothing new. The youngest elected official in Denver, he has been a leader since his days as a student at Manual High School, where he flunked his first year only later to become his school’s junior and senior class president. He has been a restorative justice coordinator and now—as a school board member—is leading an effort to remove Denver police from the city’s public schools.
In an interview with 5280, Anderson discussed his role in the Denver protests, what he has learned from the experience, and what he hopes we all learn from the past nine days in the city.
5280: How have you seen your role in these protests?
For me, it’s been me wanting to step up and lead. Not only am I an elected official, I’m Black. Not only am I Black, I’m a man. And I’m a young Black man. All of the things that we see hashtags for could have been me. I want to make sure the narrative of why we’re here is being told, because I don’t want our message hijacked. I didn’t want it to be about riots. I want this to be about peaceful protests.
Where we’re at right now is frustration. We shouldn’t have to be here. The fact that it’s 2020, we’ve had a Black president, we have a Black mayor here, but nothing has really changed is telling. I don’t know what it will take, but I’m hoping I can be one of the solutions. I’m not the solution. I’m one of the many, many solutions to figuring out what we can do to make sure Denver is a place for everybody.
Do you feel as a Black man, and as a Black leader, that you’re naturally getting more attention?
As a Black elected official, it’s like being Jesus. You have to be able to be perfect to everybody. If you’re not perfect to those on the left, you’re trash. If you’re not perfect to those on the other side—which I don’t care to be perfect to those on the right—you’re trash. They already view me as trash, so I don’t have to appease them. What hurts me, as an elected official, is when people question my Blackness. Am I really down for the cause? Or am I only down for it to get attention? What I’m doing is not to get attention. It’s because these issues impact me. Any of these individuals [who have died at the hands of police] could have been me. I want to make sure none of our Denver Public Schools students are hashtags.
From the first days, you were working with Denver police to position space between protests and law enforcement.
People on the far-left have been like, `You worked with police officers, and that is terrible.’ I’ve been able to negotiate peace. If someone throws something at police—or if there’s one bad actor—multiple people suffer.
I don’t speak for all African Americans, and other African Americans don’t speak for me. But when you are showing up at protests and that people consistently say this is a peaceful protest, and you are wreaking havoc on behalf of them, you aren’t an ally.
People have been criticizing me, or others, on social media for the way we are protesting. They say when we are asking for peace we are policing the protest. We are just trying to keep people safe. I’m sorry that I care about people and don’t want to see them tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets.
There is a video of you confronting a protestor early during the protest.
I told a protestor to stop spray-painting, and someone took advantage of it and tried to paint me as someone who was assaulting somebody. That clearly wasn’t the case. Those are the things that get African Americans in trouble and kills them. What happened with that video is kind of like what happened recently in Central Park, where that one woman was like, ‘I’m going to tell somebody that an African American man is attacking me.’ That hurts us in the long run.
You’ve had your life threatened during this time. Has this been hard for you?
I feel like we have soldiers on the front line, and I have been one of the leaders leading the peaceful charge, and I had to retreat. When I saw those Google searches, it threw a lot of questions in my mind. Who did I piss off for them to want to consider taking my life? Or even just searching about it?
I’m not concerned about me, as an individual. I’m more concerned about my family. I don’t want my mother to be a target. I don’t want my brothers and sisters to be targets.
You have no idea where [the threats are] coming from. You don’t know who’s your ally and who’s your enemy. That’s something I’ve seen displayed at these protests. Who’s really an ally for this movement, versus who is doing this for an agenda? With some of these riots, there are some people in this fight who are about Black Lives Matter. There are other people in this fight because they’ve had a personal agenda and they want to fuck some shit up. It’s not OK to hijack these protests, to center yourself, if you’re not part of that impacted community.
I want people to understand that we’re seeing what’s happening here in Denver because of what happened to George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Can you imagine what would happen if that happened here in Denver? We have to be able to think about the repercussions of our actions and what we say and what we do.
Where do you hope this movement goes after the protests?
I’m hoping we’ll take this as an opportunity to rebuild and to renew our faith in humanity and to restart. We’ve gone through COVID-19, through riots, and now it’s time for us to rebuild our city. I’m hoping that what will happen is when the history books look back on 2020, that people see we were actually able to make change around Black Lives Matter.
We’re going to have to get through this together. We’re going to have to do some community healing. I’m happy to help facilitate that. I think it’s really going to be about talking to the small business owner who was impacted. Talking to those at the legislature. Going around to the students who were on the front lines and asking what made them want to come out. What brought them out? This is going to take all of us.
Denver will be able to rise to the occasion and will come together to form a city that truly works for all. But that is going to have to come with accountability from [Mayor Michael Hancock’s] administration and from this police force.
We have to do some communal healing, as well, because it’s not just going to be about you do you, and I do me. That hasn’t worked in the past. I’ve seen incidents out in this city where a protestor throws a water bottle, and a police officer throws a flash-bang grenade. Who escalated that? You can duck a water bottle. You can’t duck a flash-bang.
Do you wish DPD would have joined forces with you at the rallies?
You don’t invite those you are protesting into the protest. That’s as if we were protesting Donald Trump, and we asked him to come to the protest of him. I’m not equating the police to Trump, but you do not invite those you are protesting to prove a point.
There needs to be space for both sides. There, too, will be a time for all of us to come together and start to figure out what the demands are and the systemic changes we need to be seeing from everybody. What are the lessons we learn after this?
What are those lessons, as you see things right now?
The Denver City Council needs to be more heavily involved in oversight of the police department. Instead of the police chief being a mayoral appointment, the city council should approve the police chief. Or take it a step further, and let voters decide on the chief.
We also need to elect a sheriff in the city and county of Denver. We have to be able to put the power into the hands of those who feel powerless. Those who are coming out here are outraged simply because they don’t know what else to do. It’s been like this for years. We’ve been talking about Black Lives Matter since Trayvon Martin died in 2012. It’s 2020. We have learned no lessons. We have to figure out what we are going to do to make sure that in 2020 and during the 2020s, as a decade, we collectively get to a place where everybody is doing their part to make sure this city functions.
What will you tell your DPS students about these protests?
That we’re doing everything we can in Denver’s public schools to lead with bold actions. That is why the same day that the Minneapolis public schools ended their contract the with Minneapolis Police Department, I called for Denver Public Schools to do the same.
Our schools cannot be ground zero for the school-to-prison pipeline. Our schools cannot be the place where you are greeted with a cop but not with a nurse. Those are the dynamics of our schools. Not every DPS school has a full-time nurse. The students don’t have full-time mental-health support. They don’t have restorative-practice coordinators. Most of our high schools and schools of color have cops.
That’s not to say that those cops aren’t doing their jobs. But I am saying that, right now, we need to fund our priorities. Our priorities should be around the mental heath of our students and making sure we have full-time nurses in our schools.
I want us to become less dependent on law enforcement and more dependent on our communities.
Do you aspire to a higher political office?
I’m focusing on my babies in Denver Public Schools. We’ll see what people have in store. I’ve teased around about other political office, but I want my focus to be on the school board because I don’t want to be another politician who uses his position to get to another place and then to another. I want to figure out where my biggest impact will be.
Have you gotten support from people in elected office?
I’ve gotten a thank you call from the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the state treasurer, and the majority leader in the house. The mayor’s staff has thanked me on multiple occasions. And the chief of police has, as well.
I didn’t do any of this for thank-yous, though. I did it because it was the right thing to do.
Keep Reading: All of 5280‘s protest-related coverage can be found here.