Hailey Pago looked out at the sea of white faces on Tuesday, unsure what to make of the moment confronting her. She never expected to be here, in this pavilion in Castle Rock, the town where she’s lived for the past two years, a woman explaining what it’s like to be black in America. But here she was, 21 years old, suddenly filled with the confidence to say what she was thinking.
“I’ve never done this,” she began. The crowd of roughly 200 people smiled at her. “Thank you for seeing me,” Pago continued. “Someday, I can tell my kids that I wasn’t afraid and that I spoke up.”
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This week, the message made it to Mayberry.
Castle Rock, a community of 70,000 residents 25 miles south of Denver, has long a been hotbed of conservative politics, a place where black residents barely make up one percent of the town’s population. But on Tuesday, in a small park, hundreds of people gathered peacefully, transforming the community into a place where black men and women—maybe for the first time since they began living here—felt like someone was willing to listen.
“Sometimes, you wonder if anyone here truly understands what it is like to be someone like me,” said Jerlene Haywood, a 52-year-old mother of four who has lived in town for 13 years. “But just the acknowledgement that they see who I am is touching to me. I’m proud of this community. Is there room for change here? Yes. But I think this shows we can do that in a positive way.”
This past weekend, rumors began circulating over social media that members of antifa—the “anti-fascist” movement targeted by President Donald Trump—were planning to protest in Castle Rock. The idea of Small Town America on fire, of looting and property damage in this Douglas County community, created a mini-uproar online. Messages spread across local Facebook pages. There were threats of physical violence against anyone who wanted to make trouble.
But the antifa rumors were just that. And when Janine Reid—a 42-year-old, self-described “suburban mom” who’s lived in Castle Rock for nearly two decades—tried to explain that online, she says she felt targeted. “So I decided to do something about it,” she said.
With little more than a few days planning, Reid put together the rally at Festival Park, a stamp of land adjacent to Wilcox Street—the main road that bisects the town’s business district. This would not be a protest, she decided. She wasn’t organizing a march. “I have black friends who are scared to come to town because they think they will be targets for racism,” she said. “I want people to be able to come down here and feel like their lives matter. I just wanted to set an example that we can make a change.”
The stories of the half-dozen-or-so black voices heard Tuesday were poignant, heartrending, and familiar. There was the story of the young woman who said she’d been the focus of harassment from a classmate at school; one woman said she rushed to her teenage son’s side when she learned he’d been pulled over by police; one teen said her neighbor has searched her family’s mail and that she felt threatened. Her family is moving to another place in Castle Rock, she said, and she’s met her new neighbors. “They’re so sweet,” the young woman said, wiping away tears.
Rally supporters—the vast majority of them white, and most of them female—sat in the park’s wood-covered pavilion, or stood on the grass, holding signs that read, “Justice for George” and “I stand in solidarity with you” and “How can I pray for you?” Teenagers from nearby high schools showed up, as did older residents. A few Castle Rock police officers stood at an intersection a dozen yards away and chatted with passersby.
Still, there was tension and uneasiness surrounding the event. A nearby coffee shop boarded its windows in anticipation of potential vandalism. A few people carrying holstered handguns stood on the periphery of a small protest later in the afternoon, which was populated mostly by teens and twentysomethings. One man, dressed in full camouflage and with a small cardboard sign that read “NO Looting Here,” carried an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Pago, the 21-year-old, talked about what it’s like to be stopped by police, how she calls her mother to say she’s been pulled over and where she’s parked. How she worries about dying over a speeding ticket. “I don’t want to be that next person in the news,” she told the crowd. “I don’t want you to have to say my name.”
Near the end of the rally, Castle Rock police chief Jack Cauley said he wanted his town’s residents to feel safe and comfortable with the interactions they have with his officers. At one point, the chief lowered himself to one knee and prayed. A young black man put his hand on Cauley’s shoulder.
“I expected to see a group of caring people who wanted to get together to help people heal,” Cauley said afterward. “Everybody right now feels anxious and stressed. People are on edge. But here, I saw a place that is coming together.”
After Pago had spoken, she walked to a space at the edge of the rally. People thanked her for talking. They offered her words of encouragement, said they appreciated her. Pago works at the nearby Chick-fil-A, and she is planning to attend college soon. She’d like to be a filmmaker, where she can document voices like hers.
At that moment in her town, though, she wasn’t thinking about any of that. “I never really believed in my community before,” she said. Pago paused and studied the crowd. “I guess I have more people on my side than I knew.”
Keep Reading: All of 5280‘s protest-related coverage can be found here.