It might have been the music or the presence of SWAT teams, but something unnerved me when I arrived at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, June 1, to report on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest. In addition to the crowd of a thousand people or so gathered around the protest leaders, there were folks hanging out on the grass or close to the street. They were socializing or watching the demonstrations from afar. Supporters drove by, honking or yelling in support of the protestors.
One driver in particular stuck out to me. He pulled up and stopped at the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Lincoln Street. With his window down and arm thrust in the air, the song “F*ck tha Police”—an anthem from another time of social justice upheaval—boomed from his car’s speakers. N.W.A. released the track in 1988 in response to recurring police brutality against Black Americans. In 1987, as part of its “Operation Hammer” initative to end gang violence, the Los Angeles Police Department imprisoned 1,453 people in a single weekend. The tactics used by the LA police were criticized for racial profiling as the arrests targeted people of color. For Black people, this song was an urgent message to America.
Now, it had become a pop culture reference, appropriated by a white man in his beat-up car, driving by the BLM protest in Denver. Bystanders cheered as he stopped, turned up the volume, and drove away when the traffic light flashed from red to green. I stood still, silent, and wondered how his action really supported the cause.
Some might argue that his raised fist and song choice demonstrated, at the very least, some support for the BLM movement. Maybe it did. But as I weaved through the crowd—making my way to the front of the Capitol—I noticed the number of white faces around me. And while I wasn’t necessarily surprised that they outnumbered the Black and brown ones—Black people only make up 10 percent of Denver’s growing population—I did wonder what their presence meant for other people of color.
Because Black Lives Matter is a powerful and complex movement, it means something different—and extremely personal—for every person of color. And as a biracial woman (my father is Black and my mother is white), I have my own unique Black experience. I struggle with understanding my fluctuating levels of privilege while also feeling the utmost grief for the continued violence against my Black brothers and sisters in Denver and across the country.
Looking around—and taking in the lack of diversity in the crowd on that hot evening—I became increasingly curious if other Black attendees felt apprehensive regarding the motives of the white protestors in addition to the uneasy presence of law enforcement. Was the song just a song, or was it a representation of how the movement’s message can be hijacked by misguided intentions?
About 30 minutes into my time listening to the speakers and taking everything in, I overheard a group of people venting about their clashes with the Denver Police Department over the preceding days. The way one of the individuals was recounting what she saw caught my attention. LaQueta, a 39-year-old mother, looked equally sad and exhausted. She told me the protest had generally remained peaceful until the time the police decided to interfere. “It’s always calm,” she told me, “until the police come.”
“[The police] were really aggressive to our people with their hands up,” LaQueta continued. “They were just jumping off of the side of the truck and shooting [foam-tipped bullets].” According to LaQueta, who lived in Denver for eight years before moving to Aurora, the most violent night she witnessed was Saturday, May 30.
LaQueta had attended protests alone almost every day. I actually ran into her again a few days later in front of the Capitol, and she told me that she had only taken one night off since the protests started in Denver. Although she’s seen firsthand the forcefulness of the police during the protests, she avoided being gassed, shot by foam-tipped bullets, or arrested. “My self care is being here,” she explained. “I don’t want to die…I said, if I am going to get shot, I can get shot at a mall, movie theater, or concert. If it’s going to happen, I’d rather it be here.”
LaQueta originally came to voice her outrage and agony over police brutality, but instead she’d been helping others stay hydrated and safe from law enforcement. A true multitasker, LaQueta has felt united with her Black community while also feeling pressure to protect it. During the first week of protests in Denver, she parked her car—which remained stocked with water, face masks, milk (to mitigate the effects of tear gas), and hand sanitizer—close by to help protect those targeted by the police and remove them from harm’s way. “There were people who had seizures, so I had to put them in my car. People get overheated, I put them in my car,” she said. “I’m really here for the protest and to make a stand. I didn’t know that would happen…that I would be taking care of people.”
Charlie, a six-foot-something gentle giant, is an Army veteran and also spent his time at the protests looking out for himself and others. I noticed him—a heavily built figure standing on the perimeter of the demonstrations—hanging on the outskirts of the crowd, listening to the leaders speak while also scanning the areas where the protestors were. I could sense his protective nature. “I’m out here mainly to make sure these people don’t get caught straggling and get attacked. Because once they [the police] get started on the crowd, they’ll catch stragglers and spray them all the way down the street,” he said. “I just want to make sure these kids get home safely.”
Charlie told me that he feels obligated to help maintain the safety of the protestors. From the sound of it, he’s had to remain wary of others’ safety his entire life. “Since childhood, I grew up here [in Denver] getting banged up during clashes with police,” he said. “Denver Police has been harassing my family for as long as I can remember.” Charlie also said he’s been as vocal as he can about police brutality and holding the Denver department accountable.
And although law enforcement is intended to be a symbol of safety and security—“to protect and serve”—its presence emits the opposite, leaving people like Charlie and LaQueta feeling compelled to stand guard and protect one another. “I never feel safe,” Charlie said. “I’ve never felt safe here dealing with the police.”
Although the BLM movement is focused on many issues—police brutality, systematic racism, the ramifications of white privilege—safety is an underlying theme that should remain at the core of the discourse. It’s arguably the most consistent issue for people of color, whether it’s feeling safe to go for a run, sleep in one’s own home, walk down the street, or play with toy guns in one’s yard. Black people are repeatedly denied the safety to do conventional (and unconventional) day-to-day activities. The safety guaranteed to Black people to do things like peacefully protest or march is stolen by the very hands of those meant to protect it.
The last couple of protestors I talked to before heading home on that June night were two young women from Denver. Melanie and Mia told me that the movement should include some kind of protection for people of color in addition to protecting the dialogue from others who have different intentions for the BLM movement.
“I feel like it’s very hijacked,” Melanie told me. “I don’t feel like this is a Black movement for real justice. I feel like it’s a party. I feel like it is a way for white people to come out and take out whatever frustration they’ve been feeling being locked in their house over the last two months rather than getting justice.”
Melanie believes that the BLM movement should only focus on the voices of Black people. “To me, it would look very militant. Very organized. There would be an agenda,” she said. “It would be very Black.” She also added that she didn’t feel truly represented at the protest. “Say what you want, that’s probably how some folks would look at it as expressing themselves, but I could probably count people that look like us on one hand.”
Mia, Melanie’s friend, shares Melanie’s frustration with the protest but doesn’t feel as extreme as her. “I do appreciate the protest,” Mia said. “We’re both Denver-born and -raised, and enough is enough.” Mia told me she believes there should be a larger platform for Black people to voice their grievances and ideas for social justice—and that the space for them should be protected. “I’m not as militant [as Mel]; I’m a bit more peaceful. But I do see where she is coming from,” she said. “I just want more space. I don’t want to be hanging out on the outskirts. I don’t want to feel like I don’t belong. There’s other ways to show up [as an ally].”
Weeks after the protests began in Denver, I’m still processing what I saw and heard each night—and every time I made my way home, I left feeling like many of the self-proclaimed white allies are still missing a crucial part of the movement’s message. Rather than confront the centurieslong legacy of slavery, I watched white people yell long-appropriated refrains like “F*ck the Police!” instead. And I am compelled to question whether their interpretation of the Black Lives Matter movement is weakening the cause. Are these refrains undermining Black voices? And if they are, is real, lasting change even possible without understanding that the movement extends well past police brutality?
In the meantime, I continue to think about LaQueta’s, Charlie’s, Melanie’s, and Mia’s words and how their experiences contain underlying similarities to one another and to my own Black experience—from feeling unsafe around law enforcement to questioning the intentions of white allies.
As the protests continue in Denver and across the country, it is critical that the urgency of the movement stays focused on what people of color are begging for—their right to live and thrive. Safety for Black individuals isn’t only about protecting them from police brutality—although that is a major aspect of the BLM movement. It’s about providing a safe space for Black people to live as freely as everyone else. Ensuring that safety is perhaps the most American thing we can do.