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From left: State Representatives James Coleman and Leslie Herod and DPS school board director Tay Anderson this past July. Photo by Kevin Mohatt

How Twin Pandemics Transformed Denver’s Black Leadership

The confluence of COVID-19 and this summer's Black Lives Matter protests brought a new generation of Black leaders to the forefront of Mile High City politics and activism.

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This past June, Wellington Webb, one of the West’s most prominent Black politicians of the late 20th century, was at the high-rise office of his eponymous lobbying firm, in a conference room overlooking the north side of the state Capitol. For weeks, the gray granite structure had been the epicenter of protests in the city, its facade marked with black and white and red graffiti that looked like tiny dots from Webb’s window on the 28th floor. The Capitol’s golden dome gleamed beneath him in the morning light.

It is not an overstatement to say that 2020 has been a cataclysmic year: The confluence of historic social unrest over the treatment of Black Americans by police and a global pandemic that continues to threaten the physical and economic health of our nation has inexorably changed the country, and the world. For Webb, the collision of events marked a definitive shift in his public life. Now 79 years old, he could feel his time in the political spotlight slowly drawing to a close.

As late May melted into June, the former three-term mayor of Denver had found himself in a contemplative mood. His age made him particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. His race made him vulnerable to poor outcomes with police officers. As a thirtysomething state legislator in the early 1970s, he’d challenged Denver law enforcement and twice led protests outside City Hall after Black men had been brutalized. He kept the newspaper clippings as proof, and he handed the photocopies to me when I met with him this summer. It was a not-so-subtle reminder—he was not quite gone, and he definitely would not be forgotten.

As protests gained momentum in the city and COVID-19 continued its advance throughout the country, Webb had necessarily taken a secondary role, advising the young Black men and women who now were making their own headlines at the forefront of the social movement. At a time when Webb and Denver’s other older Black leaders suddenly found themselves sidelined by the threat of illness, this newer generation had become more visible, leading protests and marches and pushing consequential legislation under the gold dome down the street.

“Everybody’s worried about my health,” Webb said as we sat in the conference room at Webb Group International, the firm he started when he left office in 2003. He tugged at a white surgical mask that hid his omnipresent mustache.

He did not seem distressed about this new chapter in his life. “This is still a great time,” Webb told me. For years, he’d worked with prospective Black politicians, cutting campaign checks, herding endorsements, and helping a new generation of Wellington Webbs understand the city’s past and how to move Denver into the future. “Some of the issues that this younger generation is grappling with are the same issues we were dealing with 50 years ago,” Webb said. “I’m proud that this younger generation has picked up this mantle. This is their time.”

Though he’d grown accustomed to controlling the levers of power, Webb was also pragmatic. He had other ambitions these days, a legacy to uphold. Before his life in politics, Webb was a junior college all-conference basketball player. He’s fond of using the sport as a metaphor for the stages of his public life. If he had once been the brash rookie who transformed himself into a confident star, COVID-19 had shifted his role to that of the aging veteran yearning for a final championship run. “I don’t have the energy to go the whole game anymore,” he told me. “But if you want a jump shot out of the corner with three or four minutes to go, I’m good for that.

“I’m not going to be denied,” he said. “I might not get this on my tenure, but I will keep the issue alive long enough for someone else to score.”

Webb has recently found himself most useful on the phone or on the porch outside his home in Whittier, where he has lived for nearly half a century and where he hosted young Black leaders earlier this summer.

The former mayor believed he was guiding them into what he called “their moment.” On the third day of protests in the city, Webb texted an invitation to meet with Tay Anderson, the 22-year-old Denver school board director who’d become one of the faces of the local protest movement. He’d also been in contact with state Representative Leslie Herod, 38, who represents the Five Points district that Webb and his wife, Wilma, served for nearly two decades, and who drafted the nation’s first post–George Floyd legislation to end qualified immunity for police officers. And he touched base with 33-year-old state Representative James Coleman, a father of two young children, who grew up in Denver and helped secure bipartisan support to overwhelmingly pass Herod’s bill, which Governor Jared Polis signed into law on Juneteenth this year.

Wellington Webb, Denver’s first Black mayor, now 79, has relished his role as a mentor to a new generation of Black leaders in the Mile High City this summer. Photo by Evan Semón

Before Coleman contemplated his first run for public office as a state representative in 2016, he attended meetings and discussions hosted by Black leaders he admired, including Webb, Coleman’s cousin Jeff Fard, and Timothy Tyler, the pastor at Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church, north of City Park. During one gathering in Denver, Coleman remembers the feeling of impatience among the younger Black people in attendance. At one point, someone in the audience asked when they would finally get their chance to lead.

The response: You don’t wait for an opportunity. You take it.

“The idea of taking power like that seemed wrong to me,” Coleman remembers. “I was always taught that you do your work and you wait until the generation before you decides it’s your time.” But after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, as Americans were stuck at home and saw video of a police officer kneeling on the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, the concept of politely waiting for anything, even for Coleman, seemed like a relic.

“This is a movement about action, about getting involved and moving forward right now,” says Apryl Alexander, 37, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver and one of the organizers of the group Black Lives Matter 5280, which coordinated rallies and protests throughout Denver this summer. Alexander has spent a lot of time in conversations with her students, and she heard the urgency in their voices. Many of her students were being drawn to the ideals of local politics, realizing transformational change was perhaps quickest and most effective if they did it in their own neighborhoods. “The conversations switched from presidential politics to, How do I organize in my community? How does a [state-level] bill get passed? How do you run for office?” says Alexander, whose BLM 5280 group has pushed for ideas like safer public schools and police divestment in Denver. “There’s an urgency to this. Like, You’ve had your time, and now it’s on us to see what we can do.

COVID-19, in many ways, created an opening for the movement this summer and put Colorado in a unique position to lead on issues of race and policing. Responding to the pandemic, the Colorado General Assembly put itself on hiatus, then pushed back the last legislative date from early May to mid-June—as protests over Floyd and the deaths of others, such as Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Aurora’s Elijah McClain, were getting recognition in the suburbs surrounding Denver. “If we waited, we’d lose political will to get something done,” says Herod, who’d taken perhaps the biggest legislative role as the author and co-sponsor of what became known as SB20-217, a sweeping police accountability measure that was developed, debated, passed, and signed into law within 16 days. “So, basically, we didn’t wait.”

With bipartisan support that had been unimaginable just months earlier, Herod’s bill ended qualified immunity for law enforcement officers—making them personally liable for their decisions on the job—banned certain “defensive holds,” made provisions that would allow the firing of officers who fail to stop colleagues from using excessive force, and created a publicly accessible database of officers who’ve used force that’s resulted in death or serious bodily injury, among other things. “The pandemic offered an unprecedented opportunity,” says Hillary Potter, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also the school’s associate dean for inclusive practice at the College of Arts and Sciences. “A chance like this will never happen again in our lifetimes.”

Herod, for her part, tapped into the frustrations of many of the protestors in the city, some of whom vandalized the Capitol and destroyed a truck owned by state Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat who would later become one of the bill’s primary sponsors. In early June, law enforcement officers deployed tear gas, pepper balls, and flash-bang grenades on the crowds downtown on a nightly basis, oftentimes on peaceful protestors. “There was real pain and anger, and you could feel the outrage building,” says Herod, who represents many of Denver’s historically Black neighborhoods and is the first LGBT Black person elected to Colorado’s Legislature.

On June 2, the day before Herod’s bill was to be introduced in the Legislature, she and Coleman gathered on the Capitol steps with families of loved ones who’d died at the hands of local law enforcement. Among the parents assembled at the rally was Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man whose story of abuse by police—and eventual death—in August 2019 had only recently begun to gain national attention. Sheneen, who worked for months to create support for a call to investigate her son’s death, was disappointed that it took Floyd’s death to draw interest to her child’s case. “Elijah’s a native of Colorado,” she told the Capitol audience that day. “Can I tell you how much it hurt me to see you all rally for somebody in another state, but not for my son last August? I appreciate that you guys are out here now. Maybe you were a little too busy in August last year.”

The moment was seminal for Coleman. “It was a gut punch to anyone who looked like me,” he says. “Her words were a personal challenge. I wasn’t out there after her son died. None of us were. We’re supposed to represent just a small part of an entire state, but a Black elected official isn’t just a representative of that one place. Black people see you as a direct link to them, wherever they are. You represent them, and we have to be unapologetic about that. We have to raise our voices and cross lines. We have to fight.”

A few days after the Denver protests began this past May, Timothy Tyler was at his home near Five Points, debating with his son. Tyler has been the pastor at Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church for the past 12 years, leading one of the largest Black congregations in Colorado. He’d built his vocation around pillars of social and economic justice and never missed an opportunity on Sundays to preach about racial equality. During the Great Recession, he created an economic empowerment program and raised money for Black families struggling to eat or pay their bills. Two years later, in 2010, Tyler helped train and counsel a new generation of Freedom Riders who were dispatched to Ferguson, Missouri, following Michael Brown’s death. The son of parents who’d once worked with Medgar Evers at the NAACP, Tyler was taught from an early age about the importance of protest, of having your voice heard.

But sitting at home this summer with his 25-year-old son, Chinelo, the reverend was seized by fear of the pandemic. His son, a recent graduate of Morehouse College—a historically Black institution in Atlanta—wanted to protest. Tyler begged his son to stay home. COVID-19 had disproportionately affected seniors and racial minorities, he told his son. The pandemic was killing Black people at a rate two and a half times higher than that of their white counterparts. Tyler would come to officiate eight funerals over the next few months, six of which were COVID-19-related. Though he wasn’t a senior himself, the 56-year-old pastor could be called into their homes. In the first days of the pandemic, as cities began shutting down around the world, Tyler and his wife decided to close their own home to set an example for the rest of the community. He told his son these things, his voice rising.

“We don’t need you to criticize us,” Chinelo told his father. “I need you to affirm what we’re feeling.”

Tyler thought of his parents and their work in the early days of the civil rights movement, in Mississippi. He thought about his family’s move to Southern California just before the Watts riots. He used those stories of struggle to guide him through college and seminary, from church to church all the way to Shorter, where he arrived, from St. Louis, in 2008. “I got the message,” Tyler told me one morning this past July, as he sat outside his church on a folding chair and recounted the conversation with his son. “I realized my boy had that same fire in him. I had to let him go and pray that he would be safe.”

Tyler now finds himself talking about the twin pandemics facing Black America, COVID-19 and racism, and how people his age need to pray hard to find their direction in all of it. “My son made me realize there’s a generation coming up that wants to fight in the streets,” he says. “My group, my season, our role now is to pray for them, to advise them when they ask for our advice and to encourage them. That’s a role that’s new to me, but I’m getting used to it.”

Tyler also thought often of Tay Anderson, the young man he’d been mentoring since he was a student at Manual High School, from which Anderson graduated as class president in 2018. Tyler had grown close to Anderson over the years, learned to read the young man’s moods and when to push him forward and—sometimes, more important—when to pull him back. He’d seen Anderson work a crowd, whipping them up with his youthful indignation.

Timothy Tyler, the pastor at Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Skyland, has, like Webb, taken on a role as a guide to Denver’s younger Black leaders. Photo courtesy of Dave Russell

Tyler gained Anderson’s trust. “He’s someone I look up to and always will,” Anderson told me. “He gives me confidence. He knows how to give advice without making it seem like he’s trying to control you. He knows when he needs to encourage me and when it’s time to sit down and just talk.”

One evening this past June, Anderson was outside his Capitol Hill apartment looking tired as he unbuttoned the top few buttons of his white dress shirt. He’d just finished a meeting with Governor Jared Polis, and he’d pressed the governor for a special prosecutor to review McClain’s death. Though a district attorney this past fall had passed on charging the three Aurora officers with crimes in the case, Anderson was hopeful new attention might push the governor into action. Polis seemed noncommittal to Anderson, and Anderson wasn’t sure if anything would be done. (Polis appointed a special prosecutor to review McClain’s death on June 25.)

“All he needs to do is give a yes or a no answer, and then we’ll know where he stands,” Anderson, a Democrat, said of the governor. “Polis is very progressive, but he has some things to learn when it comes to racism. There’s still room for growth.” Anderson walked toward his front door. “It’s not easy being Black, you know?” he said.

That a 22-year-old could wrangle his way into a private meeting with the governor on such an important topic—and then criticize the state’s chief executive afterward—spoke to the power Anderson was suddenly wielding. In just one month, he’d gone from a little-followed school board director to one of the de facto leaders of a new civil rights movement that had taken hold in Denver. He used his newly found cachet to persuade his school board colleagues to end the district’s reliance on school-based police—better known as “resource officers”—a campaign promise Anderson made to voters last year that he hoped would divert funding to pay for school psychologists, counselors, and nurses.

He posted a video on his social media feeds that showed U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper comparing elected officials’ experiences with political schedulers to those of slaves being lashed as they rowed ancient ships. Anderson threatened residents of Stapleton with a massive march if they didn’t commit to changing the neighborhood’s name, ending a battle in one day that had lasted more than 15 years. (The neighborhood is now called Central Park.) He’s already appeared twice on CNN; over 11 days in June, he was mentioned four times in the Washington Post.

Polis thanked Anderson publicly for his role in handing out masks during the protests to help halt the spread of COVID-19, and other plaudits rolled in through myriad texts and calls Anderson received. He met with Webb, and he’d been in regular contact with Herod and DPS school board vice president Jennifer Bacon.

Anderson had telegraphed his rise in politics since attending Manual High School, where he began honing his activism skills. He’d moved to Colorado from Kansas on the night of President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, as a 14-year-old. Seven years later, he celebrated his own election-night victory, winning a seat on the Denver school board and becoming the youngest Black elected official in Colorado history.

He witnessed the first night of protests in Denver, on May 27, and watched DPS students get caught between police and protestors. “I couldn’t stand by and watch our DPS kids get hurt or killed,” he told me. He led a march the next day. The civil unrest over Floyd’s death opened opportunities to make meaningful changes in other parts of the state, Anderson said. “You have to take advantage, because you don’t know when you’re going to get another shot,” he said as he sat in his apartment’s living room. With his sudden ascendance, it was sometimes difficult to remember he was a recent high school graduate, though a look around his home was a reminder of his youth. His high school ROTC medals were on a bookcase near his television. An Xbox and video games—Call of Duty, UFC 2—were nearby, as was Fortnite Monopoly.

He was constantly on his phone, texting friends, checking Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. When he spoke, he mindlessly spun his phone on a black PopSocket with the words “I can’t breathe” printed on it in white lettering. “I’ve got this impatience,” he said. “I’m done with sitting and talking things out and having this ‘Kumbaya’ thing, because that hasn’t gone anywhere. Some people say I’m too aggressive. I’m just passionate about what I do.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, this past summer provided a window through which out­​­siders were able to see Anderson’s real-time evolution. It was a painful experience at times. “Tay is very vocal, and very connected with social media, which can create issues,” Tyler said. “But we have to remember that he’s young. He’s feeling his way through this.”

After the first full week of protests, Anderson was criticized for subverting the BLM movement when he became friendly with a group called We Are Love Denver, which had called for peaceful protests and had openly marched arm-in-arm with Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen. Community organizers later accused We Are Love of sexism for shutting down female Black voices at a rally, and rumors circulated that the group was planted by Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police to quell potential violence. Anderson later renounced his connection to the group, saying he was “still figuring things out.”

Weeks later—at a scheduled McClain rally in Aurora put on by the Party for Socialism and Liberation—Anderson was accused of hijacking the event and starting his own rally. (Anderson apologized to rallygoers on Twitter, saying he “stepped out of his lane.”) Stung by the criticism from earlier in the day, Anderson did not attend a student-led protest that night at the same site, which disappointed teenage organizers.

“Tay is still learning, but it’s up to those of us within the community to continue to work with him,” says Elisabeth Epps, an attorney and activist who has called out Anderson on social media. “It’s a learning curve that is similar to all of us. He’s also very young. He has a lot to understand. But then there are days when I think he’s going in the right direction. He’s still got a lot of work to do, just like a lot of us in this field.”

Though Anderson was conciliatory to those who he said were trying to “educate” him on issues, he was upset about the disapproval. “I have to take criticism and welcome it, because I know people just want to see me do better,” he told me. But, he added, as a Black elected official, “you have to be perfect to everybody. What hurts me is when people question my Blackness. Like, am I really down for the cause? Or am I only down for it to get attention? My biggest critics share my skin color.”

A few days before the final Senate vote for SB20-217, Herod was outside the state House chambers thinking about all the events that led her to this moment. Everything in her political life had a personal story attached to it—from being raised by a single mother to having a sister who struggled with mental health issues and drug addiction. Each of those stories informed how she wanted to lead and the issues she wanted to pursue.

She remembers the first time she was called the N-word. She was seven, and her family had just purchased a home in Colorado Springs, where her mother was part of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Herod and her older brother were talking to the son of the family who had just sold the house. The boy, who was white, was upset about his pending move. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t understand why a Black family was moving in. “And then he called me that word,” Herod remembers. “I knew what it meant.”

Her brother and the boy began fighting. Herod rushed inside her new home and called the police. After the officers arrived, her mother de-escalated the situation, and Herod told her mother she’d been the one who’d called the police. “I thought that’s what you were supposed to do,” Herod says. “My mom screamed at me. But it wasn’t like regular anger. I saw this rage come out of her. The look on her face—I’d never seen her so scared in my life. I’d put my brother’s life in jeopardy, and I didn’t even know it.”

She looked down at a small binder of notes in her hands. It wasn’t quite 9 a.m., and Herod was already preparing for another night at the Capitol. Committee meetings had often run late, and she was constantly counting votes. Getting bipartisan support was imperative, but not at the risk of watering down her bill as it made its way through Senate debate.

Over the previous week, she’d been scrolling through online message boards and gauging reactions from the law enforcement community. Her work had been called “knee-jerk” and uninformed. She was portrayed as an angry Black woman who hated police. Still, her bill was surviving the legislative process almost entirely intact, and it was clear she was gaining white allies on both sides of the political spectrum. In a few days, she sensed a shift in sentiment.

“Once it got the white stamp of approval, the conversation was more about the bill and less about how I’m Black,” she said. “That was annoying. I didn’t know what I was talking about until a white guy sits beside me, and then we’re all good. People can’t see it. It’s frustrating, because people can’t see how their own bias plays into this.

“When white people get angry, they’re angry,” Herod continued. “When Black people get angry, it’s a threat. That needs to change. We do have emotions, and we need emotions with this.”

Ultimately, she admitted, she wasn’t sure how the bill would improve Black lives once it passed. “This doesn’t end racism,” she said. “But maybe it can show Black folks that there are people in Colorado who are standing up for them.” The past week had given her a chance to talk to her white colleagues, too, about race, equity, and equality, and how the life she’s lived isn’t the same as the ones they’ve lived. “These are uncomfortable conversations we’re having, but I think it’s time to be uncomfortable and step up and say, ‘I’ve been elected to serve all people, and Black lives do matter.’”

She was being called to another meeting. “I hope our community will be safer, but it will never be truly safe,” she said. “We can’t stop working on this. We have to give the young kids the hope that someday they can do this, too.”

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