There were plenty of tears in the crowd. They were streaming down Black women’s faces until the liquid pain trickled behind their brightly colored face masks. Gathered near the Colorado State Capitol, women took turns telling stories of dead family members, exhaustion, and fear—fear for their children, their brothers, their friends, and their partners. In 2020, there were more reasons than ever for the March for Black Women Denver to come together to rally for racial equity. Unfortunately, there were also many reasons not to.
Protesting and organized marching aren’t new to the Mile High City—Denver hosted one of the country’s largest women’s marches in 2017— but the murder of George Floyd, an out-of-control pandemic, and a contentious election cycle have encouraged Coloradans to voice their concerns with more urgency and frequency this year. In years past, however, the March for Black Women Denver would have sounded, looked, and felt very different. Along with all the other changes 2020 has brought with it, this year has also necessarily altered the way protest planners have had to organize their events.
That is, of course, if they even felt comfortable staging in-person events. The Womxn’s March Denver canceled its October rally and pivoted from rallying in the streets to encouraging a parade to the polls in November. It also set up moderated panels and other smaller events—most held in virtual settings.
For some organizations, however, the risks of gathering were far outweighed by the need to capitalize on the national zeitgeist surrounding racial equity. The March for Black Women Denver and Black Lives Matter 5280 had to modify their programming and enforce strict social distancing protocols. Temperatures were taken, masks were required, and hugging was discouraged—not only because those measures are widely known to help stop the spread of the virus, but also because COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and brown people in Colorado and across the country. Although it pained organizers to scuttle their usual lineup of deejayed dance parties, free food, and a long list of speakers, they dutifully replaced events that engendered too much close togetherness with programming that allowed for social distancing, like quiet reflections, long marches through Denver’s streets, and impromptu speeches from members of the community. “In the past we have been able to really have community and be in close proximity with each other,” says Tiya Trent, one of the organizers of the March for Black Women Denver. “Laughing, dancing, hugging—we really didn’t get to do a lot of that this year. We wanted to make sure that the people who chose to show up were safe.”
COVID-19 wasn’t the only safety issue event planners had to think about, though. Considering protesters’ physical safety—from law enforcement, counter-protesters, and random dissenters—has always been a priority. That concern was heightened this year. “There’s always been a risk in Black women gathering,” says Shontel Lewis, another organizer for the March for Black Women, who explains how Black women have long been susceptible to violence, whether through their relationships or at the hands of police. “But this is 2020. With all the agitators and antagonists against the movement, we felt that it was best to take a few more safety precautions.” The Black women who chose to speak were physically surrounded by Black men and white allies. There was an effort to protect and shield, something Black women have had to live without for a long time, Lewis says.
Black Lives Matter 5280 orchestrated four marches in 2020. But local organizers didn’t stop there: They also continued to focus on traditional tactics—like fundraising and community education—that have always been part of Black Lives Matter 5280’s mission. “We have been modeling after our ancestors before us and the types of direct actions that they engaged in, whether that’s formal protest, or other forms of direct action, like different forms of collective action in fundraising efforts,” says Apryl Alexander, a professor at the University of Denver and BLM 5280 Community organizer. “I think there are some things that changed with 2020 and a lot of things that didn’t change.”
What has changed, according to multiple organizers, is the response they’ve received to their work. Black Lives Matter 5280 has been able to work with far more people this year than ever before; its marches were heavily attended; and their fundraisers elicited more donations than in previous years. What the tragic events of 2020 haven’t changed, planners say, is the fight for Black rights. Alexander explains that 2020 has only changed the reactions Americans are having to the movement. And there are upsides and downsides to that: White allies are paying more attention, but white supremacists are becoming more emboldened.
Organizers say they’ll deal with the need for increased safety measures and take the good response with the bad so long as the increased interest in social justice doesn’t fade away when 2020 comes to an end. “My biggest fear is that people forget, because that’s happened in movements before,” Alexander says. “I fear that people won’t continue to engage in the action that’s needed to abolish systemic and institutional racism.”