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Activists Are Challenging Colorado’s Ongoing Legacy of Racism

Colorado has a long history as a breeding ground for white supremacy and police violence.

People protest police brutality in Denver, Colorado.

Part of the Series

From the cinders of Minneapolis’s police precinct burnt down in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, to calls for justice for Ahmaud Arbery, to protests over the killing of Tony McDade in Tallahassee, Florida, to the outrage over the murder of Breonna Taylor by police in Kentucky, Black communities and other communities of color are continuing to rise up and call for change. White supremacy’s roots are weaved into the foundation of the U.S. and it has systematically wrapped itself into institutions affecting health, economic disparity, foreign policy, housing, education, the prison system, and outright survival for Black and Brown communities. As noted by Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, white supremacy is a boil you can’t ignore; you have to lance it, to clean it out. Denver is one of those boils in the middle of the U.S. It has long been a hotbed and breeding ground for white supremacy and police violence. White supremacy groups have been on the rise in Colorado: in late 2019 a white supremacist was arrested for plotting to bomb a synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado, and on June 11, a white man in Loveland, Colorado, held two Black men at gunpoint claiming they were from Antifa.

Denver is the homeland of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Following the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie during the Gold Rush, Chief Little Raven said, “Take the gold but remember the land belongs to us, don’t stay long.” While settlers continued to encroach into the Colorado region, Commissioner of Indian Affairs A.B. Greenwood stated in 1859, “There is no alternative to providing for them in this manner but to exterminate them, which the dictates of justice and humanity alike forbid.” Territorial Gov. of Colorado John Evans and Col. John Chivington had been “eager to use violence prior to November 1864,” the Sand Creek Massacre. Chivington “publicly announced in August or September of 1864” his genocidal “policy was to ‘kill and scalp all, little and big; that nits made lice.’” In November 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre took place in eastern Colorado, where 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho were murdered, the majority of them women and children. Following the massacre, soldiers paraded through Denver with scalps, some were sent east, the Denver Theater even used them in plays. Colorado’s foundation — like that of the U.S. itself — was built on white supremacist colonial violence, a violence that expressed itself through policing, politics and policy.

Colorado wasn’t exempt from the horrors of lynchings. Catholics (Italians and Irish), Native Americans, Mexicans and Chinese people were all lynched in Colorado. In 1880, on Halloween, an anti-Chinese riot broke out in downtown Denver with 3,000 people chanting, “The Chinese must go.” Chinese storefronts were destroyed, people were attacked, and 28-year-old Look Young “was beaten to death and hung from a lamppost.” In 1900, Preston Porter Jr., a 16-year-old African American teenager, was burned alive while chained to a railroad stake in Limon, Colorado, while a mob of more than 300 cheered.

From slave patrols to Black Codes to the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” the prison-industrial complex is steeped in anti-Blackness that continues to this day with the U.S. having nearly a quarter of all people in prison on the planet, with a majority of them being Black and people of color. Regarding this history, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history at the Harvard Kennedy School said, “For me, to talk about the history of policing is also to talk about the history of white supremacy and racial capitalism in the United States of America.”

During the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s, Denver played a major role in sustaining white supremacy. Colorado was second only to Indiana for the most KKK members per capita in the country; 1 in 10 Coloradans were in the KKK by 1925. The KKK had Klaverns in all 64 counties in Colorado. Colorado Gov. Clarence Morley, Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton (who had a neighborhood named in his honor until a few days ago when the community voted to change the name after pressure from activists) and Denver Police Chief William Candlish were all in the KKK. It’s estimated that 75 percent of the police force in Colorado were in the Klan in the 1920s. Mayor Stapleton gave the Klan city spaces to spread their message, leading to kidnappings, arson, and bombs being put on people’s porches, creating explicit violence and breeding implicit hate that still lingers today.

White supremacy in Colorado affected Black doctors such as Justina Ford and enforced redlining policies that formed Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Ford was licensed in 1902 but the medical community of Colorado wouldn’t permit her hospital privileges, so she worked from homes. Even though she never had children, she delivered 7,000 babies. In 1923, she was denied entry into the local medical society. In 1950, two years before she died, she was finally accepted into the Denver Medical Society.

Through redlining, racism changed the geography of Denver. Terri Gentry, a volunteer docent at the Black American West Museum, explained how her great grandfather “was the first black family on Marion Street,” where the first red line was drawn, “and he had to walk up the alley to his house. He couldn’t walk up the street.” George Morrison, who violated the red line by building a house on Gilpin Street, allegedly had his home burned “down three times” by the KKK.

Along with oppression, people in the Black community resisted and fought back against white supremacy. For instance, Five Points residents Benny Hooper and Clarence Holmes did sit-ins to protest the showing of the white supremacist film Birth of a Nation in Denver in 1915. Holmes went on to establish the Denver Interracial Committee in 1916.

In the early 1920s, Joseph H.P. Westbrook infiltrated the KKK in Denver passing as white, where he “listened in to the [KKK’s] plots and relayed information back to his community.” Holmes and Westbrook helped found a local branch of the NAACP in Denver, and the Klan burned a cross on Holmes’s front yard in 1925.

Like most of the U.S., Denver saw a surge in state surveillance and violence in the 1960s. While the FBI was planning assassinations on Black Panthers, COINTELPRO and police repression targeted the Chicano(a)(x) Movement, which was fighting against colonialism and white supremacy while bringing up issues on land rights, lack of Chicano history in school curriculums and discrimination in education. As noted by Antonio Esquibel, “police/community relations deteriorated, and Chicanos’ awareness of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, transportation, communication, and the media grew.” In 1966, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales co-founded the Crusade for Justice, which advocated for “Chicano nationalism and substantive social change.” Denver erupted in 1973 when Luis “Junior” Martinez was shot and killed by Denver police in the bombing at the Crusade for Justice building. According to historian Ernesto Vigil, Martinez was “one of the most popular of the younger people in the Crusade”; he joined the Black Berets in 1969, he denounced police for their brutality, and was a choreographer for the Crusade For Justice’s Ballet Chicano dance group. In 1974, six Chicano activists were killed by car bombs near the University of Colorado Boulder campus.

Denver police made headlines in 2009 for violently beating Alex Landau and again in 2010, when street preacher Marvin Booker was murdered in the precinct when he went to pick up his shoes. Susan Greene described the horrific incident, “Four deputies piled on top of him, cuffed him, and put him in a chokehold in front of several witnesses. While he lay on the floor, hands cuffed behind his back, deputies holding him down, their sergeant shocked him with a Taser.” The Denver Police Department (DPD) made headlines in 2011 by using excessive force against Occupy Denver protesters and was involved in the killing of Alonzo Ashley at the Denver Zoo. Ryan Ronquillo was shot and killed by police in 2014 in the parking lot during his friend’s funeral. LGBTQ teen Jessie Hernandez was shot and killed by police in 2015. Rosebud Sioux tribal member Paul Castaway was shot and killed in 2015 by officer Michael Traudt (who has a Three Percenters militia tattoo on his hand). Dion Avila Damon was shot and killed by police in downtown Denver in 2016. Like the rest of the U.S., the list is long, tragic, and overwhelmingly of people from Black and communities of color.

Denver was ranked number one in excessive force complaints in 2010 and a report this year found police shootings are more frequent “than in other states with similar population sizes.” Following the murder of George Floyd, hundreds of protesters in Denver were shot with pepper balls, tear gassed, blasted with rubber bullets and arrested. Denver journalists and photographers were shot with pepper balls during protests. Ironically, Denver police agreed to First Amendment training, but so far, “it still hasn’t happened.” First Amendment training for every DPD officer was agreed to in a 2019 legal settlement after Denver journalist Susan Greene was detained for filming police. The DPD made national headlines in June when they shot into a couple’s car when the man was explaining to them that his pregnant fiancé was with him. People in Denver are currently calling to defund the police and calling for justice for 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who died after being tackled by police, put in a chokehold and sedated with ketamine when walking home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colorado, in 2019. Protesters have also been marching for William DeBose, who was shot and killed by police on May 1 in Denver near the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library. Since the protests, Denver has put a restraining order on the DPD, limiting use of tear gas and projectiles, and the Denver School Board voted to remove police from public middle and high schools by June 2021.

These stories don’t account for the everyday toll that white supremacy takes on communities of color. A lifetime of racial harassment built on top of generational trauma is a violence that takes a toll on health and psyche.

Groups like Padres Y Jovenes Unidos in Denver have been organizing for years to combat white supremacy and the school-to-prison pipeline by holding rallies and walkouts, and gathering data on racial disparity in Denver Public Schools (DPS) while holding public accountability meetings with the DPS superintendent and having him publicly acknowledge and sign documents that this was true and that he would work to end carceral conditions in schools. Organizations like the Denver Justice Project and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition have been registering people who are incarcerated to vote and working to end mass incarceration, while Soul 2 Soul Sisters organizes for racial justice focused on Black healing and Black liberation via Black Womxn-centered education. Black Lives Matter 5280 has long been organizing and calling for change in Denver, demanding to defund the police and reinvest the resources into Black communities, “while eliminating anti-Black violence and racism.” Meanwhile, Colorado Freedom Fund, founded in 2018 and led by attorney Elizabeth Epps, has been collecting donations and actively bailing out protesters and seeking ways to defund the police and promote abolition.

As calls for police and prison abolition move closer to the forefront than ever before, more people are listening to the voices of Angela Davis, Joy James, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and groups like Critical Resistance, who have been discussing these needs for decades.

Being honest about the past draws the lance closer to the boil of white supremacy. With Denver’s history of being a bastion of racism, its policies are still evident and causing violence. It allowed white supremacy to breed and continue to spread through the U.S. Now more than ever, people are confronting history by toppling statues that celebrate colonialism and white supremacy, and asking important questions on creating a future free of state violence. James Baldwin eloquently explained the importance of history long ago, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

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