Social justice demonstrations gain traction across Colorado

The social justice uprisings in major American cities sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd have been spreading peacefully out from Denver, up and down the Front Range and into isolated rural communities across Colorado.

“The energy is still the same,” University of Northern Colorado sophomore Kobi Salinas, 19, said Monday, en route to Poudre School District offices in Fort Collins, where administrators were weighing whether to renew their contract for deploying police officers at schools.

Majoring in philosophy and criminal justice, Salinas had participated in some of the Denver demonstrations and now was rallying for an anti-racism curriculum and expulsions of students deemed racist.

“People are looking for and hoping for the same things,” Salinas said.

Over the past five days, Colorado residents have demonstrated on the streets of at least 18 towns and cities from Aspen to Westcliffe, according to local press reports and photos and video shared on social media. An initial focus on police abuse was broadening to encompass wider justice concerns.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful — Colorado Springs officers fired tear gas, Alamosa police are investigating a shooting — following the initial violent standoffs in Denver with police in riot gear who used chemical agents and pepper balls.

Hundreds gathered Sunday at an altar of flowers and candles by the county courthouse in Boulder, where organizers urged unity and compassion rather than antipathy towards police. At Montrose in southwestern Colorado, drivers inside vehicles looked on as demonstrators marched holding signs and a U.S. flag.

Police in Aspen counted more than 500 demonstrators, organized by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Jenelle Figgens, “expressing concerns about police use of force, and that black lives matter, ” Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Monday. Aspen police took the approach of facilitating the demonstrating by controlling vehicle traffic and laying back, Linn said.

“This is the universal response that our entire nation has had to the video showing the death of George Floyd, which demonstrates that there is a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said. “Around the country, everybody agrees, small towns and large.”

In Norwood, where a majority of the town’s 736 residents voted for Donald Trump to be president, roughly 30 people rallied.

“It was peaceful,” Town Clerk Gretchen Wells said. “Everybody’s connected to the world nowadays, with smartphones. It has always been the wrong conclusion that just because we live in a remote area we’re not connected. We’re very in tune with that the world is saying.”

Demonstrators gathered at a park at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Westcliffe, another politically conservative town — population 600 — where one onlooker carried an assault rifle. Westcliffe has led a rural movement to preserve starry night skies through efforts to contain light pollution, and also about five years ago hosted a gun rights “open carry” parade, which drew outside activists, but now has dwindled and broadened to include a band that openly carries guitars.

Westcliffe Mayor Paul Wenke said this time the demonstrators appeared to be residents of Custer County, and he credited Sheriff Shannon Byerly for posting a message on Facebook that helped ensure safety.

“It was very peaceful. It has been encouraged by our sheriff’s department to be welcoming,” Wenke said Monday.

“They couldn’t have any kind of parade down Main Street because the governor wouldn’t allow that,” he said. “This is the kind of community where, you try to take somebody’s guns away, you got problems. But you march on something else, it is no big deal.”

Demonstrators also marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Longmont, Grand Junction, Parker, Gunnison, Colorado Springs, Fraser, Ouray and Dolores.

The growing political traction reflected largely unifying issues across urban and rural areas that often are seen as divided. Demonstrators have marched in streets of more than 100 large U.S. cities since the May 25 killing of Floyd, an unarmed African American man, by a white police officer, which ignited protests against police brutality.

Beyond a core debate about policing and its purpose in modern societies, demonstrators now, in an intoxicating post-shutdown burst of activism, are demanding greater attention to economic inequality and discrepancies in health care and schools.

For Colorado-based political pollster David Flaherty, chief of Magellan Strategies, the spread of demonstrations reflects the unifying potential of civil rights and justice issues among voters aged 18 to 34 who likely will determine the outcomes of this year’s elections. The demonstrations may hurt Republicans and President Trump, who have benefited from sowing division, said Flaherty, who works primarily for Republican clients.

“Trump chose to be more confrontational, going ‘law-and-order’ with a hard edge, rather than going conciliatory and trying to heal this country,” Flaherty said.

Yet the spread of justice demonstrations, globally now, “is unprecedented,” he said.

“And it is putting gasoline on a bonfire for these younger voters to demand change. This is exactly what gets younger voters up off the couch to return their voting ballots.”

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