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July 29, 2020 News » Cover Story

A year later, do Black Lives Matter here yet? 

FROM BAILEY TO FLOYD

click to enlarge LJ DAWSON
  • LJ Dawson

For De’Von Bailey’s closest friends, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in late May came as no surprise. After all, it followed the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white men.

Closer to home, not even a year had passed since Bailey, their 19-year-old friend and cousin, was killed by Colorado Springs police officers a few blocks from their home.

But they saw a different community reaction after Floyd’s death. People turned out in the thousands to protest police brutality and stand with Black Lives Matter.

Following Bailey’s death on Aug. 3, 2019, small pockets of local activists pushed for increased accountability from police for officer-involved shootings and brutality. But not until Floyd’s death, which sparked one of the largest protest movements in American history, did many in Colorado Springs speak out for the first time.

The weeks following Floyd’s death catalyzed multiple new activist organizations here and led to the creation of a citizens’ police advisory board, partly based on work that began just after Bailey’s death. Some cities have voted to defund or even dismantle police departments. In Colorado, the Legislature swiftly passed a law removing some protections for police officers involved in excessive use of force.

Bailey’s death ignited a small local movement, but Floyd’s killing engulfed the city. Yet, despite the increased public focus on police reform and accountability, Bailey’s family along with advocates and activists say progress over the past year barely scratches the surface of addressing systemic racism in the city and law enforcement.

click to enlarge LJ DAWSON
  • LJ Dawson

Charles and Chauncey Johnson, 20-year-old fraternal twins, grew up with Bailey in the Southeast neighborhood dubbed K-land — named after one of the few places to hang out in the area, the local Kmart. Just two days after Bailey was killed fleeing from police with a handgun in his shorts, the Johnsons joined Lawrence Stoker, Bailey’s cousin, to protest at the Colorado Springs Police Operations Center.

Stoker had been with Bailey when he was shot and saw his cousin die.

The neighborhood directly impacted by Bailey’s death immediately called for police accountability. The three said the neighborhood was sad and angry but also shocked by the shooting.

The three friends had never protested before, but Charles Johnson banged on the door of the station, determined to break it down if necessary, he says, to be heard.

Stoker remembers being scared at the first protest because, other than the police stop that led to his cousin’s shooting, he’d never been in a confrontation with police.

“I just wanted to see change,” Charles remembers. After the shooting, he says even walking outside every day didn’t feel normal.

“We always had to find a way to keep ourselves up. Even though we lost another one, we still had each other,” Charles says.

Rev. Promise Lee, pastor at Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center, who has been a spokesman for Bailey’s family since the shooting, wrote in an email that the protests surrounding Bailey’s death forced conversations around “race, class, gender and the need for police transparency and accountability.”

But Lee says he did not see “genuine” support for police reform or accountability from “all” of the city following the August 2019 shooting.

Yolanda Avila, the City Councilor representing District 4 where Bailey was killed, says she was “blindsided” by his death. Before the shooting, she was focused on improving infrastructure and public transportation in her district. Since the shooting, she says she has felt like the lone political voice in the city and county advocating for people of color and the Southeast, calling for increased law enforcement accountability.

But people in District 4 organized. There was pressure to release the unedited body-camera footage of the shooting until its release in November. Community members met with Colorado Springs Police Department multiple times, and a group of 10 community members and officials, including a Council member and CSPD representatives, traveled to Austin, Texas, in March for an academic conference focused on the effectiveness of independent civilian oversight of law enforcement, including civilian advisory boards.

Avila said her community was aware of the issues of police accountability and use of force, “but the rest of the city, not really — until George Floyd.”

She cites CSPD’s removal of a neighborhood memorial to Bailey on Dec. 6, 2019, in what Avila calls a “desecration.” It was put back up immediately and still stands on Preuss Road.

Avila says her community still hasn’t been heard in the weeks following the most recent protests.

Lee says Bailey’s family, like other families of local people who died from police use of force, could not get “an audience, questions answered, or even a sympathetic response to incidents by authority.”

“So much of our city has become invisible to the so-called powers that be. There is a clear discounting of people who don’t look like or fit the profile of the majority of this city,” Lee says.

click to enlarge Lawrence Stoker, De’Von Bailey’s cousin, shows the bracelet remembering his life. - LJ DAWSON
  • LJ Dawson
  • Lawrence Stoker, De’Von Bailey’s cousin, shows the bracelet remembering his life.

A Black military veteran and father to three daughters, Martin Lewis was shocked by the number of people in Colorado Springs who protested after George Floyd’s death in May, demanding police reform. Following Bailey’s death he was discouraged by the lack of support from the city. 

Lewis says the “verbiage” used by officials and on social media made him feel like no one cared and viewed Bailey as just another “thug” who “deserved it.” But that changed after May 25 when Floyd was killed. That’s when Lewis realized there was support for Black people in the city, he says. 

“We always shouted that [Black lives mattered], but I feel like it took white people saying it, and white people supporting us to actually make that change,” Lewis says.

The May 30 protest in Colorado Springs that drew more than a thousand people moved him to tears. “I have never seen that support in my life. It showed that the community really cared,” Lewis says.

He also felt the protests and support after Floyd’s death amplified his voice.

As a result of the June protests, Lewis co-founded an organization called Colorado Springs Oversight with Jasmine Marchman, who works as an affective needs paraprofessional at Pikes Peak Elementary in Harrison School District 2. The organization aims to increase transparency and accountability within the police department and encourage community engagement. Along with protests, they have hosted school cleanups, community conversations and bake-sale fundraisers.

Recently the group protested, calling for the police chief and mayor to respond to a CSPD officer’s alleged comment of “KILL EM ALL” on a Facebook livestream, referring to Black Lives Matter protesters who blocked Interstate 25 on June 30 (see p. 6).

“There was still work happening, but George Floyd’s death reignited people who had fallen off,” says Stephany Rose Spaulding, chair of women’s and ethnic studies at UCCS and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

But she also saw new faces coming to the table who had never participated before.

Spaulding was part of the group of officials and community members who traveled to the Austin conference, where research showed that civilian advisory boards (CABs) were ineffective. After Floyd’s death, another group of new activists, The People, began advocating for a CAB. In June, City Council chose their proposal, eclipsing the Austin group’s efforts to establish an oversight board that would have had more influence over the police department, to the dismay of those who’d been working on the issue since Bailey’s death.

“The community advisory board is a slap in the face, honestly, to all of the work that has been going on,” Spaulding says. “It’s not a sufficient Band-Aid for a bullet wound.” The board will not follow best practices outlined by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which Spaulding believes makes it less effective because it can’t enforce its findings.

“It gives the illusion of doing something when nothing is actually being done,” she says. “There are families that cannot wait; justice delayed is justice denied.”

She hopes the city will do a “racial justice audit” to study whether city government employees and officials accurately reflect the city’s racial diversity.

Lee says that the relations between police and the community have been strained due to current city leadership — the mayor and certain members of City Council.

“City Council must realize it’s not a courtesy to do the right thing, it’s a responsibility,” he says.

“If there is not proper leadership, our city will continue to live out the narrative that Colorado Springs is an unwelcoming place to move, live and raise children if you are a person of color who desires more than to just assimilate,” Lee says.

click to enlarge Lawrence Stoker and Charles and Chauncey Johnson outside the twins’ home. - LJ DAWSON
  • LJ Dawson
  • Lawrence Stoker and Charles and Chauncey Johnson outside the twins’ home.

Mayor John Suthers remembers thinking two things after watching the body camera footage of Bailey’s shooting. Based on his experience reviewing more than 40 use-of-force cases in his past positions as Colorado Attorney General, U.S. Attorney for Colorado, Fourth Judicial District Attorney and his three years as head of the state Department of Corrections, he thought the shooting would be ruled as justified.

He also knew that Bailey’s family and others would not agree.

“I tried to be as sympathetic as I could. This is a tragedy. A 19-year-old young man who’s got a mom and a dad and family members has died,” Suthers says.

Suthers received demands from Bailey’s family to fire the officers involved, but the mayor says his office also received calls supporting the officers. Even in light of the passage of SB20-217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Bill, which includes a ban on chokeholds, mandated body-worn camera usage, disclosure of incident footage and the ability to directly sue officers for conduct, Suthers believes the officers who shot Bailey, Sgt. Alan Van’t Land and Officer Blake Evenson, still would be found to have used justifiable force.

But he acknowledges racial “animus” and excessive use of force could exist in the city’s police force, pointing to multiple officers who have been disciplined during his term as mayor.

Suthers also pointed to what he sees as a benefit — the lack of a police union in Colorado Springs. “One of the largest detriments to quick, efficient and appropriate discipline to police officers is police unions,” Suthers says.

CSPD Chief Vince Niski wrote in an email to the Indy that he was not surprised by the protests following Floyd’s death.

“We understand that there are many steps that need to be taken to build relationships between police and community members, both here in Colorado Springs and across the nation,” Niski says. “Even though [the shooting of Bailey was judged to be] justified, it does not negate the fact that many members in our community were still troubled by this shooting.”

Niski says he was surprised to learn that many residents didn’t know about the current community programs that the department offers.

click to enlarge screen_shot_2020-07-29_at_9.14.11_am.png

“It became readily apparent that we are not effectively providing our citizens information on how law enforcement operates in Colorado Springs, so we are finding ways to be more transparent and provide a better understanding of what CSPD does,” Niski says.

“Those demonstrations are indicators that there is still work to be done.”

Suthers hopes the new advisory board will increase community engagement, improve communication between the police and citizens and help recruit minority officers.

“We need good cops. We need to reduce response times. And we want a police department that reflects the community,” Suthers says. But he thinks defunding the police department is “ludicrous,” and he is focused on fulfilling his 2017 goal of hiring 120 CSPD officers during his time in office. They have 20 to go. 

The mayor also does not support giving the civilian advisory board enforcement power. “I’ve told everybody, as long as I’m mayor, I’m not going to have a civilian board running the police department,” Suthers says. 

Bailey’s friends still live around the corner from where he was shot. Two royal purple crosses surrounded by candles mark the site. “De’Von” and “Spazland” (Bailey was known to some friends as Spaz) are painted on the sidewalk, though some of the writing was covered in black paint when the city tried to remove the memorial.

The Johnsons and Stoker still Facetime and call each other every morning, sometimes right when they wake up. But they’ve changed.

The tops of the Ts inscribed on Stoker’s black “Bailey’s Life Matters” bracelet are wearing off. He doesn’t show up for protests as frequently as the Johnson twins do. After becoming the focus of many national news outlets and local advocacy organizations, he says he never felt supported.

It left him jaded, and he says he only supports victims of the police, not any movement or organization. But if another person were shot tomorrow, all three say they’d be there to support the families immediately.

“They didn’t ask us how we felt or how we were feeling about those agendas. They didn’t take our thoughts into consideration, especially [Stoker’s],” Chauncey Johnson says.

Asked if they felt listened to by Colorado Springs officials, all three responded “No.” Asked if over the past year they felt supported by the community, including groups pushing police reform, there was another string of No’s and a “Hell, no.”

“I mean, it kind of sucks because Colorado really doesn’t show support like that, you know what I mean? They really don’t back up what they say, especially being an African American living in a conservative state like Colorado,” Charles says.

“You wait until a national [story, such as Floyd’s death], then that’s when you’re like, ‘Oh, this is still going on,’ but locally this just happened months ago, where were you then?”

Charles Johnson says he wasn’t initially involved or outspoken, but found his voice to speak up against police brutality and gun violence because he “can’t just sit back and watch this every single time.”

His twin Chauncey is counting down the days until he’s old enough to run for City Council — five more years. Stoker, who struggled after his cousin was shot in front of him, is focused on the future and his 10-month-old daughter. 

Before Bailey was shot, they felt like they just had each other, and that hasn’t changed, despite the new focus in the city on police reform and Black Lives Matter, they say.

But the young Black men have learned much in the last year and are committed to change in Colorado Springs and the country.

click to enlarge A group of stakeholders held a panel Feb. 6, 2020, on police transparency. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • A group of stakeholders held a panel Feb. 6, 2020, on police transparency.

“We need to write new history. And with that being said, if you want new history, you gotta start making change,” Charles says. “Not just in policy, but in your community and business and everything."

“Equality. That’s where it starts. Find something that makes you want to move every day in life that actually makes you want to find change.”

For Charles, that has been protesting — and his friend’s life is never too far from his mind when he’s yelling “Black Lives Matter!” into a megaphone.

“Don’t let certain things that happen affect you just that one time,” he says. “It’s every day that we’ve got to wake up and have that struggle of becoming free in America.”

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