June 17, 2020 News » Cover Story

Young, Black and Unafraid: inside the Black Lives Matter protests in Colorado Springs 

click to enlarge Derrick Matthews (front) leads protesters through Colorado Springs. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Derrick Matthews (front) leads protesters through Colorado Springs.

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, protests against police brutality have erupted in almost every major city, in every state in the country — and even abroad. Such protests began in Colorado Springs on Saturday, May 30, and have continued with marchers taking to the city’s streets every day for more than two weeks. It is the longest sustained social protest in the Pikes Peak region in recent memory.

Media pundits and elected officials across the nation have attempted to explain the protests as the work of “outside agitators,” “violent extremists” or that perennial political bogeyman, “antifa.” But anecdotal evidence suggests these protests are in fact composed largely of young people in their late teens and early 20s who are frustrated with the disparity in justice along racial and social lines.

While George Floyd’s death sparked this wave of unrest, every city in America has its own George Floyd, a Black citizen or citizen of color who has died at the hands of police or in police custody, and most cities have a long list of them. In Colorado Springs, protesters have shouted the names of Josh Vigil, Jesse Garcia, Jeffrey Melvin and De’Von Bailey, among others.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Many have dismissed these protests as riots. The local protest on May 30 saw some broken windows and vandalism downtown, specifically at the Colorado Springs Police Operations Center — which has become a focal point of conflict with police in the days since — and the El Paso County courthouse, as well as some businesses along Nevada Avenue. That Saturday proved a kind of catharsis, an undirected, spontaneous expression of the community’s grief and anger that has long simmered under the surface, brought to the fore by national events and stoked by aggressive confrontations with Colorado Springs Police Department riot officers.

click to enlarge Larry Black encourages unity. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Larry Black encourages unity.

CSPD placed Jersey barriers in the middle of Rio Grande Street between Nevada Avenue and Weber Street and strung the area with yards of yellow caution tape; but as CSPD dug in their heels in front of the Operations Center, so too did the protesters. This amorphous expression of social outrage began to coalesce into something more. 

May 30 was the only day that saw  vandalism and property destruction. Since then, 70 people have been arrested in Colorado Springs in connection with the protests, according to Lt. Jim Sokolik, the CSPD public information officer. Each night between May 30 and Wednesday, June 3 (when Mayor John Suthers announced a citywide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., which lasted until the morning of June 8) protesters marched to the Police Operations Center to express their grievances, and each night were met with riot officers, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and arrests. Since the curfew was put in place, and has since been allowed to expire, there have been fewer confrontations.

Voices have emerged from the crowd to provide purpose, direction and motivation. Vandalism and violence have given way to a concrete set of demands and a coherent plan for change.

Derrick Matthews is a 27-year-old call center representative and a member of the local hip-hop scene, where he goes by the name Wavvy. While he may not look the part of a community organizer, with his face tattoos and long dreadlocks, Matthews has shown himself to be something of a natural leader. “I’ve learned how to organize from throwing festivals and doing local and national showcases in Arizona and here,” he says. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I feel those skills carry over. Talking to people and organizing and taking initiative with the crowd and directing them, I’ve learned that from doing music and performing. Now, the politics and talking to the [City] Council members and writing policy, that’s all new to me.”

click to enlarge David Burke keeps folks safe. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • David Burke keeps folks safe.

During the protests, Matthews has often stood at the front of the crowd with a megaphone, leading protesters in chants, but also providing some real, actionable steps to reform. “We understand that the officers here are not the officers in Minneapolis,” he says. “We understand this is not the city of Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. But we also understand that we need our public officials — and cops, and CSPD, and El Paso County Sheriff’s [Office] — we need them to reassure us that this isn’t going to happen to any of us in our own community, that we’re not going to be wrongfully murdered and they’re not going to be held accountable.” Of note, all four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged.

One of the things Matthews would like to see is the implementation of a third-party system to investigate all use-of-force incidents. “We need an outside source to come out here and give us an unbiased investigation on all cop shootings and all misconduct and all complaints. On top of that, I know they [CSPD] have a minority board [the Minority Relations Advisory Committee, a volunteer group made up of officers and personnel from various racial and ethnic backgrounds to strengthen CSPD’s relationship with minority groups]; that’s a good thing. I’m not going to discredit small wins, but what we need is citizens to hold them accountable. If I’m being judged by a jury of my peers if I go to trial, why are the cops not being judged by a jury of their peers that are citizens here in the city and the community? We’re the ones that would hold them accountable, and we’re the ones that are paying their salaries.”

Matthews’ suggestions are not new. Richard Skorman, the Colorado Springs City Council president, says Council has been considering these ideas for a while now. “We’ve been looking into the issue since the De’Von Bailey shooting,” he says, citing the officer-involved shooting that took place on Aug. 3, 2019. Officers shot and killed 19-year-old De’Von Bailey as he fled with a concealed handgun. The shooting was eventually ruled “justified,” but Bailey’s death caused widespread community outrage. 

“Many of us in Council were concerned that having the sheriff’s department investigate the police department isn’t something that inspires confidence,” Skorman continues. “Civilian oversight is certainly being talked about.”

Throughout the marches, Matthews has railed against what he sees as injustice and a lack of accountability, and he thinks a civilian oversight board can help fix that. While community members can, and do, file complaints, they claim those complaints often fall on deaf ears. For example, CSPD Officer Alan Van’t Land, one of the two officers who shot De’Von Bailey, also killed Robert Kresky in 2012 after Kresky, who was white, threatened to shoot him, though his gun was later found by his abandoned car. Kresky was also fleeing. In both instances, Van’t Land’s actions were considered justified after investigation by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the 4th Judicial District Attorney, but were never subject to civilian oversight. 

click to enlarge Protesters have often met on the steps of City Hall for peaceful demonstrations. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Protesters have often met on the steps of City Hall for peaceful demonstrations.

A 2016 study by William Terrill and Jason Ingram, published in Police Quarterly, found that “the likelihood of allegations being sustained was greater in departments that used external citizen oversight review as part of its complaint process. More specifically, such an investigation system increased the odds of a sustained disposition by 78%.”

Matthews also suggests more training for officers could be a solution. “They need to have more training on empathy and compassion and de-escalation,” he says. “I’ve worked at call centers for a very long time. If I’m sitting there taking eight to nine weeks [of training] on how to de-escalate calls, why can’t you de-escalate real-life situations that are sometimes life and death?” 

Research, in fact, does prove that increased training decreases use-of-force incidents. A 2018 study published in the journal Criminology and Public Policy found that officers who received “procedural justice training,” or training “designed to ‘slow down’ police officers’ thought processes during citizen encounters,” were actually “less likely to resolve incidents with an arrest or to be involved in incidents where force was used.” 

While evidence-based solutions are a good place to start, implementing them can prove difficult, and city and county bureaucracy can stymie the kind of change protesters like Matthews are demanding, but he is committed. “The vision is Black Lives Matter, and we’re going to get the stuff we need to hold the police accountable if there is brutality and misconduct. That’s my goal right now; that’s our goal as citizens. No matter what protest, no matter what City Council meeting or school board meeting, they’re going to see us there every time.”

Matthews’ organizing efforts rely on grassroots infrastructure, and while Matthews is the rhetorical firebrand in the Colorado Springs protest movement, Larry Black is building the base. Black is a 22-year-old Palmer High School graduate and former animal law enforcement officer. Notably, animal law enforcement officers are not police. They don’t carry firearms or have the authority to arrest anyone.

Black joined the protesters Sunday, May 31. “I came out on the day after the first protest, just to see what was next,” he says, “to make sure someone was capitalizing off of everything going on.” In addition to Matthews, Black is a regular leading the crowd. 

While Matthews taps into the protesters’ sense of moral outrage and injustice, Black encourages people to come together for a common goal. “Building that united front is the most important thing,” he says. “Even with the protests and the riots that are going on — at the end of the day the thing that is really going to make the biggest impact is people having those conversations. You can’t force anyone to see a new perspective, you have to persuade them to see if there’s another possibility than what they were taught.”

click to enlarge A unifying message: Protesters want police accountability and oversight. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • A unifying message: Protesters want police accountability and oversight.

Black led the march to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central on Thursday, June 4, after protester Nichole Hennigan was struck by a Jeep during a march the previous day. He led a crowd to Boulder Park to “show Nichole some love.” Hennigan was discharged from the hospital on June 5. Following the march they returned to Acacia Park, and he encouraged protesters to break up into work groups, to share contact information and to share skills. “It took a village to start this,” he says, “it will take a nation to finish it.”

Matthews and Black are also joined on the front lines by 20-year-old Mitchell High School graduate David Burke, who has become one of the lead medics during protest events. Street medics have proved incredibly helpful as local protesters and journalists have not only been exposed to caustic crowd-control agents like tear gas and pepper spray, but have also seen two incidents of vehicles driving into the crowd.

Burke has been a part of the protest from the start; he offered first aid assistance “when everyone got shot at on Saturday,” he says. Since then, he’s helped with a variety of injuries, including a broken finger, sprained ankle and someone whose foot had been run over by a car. 

Experience levels among protest medics like Burke vary from those with no formal training to certified EMTs.

In addition to treating injuries, Burke and the medics regularly circulate among the crowd, handing out water and snacks, and making sure people are wearing masks. “We’ve still got the pandemic,” Burke reminded the crowd at Acacia Park on Thursday.

click to enlarge Nearly every day since May 30, hundreds have shown up to demand justice. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Nearly every day since May 30, hundreds have shown up to demand justice.

These are just a few of the local voices who have been active during the protests. There are countless young people and community members who have helped build and sustain the movement. Since the protests started, Colorado has passed Senate Bill 217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, in both the House and the Senate (see p. 6 for more on that). Gov. Polis has expressed his support for the law, which mandates police body cameras, increases transparency in use-of-force reporting, and prevents officers convicted of misconduct from being rehired by other agencies. It is a piece of legislation that would have been difficult to imagine passing only a month ago.

Despite the gains made and the work left to do, the organizers featured here remain humble. “I wouldn’t say I’m a leader,” says Burke, “because no one here is a leader. We’re all guidance. We’re just helping organize.”  

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