In the midst of what feels like a sustained effort to finally address the deep foundational roots of systemic racism that has plagued our country since before its inception, a local case of police brutality has re-emerged in the headlines. The purpose of this email is to discuss the ways in which even attempts to seek justice for a fellow citizen’s murder still reflect problematic thinking that perpetuate these injustices. My ask, which I will walk you through below, is that you contact Governor Polis to provide him with education on the negative impact his words have on our fight for equity.
First, let’s talk a bit about what is going on. In August 2019, a young man named Elijah McClain was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora. He had a medical condition that made him cold, so he often wore a ski mask to stay warm. He was listening to music via earbuds and waving his arms to the music. Someone called the police to report him as a “suspicious” person in the neighborhood. Elijah wasn’t doing anything dangerous or illegal andthe reporter said he was not a threat to anyone; he did not believe Elijah had weapons. 3 Aurora police officers responded. They physically stopped Elijah, wrestled him to the ground, and used a carotid artery chokehold. He weighed 140 lbs. He could not breathe, which he told them repeatedly. He told them he would do whatever they wanted. He vomited. Paramedics arrived and forcibly injected him with Ketamine. He stopped breathing and suffered a heart attack. He died a week later after being in a coma at the hospital, beaten and bruised. No charges were filed against the 3 officers who were briefly placed on administrative leave and reinstated to normal duty with APD.
Unfortunately, although Governor Polis was well-intentioned by speaking so warmly about who Elijah McClain was, he used that as the reason to appoint Attorney General Weiser to re-open the investigation into the officers. This is problematic because the implication is that only the most extraordinary of Black and brown men and women are worth the pursuit of justice. Some of you are likely bristling at my inference; however, I want you to know that there are several other cases of Black and brown men and women who have been murdered by law enforcement officers in this state for whom justice has not been served. Because these people may have had criminal records or been committing a crime when they were killed, the cases against the various officers involved have not been re-opened; this is why. We cannot accept a system in which Black people are held to an impossible, unfair, and unequal standard in order to make their lives worthwhile.
We are a state that hotly debated whether to completely abolish the death penalty. We cannot actively question whether the death penalty is an ethical form of punishment for the most extreme of crimes while allowing our Black neighbors and community members to be murdered for just existing, or for crimes in which the legal system would have never considered death to be an appropriate punishment.
So, I ask you to please contact Governor Polis, either via phone at (303) 866-2471 or via email at GovernorPolis@state.co.us and make the following requests:
1. Please hold a follow-up press conference to name, acknowledge, and discuss this extremely unfair standard for the pursuit of justice. As the highest office holder in Colorado, a frank discussion about systemic racism and the subtle ways like this in which it permeates our reactions and behaviors would be so powerful. As you all know by the events we held immediately following George Floyd’s murder, it is my belief that we must educate ourselves on the entry points in the system by which change can be enacted. Governor Polis is an entry point. He can facilitate a conversation about this more subtle, but devastating, form of racism, which would be both validating to our community members who are Black and brown and educational for those of us who genuinely object to systemic racism but inadvertently fall into these traps ourselves.
2. Re-open the investigations into the officers who were responsible for the deaths of:
a) De’Von Bailey, 19, shot in the back four times by 2 Colorado Springs police officers after an acquaintance called in a false robbery report. August 3, 2019
b) Alexis Mendez-Perez, 16, shot in the back and killed by an off-duty Department of Corrections officer. Earlier this month, Denver DA Beth McCann declined to file charges. April 23, 2020
c) William Debose, 21, shot and killed by a Denver Police Officer after a traffic stop. May 1, 2020
d) Michael Marshall, 50, restrained and abused by Denver Sheriff’s Deputies, resulting in his death (choking on his own vomit) while being held on a trespassing charge and $100 bail. His family removed life support on November 20, 2015 and he died. The City and County of Denver paid a $4.65 million settlement to Mr. Marshall’s family but did not charge or fire the deputies who killed him.
e) Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant, an unarmed Black man, shot by an Aurora Police Officer. The City of Aurora paid a $2.6 million settlement to Mr. Carter’s family but did not charge or discipline the officer who killed him. March 6, 2015
f) Jessica Hernandez, 17, shot three times in a slowly moving stolen vehicle by 2 Denver Police Officers who were not disciplined or charged in her murder. The 4 teens in the car were asleep when the police arrived. The City and County of Denver paid a $1 million settlement to Ms. Hernandez’s family. January 26, 2015.
g) Marvin Booker, 56, killed by Denver Sheriff’s deputies after reaching for his shoes while being booked into jail. The City and County of Denver paid a $6 million settlement to Mr. Booker’s family but did not discipline, fire or charge any of the 5 deputies involved in his murder. One of these deputies was caught driving a prison van at speeds > 100 mph this past January. July 9, 2010
h) Frank Lobato, Jr., 64, shot and killed in his bed on July 11, 2004, by a Denver Police Officer, who was suspended for 90 days. The City and County of Denver paid a $900,000 settlement to Mr. Lobato’s family.
I realize that the usual function of our local party is to get our candidates elected to office. However, I view our mission more broadly than that. It includes educating ourselves and our elected officials because we understand that this work is our collective responsibility. Each of us has a role in addressing these problems and my request is something concrete you can each do in the service of change. There are links below if you’d like to learn more information about these cases. Fighting systemic racism is going to be a long, complex process. We are all going to misstep in our attempts to right our system. But this is an opportunity to recognize some of the more subtle forms of injustice that exist and correct those in the moment. You can effect change by taking action.
Thank you to Kristen Hirsch for helping me to compile the details and articles to include in this email. You can learn additional information about these cases via these links:
Michael Marshall suffered from mental illness and chose to live outdoors, spending much of his time on church grounds where the voices he heard were easier to control. The video of his death is embedded here along with a link to the scathing Independent Monitor report: https://www.westword.com/news/denver-gets-defensive-over-michael-marshall-jail-death-report-10103721
Jessica Hernandez: DPD changed its policy re: firing into moving vehicles and agreed to stop releasing any criminal histories of police-shooting victims immediately after incidents. Jessica Hernandez Police Shooting: Denver Paying $1 Million Settlement
Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant: Report: Police Shooting of Naeschylus Vinzant to Prompt Settlement in Millions
Elijah McClain, William Debose, Marvin Booker: Three Cases That Explain Why Police Accountability Is Desperately Important in Colorado