Letter from Denver: ‘Less-than-Lethal’ Force

Hello friends of the Spectator!

My neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, USA is called Capitol Hill, and the golden dome of its namesake sits imperiously three blocks from my lovely 1918 building, with three stories of balconies overlooking Pennsylvania Street, next to the home of Molly Brown, Denver’s notable from the Titanic disaster. (That is a flowery way to tell you not just that I am in the heart of one of America’s cities but to identify the ventricle.)

Capitol Hill neighborhood, Denver, Colorado

Capitol Hill neighborhood, Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Shay Carlstrom)

Given my location, I have become accustomed to the sounds of helicopters circling — the nearer ones the police, the further ones the news; the sounds explosions; the cries of anger, pain and bemusement ringing through the night. These are things I have come to know in the past 10 days as Denver’s story has reflected, to greater or lesser degree, those of every major city in the US, and now the world.

With all this, my thinking about the 2020 presidential election in the USA has had a sort of seasonal tilt since my last missive — alternately distant and cold or near and scorching.

Understandably, there have been many historical corollaries bandied about — 1918, 1929, 1968 – with their respective health, economic, and social catastrophes but 2020 seems to have side-eyed each and told even 1848 to hold its beer.

 

Perhaps trying to parse the current events into discrete pieces is not only impossible but wrong because, in the end, the churning, toxic currents of antipathy, hate, white supremacy, arrogance, privilege, more hate, racism, misogyny and selfishness are reflected equally in the curdled, orange face of the White House and that of George Floyd’s murderer.

Denver, protest signs.

Denver, protest signs. (Photo by Shay Carlstrom)

The demonstrations at the Colorado State Capitol and Denver City Hall (Civic Center) began following the videos not only of George Floyd’s lynching in Minneapolis, but of the executions of Ahmaud Arbrey and Breonna Taylor’s at the hands of police or wannabe police. Living at the epicenter, I have orbited the protests, sometimes participant sometimes observer, as I am privileged to be able to do, and I cannot describe the Denver Police Department’s (DPD) initial response as anything but militaristic in its extravagant, almost ostentatious, and instant use of ‘less-than-lethal’ force.

Denver and Colorado have added multiple, recent examples to the dark and vast history of black people murdered at the hands of police, including the execution of 19-year-old De’Von Bailey in Colorado Springs, shot three times in the back for the crime of running away, the slaying captured by his killer’s body cam and later justified under an antiquated ‘fleeing felon’ law. No state in America lacks a local, specific and recent reason to demonstrate against the systemic violence of policing institutions in this country.

As this seething emotion arrived on Denver Civic Center, it was rightfully pointed at the perpetrators of those murders — and many more besides — in the police. And DPD reacted with fear and force. By the second night, the mayor called a city-wide curfew from 8PM to 5AM, and with that, let us return to leafy Pennsylvania Street, Denver, square state, USA.

 

My home’s geography gives me little choice but to bear witness to the exhortations from my state’s foremost public square but, in truth, I can generally close the doors and find some sand to bury my head in, even during the shrillest of demonstrations. I cannot, however, ignore the sounds of an occupying military force within my neighborhood.

The ‘flash-bang’ grenades are the most ominous, living up to their sensory intent. They have a deep timbre that grows sharper the closer they are, and they come in a sort of pressing rhythm, in panicked clusters or errant upon the night. However, the DPD’s most favored weapons have been chemical. The pepper ball guns make a susurrating pop and wreak havoc on bodies and property, including delivery workers and their vehicles. The powdered pepper wafts and cloys, and I’ve learned to retire from my balcony reading chair if I begin to sneeze and cry. The tear gas launchers punch through the night, and their spewings have proved capable of creeping through the old windows and thresholds of Capitol Hill. Yet none of that compares to the human voices – the pain and anger carried on hoarse screams; the belligerent counterpoint of bellowed commands.

On the second night of curfew, the mayor issued a stern statement, and DPD arrived promptly on Civic Center in armored vehicles with long sidebars, two on each side, from which clung a dozen or so storm troopers, many without visible identification. True to the mayor’s promise, Civic Center was promptly cleared, with the undeterred demonstrators now fully antagonized and retreating into the nearest residential neighborhood, Cap Hill.

I was brought to my balcony that night by the sounds of yelling and sirens. Two of the storm trooper carriers were slowly rolling down Pennsylvania Street, following a man who was yelling that he was on his street, trying to get home. The first vehicle sped up to the man and the troopers jumped off yelling commands and that he was under arrest; the man began pleading to go home, that he couldn’t see well because of tear gas. That pleading and his cries have stuck with me. As I began to film the incident and inform the police I was doing so, I saw many other neighbors doing the same, up and down the block.

For 30 or so tortuous minutes, these two dozen-plus paramilitary police arrested this terrified man. The jeers from residents began almost immediately, growing to a chorus as the spectacle dragged on; they ranged from the outright vulgar and incendiary to those from my own building (full of teachers, myself included), which as my sage near neighbor later observed, may have been, “a bit erudite for the audience.” Irrespective of content, what became clear was that the citizens of the fair city the mayor had pledged to protect did not feel safer watching this occupying force exert itself upon a citizen.

 

Now, dear friends of the Spectator, take all of that swirling imagery and remember that there had also been well-publicized protests a few weeks prior, from a very different source and for a very different reason as shrill, baffling conservatives, egged on by the White House, stormed Capitol steps across the US — including those in Denver — “protesting” the lockdown orders and their inability to get that cropped ‘I want to see your manager’ haircut. These people carried semiautomatic rifles, refused to wear masks, and were breaking the law every bit as much as any individual out past an arbitrary curfew. They were also overwhelmingly white. And they were met with kid gloves by policing agencies. (The nurses of Denver, however, felt rather differently when they stood in the street to block that parade of fools, as seen in several viral photos.)

It is well beyond my capacities to process, let alone articulate, the different world we now inhabit since my last letter to the Cape Breton Spectator -– thinking about presidential candidates and the “possibility” of a pandemic. Just a few weeks ago, I assumed the pandemic, the deplorable American response to it, and the resulting economic downturn would undoubtedly be the central issues of the 2020 presidential election. But the pandemic and its ancillary issues have become the stage upon which the realities of life in America are now being challenged. And the challenge is growing.

Nurses block anti-lockdown protestors, Denver, April 19

Nurses block anti-lockdown protesters, Denver, April 19 (Photo by Alyson McClaran via Facebook)

As of last week, former Vice President Joe Biden officially secured the delegates necessary to become the Democratic nominee for president, this as the current occupant of the White House cowered in the bunker beneath it before ordering the National Guard to clear the public square in front of the building of peaceful protesters, so he could slither across it for a photo op with a Bible. Rather than detailing the status of the election, I will only mention that the Las Vegas betting odds (as good a metric as any these days) flip-flopped last week, with Biden now the odds-on favorite to win.

The scope of this election is now beyond the petty perfidy of these two old, white men, but it is more important than ever that the most perfidious be ousted in an irrefutable way, and there are some initial, hopeful signs pointing in that direction.

As there are also points of hope arising from the protests. Yesterday, a federal judge issued a restraining order stopping the Denver Police Department from using chemical weapons, and initial policing reform law has been introduced in that very gold dome that has overseen every demonstration of the past two weeks and beyond.

While there is a dearth of inspiration or leadership on the national stage, each day since the spark of George Floyd’s death seems to bring greater power and attention to — and more folk crying in unison with — the black voices of America, whose inspiration has spread around the world demanding justice and equality.

My favorite speech in American history was given by Robert F. Kennedy (Bobby), on 4 April 1968 –- the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and only months before Kennedy’s own murder. He delivered, extemporaneously, a eulogy and expression of grief before a mostly black crowd that had gathered to hear him speak on his presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis, Indiana (one of the few cities that did not see widespread riots that very night.) In it, he quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus, and I will leave you with Bobby’s version of those words, friends of the Spectator, wishing you health and hope, and looking toward what could be:

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom – through the awful grace of God.

Featured image: Protesters run from tear gas in Denver, Colorado. (YouTube screen gab)

 

 

Born in Walden, North Park, Colorado, Shay V. Carlstrom is an educator and writer living in Denver.