Black Lives Matter Commandeers Denver’s MLK Day Marade

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Roughly 2,000 demonstrators took control of Denver’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, turning what they say has become a corporate event into a day of protest against police violence.

The activists decried Mayor Michael Hancock for failing to hold accountable the sheriff’s deputies who in November restrained black, homeless street preacher Michael Lee Marshall into unconsciousness. Nine days later he died. His death was ruled a homicide by the city coroner. 

The Marade is typically led by the mayor of Denver and a frontline of community and elected leaders, who walk from City Park to Civic Center Park along Colfax Avenue. Today, activists from Black Lives Matter 5280, No Enemies, Servicios de la Raza and other grassroots social justice groups preempted the walk’s ceremonial start and snaked ahead of the procession. 

The activists sang, beat drums and waved banners as they cut an alternative path down 16th Street to Park Ave., then turned left to Colfax, a detour that placed them ahead of the mass of nearly 20,000 marchers, including Hancock.

“This is about a protest, not a parade,” said one marcher. “They’ve tried to turn MLK day into a corporate event. We’re making it about the people.”

When the crowd reached the Civic Center Park amphitheater, protesters took over the stage, where city officials were preparing to speak. Rows of people in black and yellow “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts faced the crowd, their arms linked. A group of Native American activists in ceremonial dress danced at the foot of the stage, overwhelming calls from the podium to “stop those drums so we can get our program started.”

The program did begin — but not as planned.

“We did this. We do not have a permit. We are here,” said Amy Brown of Black Lives Matter 5280, who blasted Hancock for turning his back on protesters and ignoring communities of color. 

Brown rallied the crowd with calls for affordable housing, police accountability, a repeal of the urban camping ban and a change of the Stapleton neighborhood’s name, so it no longer honored the memory of Ku Klux Klan member and former mayor Benjamin Stapleton.

“We built this city, but we can’t afford to live here,” Brown said. “We stand united with our communities to demand leadership. And if you refuse to lead, we refuse to follow.”

After an hour into the program, which veered bizarrely from pre-planned performances to extemporaneous speeches, the mayor, flanked by security guards, took the podium and struggled to deliver what seemed to be off the cuff remarks drowned out by a tumult of boos and chants.

“I am a child of this community, and one of the things I’ve never done is turn my back on this community,” Hancock said. “We not only celebrate black lives, we celebrate all lives. As you celebrate the great values of Dr. King, let everyone know this is about all people. Yes, it’s about Michael Marshall…but it’s also about our community and the dignity and respect we must show each other.”

Hancock closed by introducing students from the MLK Early College drumline, who looked a bit stunned as they performed to a sea of waving banners and raised fists. When the drummers finished, more protesters called for justice in the case of Michael Marshall.

“This is my eighth day of a hunger strike,” said Natalia Marshall, Marshall’s niece. “I’m losing my voice, losing my weight, and I’m tired.

“My uncle was a beautiful person,” she continued. “There is no reason for us to sit here mourning him, requesting and begging the release of tapes we should already have. We want to know what happened to Michael. This should not happen to anybody else.”