A march to call for an end to racial profiling by Boulder police drew nearly 650 people Sunday, according to event organizers. Hundreds of demonstrators marched the one mile from Naropa University, 2130 Arapahoe Avenue, to Boulder Police Department headquarters, 1805 33rd Street, where speakers called for increased oversight of cops, including the creation of a civilian-stocked board to review cases of misconduct.
Zayd Atkinson, the black Naropa student who was recently confronted by several cops while picking up trash in front of his apartment, also addressed the crowd and gave remarks to the press.
The incident, recorded and shared widely on social media, galvanized local leaders who have long reported discrimination and bias in Boulder — not just from police. To that end, City Council has scheduled a special meeting for Monday, March 18 “to have a community conversation about racism, community values and what must be done to improve racial equity for all members of Boulder,” according to a city news release distributed Friday.
Also in the release, Police Chief Greg Testa offered a public apology, something council members pushed for during Testa’s presentation to them during Tuesday’s meeting.
“On behalf of the police department and the city, I would like to apologize,” Testa said in the statement. “Our officers are trained to treat every individual with respect. Last week’s actions by an officer furthered fear in our community and impacted a Boulder man who did nothing wrong. Going forward, the police department will do better.”
Police in Boulder will undergo bias training, Testa pledged. Footage from body cameras worn by officers at the scene will be released once the investigation is complete, which Testa said on Tuesday could take between up to three months.
The officer who initially made contact with the young man has been placed on administrative leave and an internal investigation is underway. He remains unnamed.
No police presence was seen at Sunday’s march. Two members of city council, Mayor Suzanne Jones and councilman Aaron Brockett, were in attendance.
Demonstrators gathered at Naropa University around 11 a.m. Annett James, president of the Boulder chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, addressed the absent Testa before the march began.
“Chief Testa, what was so suspicious about a young black man picking up trash outside a residence that warranted the arrival of eight officers? Why did your officers fail to de-escalate, but chose to exacerbate, insisting on undue obedience and subligation, unholstering weapons? This is unacceptable.”
James referenced video of the incident, which was recorded by an acquaintance of Atkinson and shared widely on social media. In it, at least one officer can be seen with his handgun out. Atkinson repeatedly refers to the drawn weapon, which the officer refused to re-holster until Atkinson relinquished the metal trash-grabber he was holding.
“If you put that down, I’ll put my gun away,” the officer can be heard to say.
“You have a gun in your hand!” Atkinson yelled.
“Yes I do, because you’re not listening,” the cop said. “Drop your weapon.”
“I feared the worst while watching video of this incident,” James said Sunday. “I feared it might conclude the way so many others have.”
The mile-long march began after James’ remarks. Demonstrators walked in groups on the multi-use path along Arapahoe, careful to respect the pedestrian signals. They stretched for blocks; at one point taking up most of the sidewalk from 20th to 30th Streets. Each section had, at times, its own chant, from “Black lives matter” to “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racists cops have got to go,” and “Same story every time: being black is not a crime.”
Past reports have illuminated disparities in how Boulder’s cops treat residents of color. A 2016 analysis found that black people — who make up just 1% of the city’s population — were twice as likely to be cited for traffic offenses or other misdemeanors as white people. In 2014, USA Today found that Boulder was among the worst in Colorado for racial disparities in arrests.
Speakers during Sunday’s event called for the creation of a civilian board to oversee the police department and conduct investigations of alleged misconduct, including the altercation with Atkinson. They decried the decision to place the officer on paid leave and expressed skepticism that an internal investigation into his actions would result in real accountability.
“Internal affairs is too internal,” said Darren O’Connor, a local homeless rights advocate and member of the Boulder NAACP chapter. “Police policing police — we know how that turns out.”
Event organizer Nami Thompson, of Boulder Parenting in Diversity, also called for the removal of patrol rifles from police cars and the allowance of anonymous complaints against cops. Her requests were met with cheers from the audience.
“We have the power, we have the will,” Thompson said. “We don’t need their permission to get together and create a better city.”
“We’re not asking,” echoed O’Connor. “We’re demanding.”
“We don’t want to do this again next week, next year, a decade from now,” James said. “Let’s make Boulder the community we want it to be.”
James and other organizers encouraged attendees to contact city council and City Manager Jane Brautigam, who also offered an apology in Friday’s release, saying she was “deeply saddened by the incident.”
“This individual committed no crime, was in his own backyard, and we failed to respect him at his own home,” she said in a statement. “While we do not know all of the facts yet, I am truly sorry that we did not live up to community values and expectations.”
At least a few attendees at Sunday’s event felt that Brautigam should shoulder more responsibility for the pervasive racism in Boulder, including repeated infractions by the police department. Jonathan Sackheim was one in a group of residents taking turns carrying a sign that read, “Time for city manager Brautigam to step down.”
Council would send a “strong message” if they forced Brautigam to leave, Sackheim said. “Where does the buck stop” if not with her? “If you have a pattern (of discrimination), it’s not just bad apples; it’s bad management.”
The city is currently engaged with Government Alliance for Race and Equity to explore how to make Boulder’s government organization more equitable and diverse. A diversity officer hired in 2017 left the city within a year; her departure has still not been explained.
“We have a lot of work to do on combating explicit and implicit bias in our community,” councilman Brockett acknowledged in a Twitter post Friday. “It’s a long road ahead, but I commit to having the hard conversations and doing what I can to move us forward. I welcome your feedback and ideas.”
It’s unclear what the format will be for city council’s special meeting. Council heard an update on GARE’s work in December, and last month lent support to efforts by Boulder’s Human Relations Commission to combat hate crimes in the city.
One of HRC’s suggestions was that police undergo training around recognizing bias-motivated crimes. The recommendation was mostly brushed aside by City Attorney Tom Carr, who said that police already do training.
At Sunday’s march, HRC Chair Nikhil Mankekar said, “It wasn’t given as serious (of) attention as it probably will and should be going forward.”
Alex Landau, with Denver Justice Project, spoke to the crowd to implore them to keep up the pressure on police and city leaders. Training alone will not be enough, he said: “You can’t train your way out of structural racism.”
Landau offered gratitude to the people that showed up to march. “To the ones who are not” here, he said, “step it up.”
City Council meeting to address racism: 6 p.m. Monday, March 18, 1777 Broadway
For a Twitter thread of Testa’s testimony to council Tuesday, visit threadreaderapp.com/thread/1103098889131814914.html
Author’s note: This article has been updated to include information from Sunday’s march, and to correct the spelling of Annett James’ name.
Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle