Emergency sirens and crackly voices from police megaphones echoed off buildings in downtown Denver Thursday evening as 1,000 or so protesters marched through the streets against police violence.
Protesters, ignited by the death of George Floyd, were at first peaceful, as was law enforcement. But around 5:30 p.m., gun shots were fired near the Capitol (it’s unclear if they were related to the protest). Tension escalated into violence.
About 50 people — a fraction of the 1,000 or so marching — blocked traffic at the intersection of Colfax Avenue and Broadway.
“Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” they chanted as drivers laid on horns, some in support and some because they wanted to get through. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” the protesters said.
A man on a motorcycle broke through the crowd, raising his middle finger as he sped west on Colfax. Moments later, the crowd erupted. A driver in a black SUV had taken a left onto Broadway and run over a protester wearing a shirt reading “Stop killing us.” He got up and ran after the car. Police are investigating, said Officer Kurt Barnes with the Denver Police Department.
A few minutes later in another pocket of downtown, at 14th Avenue and Sherman Street, police and protesters met. Protesters — black, white and every color in between — wore face masks and signs saying things like, “F*** White Supremacy” and “Native Lives Matter.” Police officers wore helmets and wielded pepperball guns. A loud explosion turned out to be a popped tire on a car nearby, but both sides grew restless afterward.
Later, fireworks would go off. And after that, booms from pepperball guns being shot at protesters and explosions alongside bright flashes. Smoke from chemical agents made people cough and tear up, though Officer Barnes, who was not on the scene, said he could not say for sure what the agent was.
Back near the Capitol, some protesters and police officers got in each other’s faces. Two officers forced a man wearing a black ski mask and camo backpack onto his stomach on the pavement, cuffed him, and put him in an SUV as a woman screamed over and over, “Don’t kill him!”
Another group of protesters continued east down 14th as pedestrians followed a white truck with several officers draped around it. Hundreds of people trailed further behind the action, some throwing water bottles in the direction of police officers.
Michelle Harris walked further behind, mask over her mouth but under her nose, and spoke to Denverite through tears.
“We were enslaved for God’s sake in this country,” said Harris, who is black. “We built it, but we don’t have equal rights 400 years later. We’re treated as children.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic may have helped foment emotions for some, Harris and her husband said they were protesting Thursday for different reasons.
“We’re here shedding a light, right? Because democracy dies in the darkness,” said Stan Harris, Michelle’s husband, who is also black. “We’re here saying, look, we can’t bring him back, but you guys really need to look at what you’re doing. Because there’ll be tons of people who won’t know (George Floyd’s) name.”
Aubrey Rose, an 18-year Army veteran who says he did three tours in the Middle East, told Denverite that he joined the protest because he felt like it was his duty as an American.
“I swore an oath to defend our constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Rose said. “And right now we’re coming across some domestic enemies. And so I’m out here doing my duty: peaceful protest.”
While the majority of people protested peacefully, some did not, smashing windows of cars in the Capitol parking lot.
Elsewhere, another pocket of protesters crossed Interstate 25 and stopped traffic on the highway.
By 10 p.m., Denver was dark but a fire burned in a trashcan at Colfax and Broadway. A large plume of smoke erupted near Civic Center Station. Some officers, hanging off of crossbars on a white truck, shot pepperballs at people, drive-by style.
Denver’s head of public safety, Murphy Robinson, released a statement in the middle of the chaos.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the family of George Floyd,” Robinson said in a statement. “I am outraged by the actions of the officers who caused his death and I stand in solidarity with all who are demanding justice. However, I urge those who are protesting in Denver this evening to march in peace. Violence only feeds violence and at its worst, it has the potential to harm innocent people.”
Denverite reporters Kevin Beaty, Donna Bryson and Esteban Hernandez contributed to this report.
This article was updated to correct an error. Protesters threw water bottles at police, not water balloons.