Between noon and 2 p.m. on Friday, there was no tear gas or pepperbullets, though 11 police officers were standing by — far away from the crowd — in riot gear. Protesters didn’t throw rocks or water bottles. The first few hours of Friday’s organized protest in Denver over George Floyd’s death were markedly calmer than Thursday night, when protesters and police clashed into the night.
But the protest turned from peaceful to chaotic at the hands of people who had arrived after the march, seemingly wanting to fight with police. Around 7 p.m., Denver Public School board member Tay Anderson, who had been leading a peaceful march, was at the downtown jail encouraging anyone who had arrived at the protest to instigate fights with the police to leave. Some in the crowd had thrown water bottles at police, who retaliated with tear gas.
“This is not what we wanted,” an exasperated Anderson said. “This is not what Black people wanted.”
By 8:30 p.m., the intersection of Lincoln and Colfax was clogged with tear gas. Police surged into the Capitol’s west lawn, launching canisters that filled the entire block with gas. It cleared out the west lawn of the Capitol in minutes.
The official protest kicked off at noon.
City council members and Denver Public School board members joined more than 1,000 protesters calling on the officers involved in Floyd’s death in Minneapolis to be charged with murder. The officer seen in a now-viral video using his knee to subdue Floyd was arrested and charged with murder Friday.
Anderson led hundreds of protesters around downtown Denver, marching from the Colorado Capitol across Civic Center Park to the City and County Building. There, Anderson led chants with a megaphone.
“Let’s go shut down downtown Denver and show them that black lives matter,” Anderson said, leading the mass toward the 16th Street Mall. They chanted as they walked and biked toward Union Station, with people using bikes to block cross-traffic just long enough to let the crowd pass.
“I’m here because I want to support my people, but I don’t want to be involved in some crazy scene,” said Shonta Diggs, who said she watched what happened a night before on social media.
Police officers on motorcycles trailed the crowd as it continued down the mall. They deliberately gave plenty of room to the protesters and held back at green lights. The cops cut right and raced down 18th Street, setting up a blockade at the Millennium Bridge, a gateway to I-25, the highway protesters took over yesterday. An officer told Denverite they were there to prevent another takeover. Eleven police officers in riot helmets and face shields waited nearby, wielding pepperball guns, but were out of sight of the protesters who were still several blocks away.
They never came close, though. Anderson and the crowd did an about-face and headed toward the Capitol. They met hundreds of other protesters there, creating a confluence of sweaty and ardent people fed up with people of color dying in police custody.
“Our system is racist. Change it,” read one particularly blunt sign.
After a speech on the Capitol lawn with cars stopping and honking on Lincoln Street in support, Anderson walked the mass into the street and it began moving against traffic, forcing drivers to make detours. Police officers helped block the road for them once they hit 13th Avenue, again giving them plenty of space to pass.
Anderson named several Black men who have been killed while in police custody, including Elijah McClain, who was killed by an Aurora police officer. Anderson stood next to Black protesters, megaphone in hand.
“I need you all to get a visual, in your face, about who you’re fighting for,” Anderson said. “I need you to put your actions on the line for all of us.”
Anderson led a moment of silence on Thursday around 2. Most protesters began to disperse shortly thereafter.
Noel Littlefield sat under the shade of a nearby tree shortly after protesters had started walking away from the scene at Civic Center Park. She joined the protest after driving from Steamboat Springs to set an example for her daughter.
“We had so many people all in one area, and it’s just a little taste of the power that the people have,” said Littlefield, who is white. “It was an amazing day. I’m super-proud of everyone here.”
March leaders called for peace, but the crowd became difficult to contain.
Anderson tried to direct protesters away from downtown jail after police reacted to provocation, firing tear gas at the crowd. Quincy Shannon commanded the attention of hundreds of people on the City and County Building soon after. He admonished the crowd for violence that caused the confrontation.
“We messed up,” he told the group.
He emphasized they should focus on constructive change, which would require long-term commitment to racial justice. A form was passed through the crowd, collecting names and emails for information on future legislative campaigns.
But people nearby were ready for a fight. Some near the corner of Colfax and Bannock began to argue with police. After a few tense moments, the officers loaded up on their trucks and drove away. That’s when protesters began hurling objects at them.
Police were staged on a vacant RTD lot by Civic Center Station and waited until protesters approached. When protesters began throwing rocks at them, police began firing tear gas and pepperballs. One protester shattered a Denver Police cruiser’s rear window. Officers filled Colfax with tear gas and flash-bang explosives as regular traffic continued in the street.
Shannon brought his young daughter to the earlier rally. When things became tense, he rushed her to the car between police officers and protesters who had already begun exchanging volleys across Colfax. After police threw the gas, he said he was disappointed.
“There was a different group,” he said “I’m just sad that the group who wanted this to happen bled over to the group who didn’t.”
Meanwhile, protesters filled the Capitol lawn and much of Lincoln Street. Though Shannon described agitators as separate from the peaceful crowd, some on the lawn were also present during his speech across the park at the City and County Building.
For those further from police, the demonstration looked more like a street party than a violent uprising. People held signs, stood around and sang songs. But attacks against officers continued on the crowd’s edges.
Around 8:30 p.m., a truck carrying a team of combat-dressed officers arrived on Colfax. The police began throwing tear gas canisters, moving into the cloud as they advanced onto the Capitol lawn and threw more into the crowd. In minutes, the lawn was cleared of protesters.
Many people left, but some protesters remained to challenge police elsewhere around Civic Center. Police fired more explosives and gas into crowds. A dumpster caught fire.
While protesters yelled throughout the night that officers’ tactics were unjustified, a city councilman said he believed the situation is beyond any recent experience for local police.
Councilman Chris Hinds, who was present for protests in his district on Thursday and Friday, said he spoke to two “senior” officers with a combined 50 years on the job.
“They both said this is the craziest thing they ever seen, the most violent thing they’ve ever seen,” Hinds said. “The most mayhem and pandemonium.”
This story has been updated.