It started as a photo-op. Mayor Michael Hancock even instructed people to wait so they could lift a shovel together to throw soil on a newly-planted shingle oak at Civic Center Park.
The tree was planted in memory of George Floyd, who died last week while in police custody in Minneapolis. The tree planting was a closing gesture of an hour-long memorial honoring his life.
Denver resident April Harris, who is Black, wasn’t there to get photographed. And she definitely wasn’t expecting a chance to lift a shovel and help plant a tree. Hancock encouraged others to take turns shoveling after he and other city leaders did the same.
“I just felt empowered to get up and be a part of it,” Harris said. “It just warms my heart to feel like they just leave that platform for us to just feel like we’re a part of the community.”
“I just felt like I had to put my stamp,” Harris added.
Some 300 people joined city leaders including Hancock, Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Boulder and school board member Tay Anderson, who came to memorialize Floyd.
Hancock spoke a day after marching alongside protesters during peaceful demonstrations in downtown Denver. Floyd’s death has sparked protests in Denver and across the country. Protests against racism and police accountability started last Thursday in Denver and have continued every night since.
“We plant a tree today in memory of George Floyd and all those names that we have called out, because we want it to always stand erect, tall, even taller than the six-foot-seven inch George Floyd,” Hancock said while addressing the crowd at the amphitheater on Thursday morning.
Hancock said the shingle oak planted could grow to up to 100 feet.
Rev. Eugene Downing of New Hope Baptist Church thanked city leadership and city residents for justice and liberation.
“The reality is ‘All Lives Matter’ is a farce until ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a reality,” Downing said, prompting applause.
Rodrick Freeman, who is Black, came early to the event after learning about it on Instagram. He said he came to show his respect for Floyd and join others who wanted to commemorate his life.
But he wondered if many of the people there — the crowd was majority white — were genuine in their belief that Black lives matter. He suggested other protests in predominately white areas, like Cherry Creek instead of near Colfax Avenue, to call attention to the movement.
“Is this for the moment?” Freeman said. “You never see them going to, I guess, the root of white supremacy in their communities to a certain extent.”
Harris’ face-mask had a wet spot near one of her eyes. She was standing near the crowd around the tree after she got a chance to throw in some soil. She had marched alongside others during previous protests.
“I never thought that I would have to do this,” Harris said. “I want to be able to put (my) stamp in history, for my future kids, my grandchildren, my friends, my family, and I don’t want to ever have them do this again.”