As the hour grew closer to a “flood” of people protesting systemic racism and police violence at the Denver City Council’s 5 p.m. meeting Monday, the legislative body canceled it.
In an interview, City Council President Jolon Clark, who presided over a chaotic but ultimately safe meeting taken over by protesters last week, said he and his colleagues canceled tonight’s meeting because of COVID-19 and uneasiness about enforcing social distancing while the public’s trust in law enforcement wanes.
“There were, you know, a hundred people in that room for five and a half straight hours,” Clark said. “We took one break that was for the bathroom. That’s not good for anyone under any health situation. And so (we’re trying to) find ways to make sure that we can listen and everyone can be heard and everyone is safe.”
Clark did not have any specifics on what a new venue for people to air grievances might look like, but said he wants to create “a space that is safe for voices without entering into an area that causes more trauma and more potential conflict” at a time when “the interaction between law enforcement and citizens is at its peak.”
To Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, however, the decision was a blatant attempt to chill free speech. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, CdeBaca advocated for completely online meetings to slow the spread of the virus and to keep people with health problems on the same plane as the general public.
But council ultimately decided to allow some people in Council Chambers — until members experienced last week’s protest and got wind of Monday’s intended actions.
“What my hope is that people recognize these strategies being used to stifle their participation,” CdeBaca said. “Now is the time for people to tell council how they want to participate.”
In her view, the public should show up to meetings en masse every Monday, not just during specially organized protests. “I think they should wait until we reconvene and come back,” CdeBaca said.
Gabriel Lavine with the Afro Liberation Front said his group, which planned to speak tonight at tonight’s council meeting, will instead hold a town hall of its own outside city hall at 6 p.m. to “give people the opportunity that the city council took away.”
Lavine’s group is just a few weeks old. He said its goal is to keep the latest movement against police violence, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody, invigorated.
“We realized a loss of momentum in the movement in the protests surrounding Geroge Floyd’s protest, and we just want to bring awareness to the fact that we are still here,” Lavine said.
Lavine said he understood the COVID-19 health risks but that he’s been protesting for 30 days and feels like the precautions he and his fellow protesters have been taking are effective.
After its decision to cancel the meeting, council released a statement saying legislators are “committed to fast-track a virtual public participation process. In addition, council will be scheduling a series of virtual listening sessions. Details for how virtual public participation will move forward will be released as soon as possible. Hearing from constituents during a time of pandemic and historic civil rights movement is a high priority for members of Denver City Council.”