By Kevin Mohatt
Photographer Kevin Mohatt spent time with Terrance Roberts over the summer to get a behind-the-scenes look at the activist planning some of the protests and rallies in Denver and Aurora.
If you’ve been to a protest for racial justice in Denver or Aurora over the past several months, there’s a good chance Terrance Roberts was at the front line, yelling into his bullhorn, leading marchers in chants to end police violence.
But Roberts hasn’t always been an activist. In fact, he was once the person committing the violence.
“I can’t change the past,” Roberts said while sitting in his apartment in Denver.
Growing up, Roberts was a member of the Bloods, a gang in north Park Hill. His lifestyle led him to commit several criminal acts including shooting up a fellow gang member’s car with a MAC-11 after an argument. This incident landed him in prison for seven years, which became a pivotal moment for him.
“I was looking at a bunch of prison time. I went to jail, and I started really studying about activism and organizing,” Roberts said.
He began reading the Bible and learning about the teachings of Mother Theresa, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Those lessons helped him see life in a new way, one where he could help others instead of hurting them. At that point, he started to become a peacemaker in prison and even managed to stop a race riot.
Once he got out of prison, he vowed to stay out of the gang and instead dedicate his energy to helping youth in the neighborhood stay off the streets. He started a nonprofit organization called the Prodigal Son Initiative, which gave kids a safe place to hang out after school. He established space for the youth to complete their homework, but he also provided activities, such as dodgeball and hiking, to keep them engaged.
“I’d been gangbanging. It got me nowhere but to jail. I’d rather be out here using my time to be somebody positive,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ work was paying off. Park Hill, which had grown accustomed to shootings and robberies, was seeing a decrease in gang violence during Roberts’ time running the Prodigal Son. But in 2013, at a community rally he helped organize, Roberts shot a man he said threatened him. Two years later, he was found not guilty of attempted murder.
Roberts has long been skeptical of the police and felt their use of force in his community, and other communities, was excessive. He felt there needed to be more accountability over law enforcement. That was when he began using his voice to call for an end to police brutality.
In the summer of 2019, when he heard of the death of Elijah McClain in police custody, he felt obligated to respond. Roberts is one of a small group of activists who have been out protesting at the Aurora Municipal Center on a regular basis long before George Floyd was killed.
He has partnered with other organizers to help lead large protests that have drawn attention of people throughout the world. Those protests have also drawn the attention of local law enforcement.
Recently, he and five other protest organizers were arrested and charged with inciting a riot. He said the threat of prosecution is meant to intimidate and silence him. He said he would fight the charges and continue to help lead protests.
“All of that happened to me then, that is really why I’m doing what I’m doing today,” Roberts said. “Because I love my community.”