Friday was a cold night to sleep outside, but occasional drizzle and the State Troopers who cruised by only strengthened the resolve in three teenagers who spent the night on the Capitol steps.
Rahma Ahmed, Aariyah Johnson and Ashira Campbell all attend area high schools, but they didn’t know each other until last summer’s months of protests. They became active in Denver’s movement for racial justice and began organizing their own rallies, usually daytime affairs filled with speakers. But Campbell said she had run out of words.
“I am sick of talking about my people dying, really to the point that I don’t know what to say right now,” she said through a bullhorn, shouting to a couple dozen people who showed up to support their short occupation. “We’re only 17, 18 years old. We shouldn’t be out here right now. We should be asleep. We should be chillin’ and not thinking about if my life matters. Not thinking about who’s next.”
The occasion this week was the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, who was shot by police in Ohio on the day Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. She was 16 years old.
The crowd shouted Bryant’s name, and then the three teens led them on a march through Capitol Hill. They blocked traffic at Colfax Avenue and Washington Street for 10 minutes, then marched silently back toward the state house, with their hands raised.
Only a few others lasted with Ahmed, Johnson and Campbell for the night’s entirety, though many returned in the morning. They succeeded in holding space there until 1 p.m., their goal.
“It was freezing,” Ahmed said on Saturday. Even though she only got an hour of sleep, she said she felt invigorated: “I feel truly inspired, knowing that I can do anything.”
It was the kind of affirmation she needed. All three said they were exhausted from a seemingly endless stream of tragedies. They needed to steel themselves for another summer of activism, though they hope the need to lead crowds through the city’s streets would disappear.
“I wish it didn’t have to be long term. I wish the cops could see that we’re tired and that any one of us could die in a split second,” she said. “I want the cops to know I’m ready for anything. We’re here to stay no matter what.”
And whether they knew it, the three women’s overnight protest followed in the footsteps of another activist. In 2016, protesting the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Amy Emery-Brown spent several days outside in front of the City and County Building. Back then, the Black Lives Matter 5280 co-leader also told us she was at a loss for words. She said occupying space outside was a way for her to cope with trauma.
Chauvin’s conviction means massive protests for George Floyd are over. Activists hope the people who showed up last year will continue to match their ongoing sense of urgency.
Iris Butler held a candle-light vigil on Friday evening, a few hours before the crowd gathered at the Capitol. It received a sparse turnout – especially compared to the thousands who marched last summer – but the event still conjured solemn air in Commons Park.
Butler, who later joined Ahmed, Johnson and Campbell and stayed out with them until 4 a.m., said organizers are now working to keep less ardent residents engaged.
It’s not “George Floyd’s killer is convicted and we don’t have to worry,” she said, it’s “George Floyd’s killer is convicted but there’s so much work to do.”
This was the message we heard from a number of activists and leaders after Chauvin’s conviction. Butler said it’s up to her and other organizers to make sure everyone else gets the message and continues to stand with them. Unless any more high-profile tragedies stoke massive unrest, Butler expects local activists will take a new tact this year.
“Here in Denver, we focused a lot on melanated suffering and trauma. So this summer, we’re tying to reverse that,” she said. “We want to focus on joy, unity and bringing the community together. Despite the amount of people coming out, it’s still a very powerful movement. The energy is still there.”
Though weariness has become a theme in these activists’ speeches, the crowd on Friday night shook it off, chanted and marched with the same vigor they’ve shown all year. As they’ve been saying all along, they feel they have no choice.
“We’re going to continue to be out here until change is made,” Johnson said before the march began. “We’ll be out here every day if we have to.”