Abolitionist Elisabeth Epps is filing paperwork this morning to run for State House District 6, she told Denverite. The district covers parts of Denver’s eastern midsection from Capitol Hill to East Colfax and Lowry.
We’ve reported on Epps since she raised $20,000 to bail out women for Mother’s Day in 2018. She said then she was concerned about the nation and state’s criminal justice system, which she said disproportionately “cages” Black people before they have a chance to bring their cases to court. People who can’t afford bail are punished for being poor, she argued, because they can’t pay to leave lockups and have to sit in jail as they wait to see a judge. Her work is about abolishing systems, like this, that she views as legacies of chattel slavery.
She’s since become a prominent figure in local activism and protests circles, making regular appearances in marches and speeches last year during protests that began with George Floyd’s murder. Her candidacy represents one example of the ways in which grassroots advocacy has flowed into more traditional centers of power here and across the country. Another example was a sweeping police reform law that Epps helped craft, which only passed in the state legislature after 2020’s protests.
The Mother’s Day event was the beginning of a direct-action campaign to take on cash bail across the state.
Epps used the money she raised from the Mother’s Day bailout to launch the Colorado Freedom Fund, which bails out people awaiting trial for low-level offenses in the metro area. Most of the money the organization spends is returned when people show up to court, she said, making the Freedom Fund a sustainable method to deal with the issue in the short-term.
To make a longer-lasting impact, Epps worked closely with Rep. Leslie Herod – who presides over Denver’s House District 8 – to push for a statewide ban on cash bail for minor offenses. Their bill passed in April of 2019, just months after Epps received her own jail sentence for interrupting police who were dealing with a man in crisis. Activists who worked with the Colorado Freedom Fund gathered outside of the Aurora courthouse to show solidarity after she was taken from the courtroom.
Epps’s sentence only lasted a few months, but her time in jail informed more policy changes. While she was incarcerated in Arapahoe County, she realized women lacked free access to menstrual hygiene products. She worked with Herod to push for legislation that would correct the problem on the state level. Herod’s bill passed with unanimous support.
Epps told us it was important that legislation she helped pass was informed by things she, and the people she’s worked with, have experienced on the ground. She said social change needs an ecosystem of actors to take root, and her foray into politics represents a shift from one kind of advocacy to another.
“I’ve always spoken about a three-pronged approach: legislation, litigation and direct action,” she said. “I’m not leaving protest behind. I think that protest is a critical part of advancing to the world that I want, but protest without that policy is hollow.”
Here’s what’s happening so far with the race:
The district Epps is hoping to represent was previously represented by Steven Woodrow, who was elected in 2020. Woodrow said newly redistricted State House maps pulled him into House District 2, for which he plans to run. Epps’ website says Woodrow has endorsed her.
Only one other person is registered to run for HD6: Katie March, who bills herself as a progressive Democrat who has advised former State Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and current Speaker of the House Alec Garnett. March’s website says she began her career working with institutions like History Colorado and the Smithsonian on the history of civil rights, and that she’s helped craft legislation like Colorado’s “red-flag” gun law and protections for workers during the pandemic.
Epps said she didn’t plan to run for office until this year. She told us she would remain with the Colorado Freedom Fund as its executive director if elected, but added the organization will likely hire more people to fill her day-to-day roles.