Rowshan Kia has been protesting Iran’s government on Colorado’s Capitol for 85 weeks straight

He does not plan to stop.
7 min. read
Rowshan Kia protests the government in Iran for the 85th week in front of the Colorado State Capitol. March 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

If you've passed the Capitol in the last year or two, you've probably seen Rowshan Kia standing on Lincoln Street with big signs covered in language like, "DEMOCRACY FOR IRAN." The activist just celebrated 85 straight weeks of demonstrations against the government in his home country, and he has no plans to stop.

We spent some time with Kia on Saturday to learn more about him.

He came to Denver in the 70s, just before a major change in Iranian politics.

"I came to the United States in 1978 from Iran, to get higher education and go back," he told us. "The monarch was under power, the shah of Iran. And a year after that, Ayatollah Khomeini came into power."

The shah was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who took his father's throne in 1941. In 1953, he cooperated with America's Central Intelligence Agency as they worked to overthrow Iran's prime minister, a move that the U.S. framed as a push back against communism but was probably more about access to oil. Mohammad Reza was educated in Switzerland and led the country towards a western style of living. Over time, hardline Muslims began to foment a movement against him. In December of 1979, he fled the country. Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite religious leader who'd been given the high title of Ayatollah, and who was banished from Iran in the 1960s, returned to take control of the nation.

Khomeini's rule marked a hard conservative turn. Soon after his rise to power, he decreed that women must wear head scarves in public, which sparked protests that, in turn, sparked crackdowns.

"The women in Iran came to the streets to oppose the Ayatollah. They didn't want to have a cover," Kia said. "And one of those women was my sister. They captured her and executed her."

Some of Rowshan Kia's protest signs as he demonstrates against Iran's government for the 85th week in front of the Colorado State Capitol. March 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Up to that point, Kia was studying electrical engineering at the University of Colorado Denver, but his life was turned upside down by the coup. He changed his major to politics and economics, then organized with classmates to canvass campus in resistance to the new regime. Some people listened. Others, who supported the Ayatollah, heckled.

Kia would never return home.

Four decades passed before he felt moved to make his stand on the corner of 14th and Lincoln.

Kia continued his activism in the years following Ayatollah Khomeini's takeover, though he said it shifted into cultural work, organizing annual gatherings and parades for Iranians living in Denver. It was a way to bolster community from the inside. He worked at the old Stapleton Airport and as a translator, then retired. He was never married.

Then, in July of 2021, something told the 70-year-old it was time to act.

"I felt something is going to happen," he told us. "As people are following step by step, the political situation in Iran, I needed to do something."

So he printed up signs and took his post in front of the Capitol. While he was usually alone in the early days, his demonstration often meshed with the other protests held on any given Saturday on the statehouse steps. The Denver Broncos scarf that hangs from his shoulders is covered with buttons in support of Ukraine, women's reproductive rights and in memory of people killed in mass shootings. His signage ties Ayatollah Khomeini to Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping.

But he was right: Something was going to happen.

Last September, a year after Kia took up residence on the street corner, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by Iran's "morality police" for not wearing a head covering. Women filled the country's streets in massive protests that have continued for months. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, some have been sentenced to death and others - schoolgirls - have recently become ill in suspected poisonings.

Rowshan Kia (second from right) and his fellow demonstrators protest the government in Iran in front of the Colorado State Capitol. March 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

In Denver, Amini's killing moved scores local Iranians to join Kia on the street. Some, like Leo - who declined to give us his last name - have continued to meet Kia each weekend. Leo has known Kia for years. Like Kia, Leo said he came to the U.S. in the 1970s and never went back.

"Until the last day that this regime is in power, I won't go back. I haven't seen anybody, any of my siblings, in 40 years," he told us. "We need democracy for the homeland."

Mojgan Taherynia (right) came to the Capitol to protest the government in Iran, where she's from, but said Ukraine's struggle against Russia is interconnected and that she wanted to show her support as local Ukrainians protest one year since their country was invaded. Feb. 25, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Mojgan Taherynia discovered Kia's post when she joined a protest for Ukraine last year, a show of solidarity with people engaged in a conflict she can relate to. They'd known each other through the local Iranian grapevine, and she was glad to find a standing venue to voice concern for her own country.

"I admire Rowshan for his persistence and resilience. I pass that area, and I've seen him in ice, in snow, in a storm - he's there. So it's admirable," she said. "We need national awareness and support."

Not everyone who passes is so gracious, but Kia said harder conversations are part of the process.

Now and then, someone yells something obscene as they drive past, but it doesn't get Kia down.

"They are in their cars, they use their abusive language once in a while, but my responsibility is to educate," he said.

Whether they like him or not, he said, people can't avoid his message.

As he waited for Leo and some others to join on Saturday, Kia encountered Austin Liu and Brener Martin, who were in town for a crypto conference. Martin wanted to debate philosophy, and Kia entertained his questions.

Rowshan Kia (left to right) gets into a debate with Austin Liu and Brener Martin as he protests Iran's government for the 85th week in front of the Colorado State Capitol. March 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Later, a man berated him for portraying Vladimir Putin as a villain. Kia smiled and tried to keep him talking, and allowed himself to rib the guy a bit.

"85 weeks I've been here. 85 weeks! Where have you been?"

This guy walked off in a huff, but sometimes things go better, Kia said.

"After we have a communication, they calm down," he told us. "If you open a dialogue with them and they understand where you come from, then they believe in you. That is my mission here."

Rowshan Kia protests the government in Iran for the 85th week in front of the Colorado State Capitol. March 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

And does he plan to quit any time soon? Kia just shook his head. Maybe when things back home change?

"It's gonna happen," he said. "The young generation, they are not going to take any more."

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