Aurora lawmaker wants city to require permit for Elijah McClain protesters

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EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story had a headline indicating the proposed permit should require a fee. Councilmember Marsha Berzins, who requested the permit proposal said she did not request a fee in the staff-created proposal, but that current draft proposals refer to one. 

AURORA | Aurora city staff are considering options to require permits for protests in and around the Aurora Municipal Center at the request of Councilmember Marsha Berzins, who expressed safety concerns after a recent march for Elijah McClain eventually turned violent.

Berzins implored city staff during a city council study session Monday to find a way to require permits for protests in the city center without infringing on demonstrator’s First Amendment rights.

“I will tell you that this has nothing to do with limiting protests, this has nothing to do with limiting vigils, nothing trying to do with charging money because Aurora needs money,” Berzins said. “This has to do with safety.”

Berzins did not respond to a request for a comment.

Deputy City Manager Nancy Freed said in a statement that “City staff is researching how other cities deal with similar situations and will return to the City Council with additional information in near future.”

Berzins said the permit process would create communication between police and protesters, so that police could block off streets and interstates and protect demonstrators. “We don’t want people jumping off the 225,” Berzins said. “No one wants a repeat of what happened.”

Protesters had occupied Interstate 225 close to 7 p.m. July 25 when a driver in a Jeep Rubicon accelerated toward a crowd standing on the empty, northbound side of I-225.  The scene created chaos as one protester filed shots at the Jeep, wounding two people. A woman also reportedly broke her leg jumping a barrier while fleeing from the Jeep.

Berzins sponsored the proposal, which would require $1,000 for gatherings including protests of up to 99 people on the municipal center’s Great Lawn.

The cost would rise depending on the size of the gathering, topping out at $5,000 for a congregation between 1,000 and 4,000 people.

City rules already require a permit process for events on the Great Lawn including Global Fest and annual fireworks shows. Demonstrations would be included in those gatherings.

But city staff members declared any plan to force demonstrators to acquire permits “unenforceable” because of First Amendment rights protecting demonstrations. City officials did, however, pledged to consider a rule.

“I don’t know what we would do if the group refused to deal with this and get a permit,” said Deputy City Manager Nancy Freed.

Berzins suggested creating the rules after the July 25 protest march began on the Great Lawn. Organizers demanded murder charges against police officers who stopped and detained Elijah McClain, a young, black massage therapist, in August 2019.

Council members Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano expressed skepticism about the plan after Freed said the proposal would be impossible to enforce.

It’s so far unclear if Berzins would have enough support on the council to adopt such a fee.

This story was updated with a comment from Deputy City Manager Nancy Freed.