After more than a year of anguished controversy over the mistreatment of many Black people, and the homicide of Elijah McClain, Aurora police and the city are sponsoring a Juneteenth celebration at the Town Center of Aurora mall as a gesture of healing.
What could go wrong?
Plenty, police and organizers stipulate. But the bold move and the event itself could prove to be the turning point that police, and much of the community, have been waiting for to start rebuilding relations between Aurora cops and Black residents.
“This wasn’t something we walked into lightly,” said Claudine McDonald, who was hired earlier this year as head of a new community relations department inside Aurora police to direct an effort to heal the rift between police and the community. “There were a lot of conversations about it.”
McDonald, who previously served on the Cherry Creek School District board, grew up going to Denver’s iconic Juneteenth celebration in Five Points. She’s well versed in what June 19 means here and across the nation. Juneteenth commemorates the day the final state, Texas, legally and publicly acknowledged the Emancipation Proclamation — three years after it was signed and enacted by President Abraham Lincoln.
It’s a complicated issue because the day marks the relief and joy when all slaves were officially freed, and the brutal reality of the history many Black slaves shared after emancipation. Thousands became homeless, said Aurora NAACP President Omar Montgomery. His organization is participating at the Aurora Juneteenth event at the mall this Saturday. Montgomery will be sharing details of the history and nuance of Juneteenth as part of the Aurora event. “Some slaves were forced back to their owners to continue as slaves because they had no other choice.”
Community activist Lindsay Minter agrees that Juneteenth holds a very special place in the Black community.
“It’s a prize holiday,” she said, agreeing that it’s divided by the awe of the Emancipation Proclamation and the widespread abuse and continued racism that followed it.
Given the historical and recent controversies involving law enforcement and Black people, and especially the recent history in Aurora, in particularly the death of McClain, Minter — who worked for a year on a local task force recommending police reforms to the city council — said it’s a bad move for police to latch onto this iconic day. “It’s absolutely too soon,” she said.
It was just less than a month ago that Aurora police were told they weren’t invited to participate in Denver’s Pride events, even LGBTQ officers. Aurora Pride then softened its stance, saying it would work with Aurora cops to find a way to be inclusive with events in Aurora.
“There’s been too much damage,” Minter added. And too much is still unsettled. Officers accused of having a hand in McClain’s death are still on the police force. The state attorney general’s office has not announced whether it will pursue legal action against involved officers or the department after a local district attorney refused to press charges against police more than a year ago. Aurora police have begun reform efforts, but an entire report from the local task force hasn’t even been examined since it was handed over to city lawmakers last month.
“There’s just too much still out there,” Minter said. “This is like trying to put a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.”
Minter has been part of a local driving force for police reform and healing within the community, but she sees the move as premature. The unnerving international image last year of Black girls in Aurora being forced to lie face down on hot pavement, after an erroneous stolen-car stop, and the death of McClain, as well as subsequent protests, are just too fresh in the minds of Black Lives Matter proponents and much of the community.
“I can see why (Chief Vanessa Wilson) would want to be ambitious,” Minter said, “But Juneteenth is a prize holiday in our culture.” She added that police need to build up to this level of trust.
McDonald agrees that Juneteenth holds critical significance in the Black community, and that’s exactly why having police sponsor and take part in a local celebration makes sense.
“This actually wasn’t our idea,” she said. “We were approached by a member of the community who wanted us to partner in a Juneteenth celebration.”
She acknowledges Minter’s criticisms, though.
“We know where we’re at,” McDonald said. “We know our current climate.”
She said expects police presence to be sedate. They’ll likely have a recruiting booth and a variety of youth programs already plugged into the police department. The mall is helping fashion entertainment and other aspects of the afternoon.
Montgomery agrees with McDonald there’s the potential for bad optics or worse if there’s an incident. He’s expecting pushback against the NAACP for participating in the event with police.
“But we need to start the healing process now,” he said, because the world hasn’t and can’t pause to wait for closure on the McClain homicide. “Kids are getting shot in Aurora. Suicide is a serious problem here. Police are interacting with Black kids and adults every day.”
He said next weekend’s Juneteenth event with police isn’t a culmination, it’s a place to start.
“How police act after next Saturday is far more important than their participation in Juneteenth at the mall,” Montgomery said. “This is a test more for the police,” not the Black and Black Lives Matter communities.
Still, he knows there’s an enormous amount on the line in what previously might have been something that barely would have made the news. The mall itself has historically been the site of controversy regarding Black residents, and especially youth, for decades. If there are protests at the mall, it will be a chance for Aurora police to show how they really are doing things differently than they were even last year,” he said.
Montgomery will be at the event to offer historical details about what led to Juneteenth and especially the tragedies faced by Black Americans after Texas announced on June 19, 1865, that slaves were freed. He sees the Aurora event as an opportunity not just for local police, but for the Black community to help gain historical context to the bigger picture of racial equity right now.
“I trust Claudine McDonald,” he said. He pointed to her long history in working to bridge gaps in the community over a number of issues, especially those affecting people of color.
“This really is just a starting point for police,” he said. “I would say that we have a lot of work to do still, but, really, it’s ‘they’ who have a lot of work to do still. It’s critical that we have justice for Elijah McClain, but we have to start somewhere, and now.”
Everyone seems to agree that there’s risk here. Lots could go wrong. But McDonald, Montgomery and activists working with on the event? They’re banking on how much could actually go right.
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