RHONDA FIELDS: Looking beyond police racism and brutality to a day we are all free

Last weekend, our country celebrated the Fourth of July, but for many Americans, the bitter reality remains that this nation’s promises are not fulfilled equally and true freedom from oppression has yet to be achieved.

On the day our country was born and independence claimed, we must remember that freedom was only declared for White settlers – slaves were still in bondage, indigenous peoples were still being massacred, and Latinos were still being driven from their ancestral lands. 

In this way, our country was born amongst violence and injustice, and while we are not responsible for the atrocities committed by our ancestors, we do bear the burdensome consequences. And as these consequences continue to impact our lives every day, they are often insidiously cloaked by modern narratives – hiding in plain sight under the false preconception that America has “beaten” systemic racism. 

George Floyd’s murder, an injustice that ignited the country, is far from the first Black death to be caused by police violence. For centuries, the Black community has been brutalized by racist discrimination and harassment. From slavery to Jim Crow, to the systematic portrayal of Black men as dangerous criminals, our collective culture has stripped African-Americans of our humanity and liberty for generations.

So as we witness a long-overdue movement of public outrage around racially-motivated police violence, past injustices are boiling up to the surface. One of the most heartbreaking of which occurred in our very own backyard. 

Here in Aurora, a local angel who spent his days playing violin to sheltered animals and delighting people with his infectious smile, was murdered by local police officers. In his last words, he has captivated the world and showcased just how broken the system truly is.   

In response to his death and that of countless others in the community, people joined together to honor the victims in a violin vigil and peacefully demonstrate – a right enshrined by our Constitution. 

They were met with riot gear and tear gas.

This is unacceptable, and frankly illegal. The bill I sponsored to hold law enforcement accountable SB20-217, curtailed the power of police in regards to deadly apprehension tactics and restricted the use of force deployed against protestors.

Therefore, the APD’s response was in direct violation of our legislation and for that there should be penalties. However, rather than appropriate remorse or a promise to do better, we saw police officers post photos mocking Elijah’s death at his own memorial.

Sadly, this kind of response isn’t uncommon. After the pain of George Floyd’s murder spilled out into our streets, Denver officers posted pictures of themselves with batons saying “let’s start a riot”. This behavior shows a disgusting disrespect toward the people they are sworn to protect.

This is why it is so maddening when people say it’s “just a few bad apples.” The issue is far more widespread than those in power want to admit. And by dismissing these unacceptable acts of brutality and derogation as one-off events, they are undermining the necessary conversations required to enact real change.

It’s taken national attention, the governor, the attorney general, and mass demonstrations to see justice begin to take shape. Why? What is the culture that exists in policing that says we can’t ensure officer integrity and equality under the law?

When the police show up to intimidate a peaceful crowd, when they sit behind the wheel of their squad car intoxicated, when they refuse to listen when someone shouts that they can’t breathe, and when they fail to forcefully punish bad actors in their own departments, they are breaking trust with the community and perpetuating a silence that has allowed this behavior to go unchallenged for so long.

I am incredibly proud of the legislation we passed this year to begin reforming our law enforcement institutions. It is a groundbreaking policy that addresses the core problems we see in policing including outlawing the chokehold and the use of deadly force on a fleeing felon, mandating a duty to intervene by other officers, and ensuring bad actors are permanently banned from the force. However, the law is useless if it is not enforced. 

This is where we need police chiefs, district attorneys, and community leaders alike to step up and hold people accountable. Because law enforcers themselves must follow the law, or we will see a complete degradation of public safety and trust. 

Where we go from here is completely dependent on our ability to face uncomfortable truths and work toward healing together. Conversations around race can be triggering and difficult to navigate. But what’s important is that we learn to listen to one another, to connect with the experiences of those that are different than us, and to not demonize people when they make a mistake. We must all be allowed to grow, and a part of that growth process starts with asking questions like: What is the history of how we got here? Where are the failure points? What is the culture shifts that need to happen to change things going forward? And how does that show up in my own life/ behavior?

It should not take a national movement for us here in Aurora to do right by Elijah, or any other victims of unnecessary violence by police. But with this painful, tumultuous time, we have been given an opportunity to reexamine ourselves and choose to do better. Because America is a work in progress, and someday, if we can come together, we all will be free.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields is a Democrat representing Aurora.