The July 3 protest in Aurora, Colorado, seemed, at least on the surface, like just another of the hundreds of racial justice protests that have swept the nation this year. Demonstrators sat outside a police station chanting and playing music. Although they said they wouldn’t leave until their demands were met, the protesters were cleared out by police around 4:30 a.m.
But several of the protest leaders are facing felony attempted kidnapping charges for allegedly imprisoning police officers in their own precinct during the protest—charges their fellow activists are calling absurd.
Lillian House, Joel Northam, and Whitney “Eliza” Lucero are among a group of Denver-area activists facing a slate of charges related to their protest activities this summer. Local prosecutors say the activists tried to kidnap police by holding a short-lived “occupation”-style protest outside the precinct and blocking its doors. But activists allege a crackdown on the most visible members of their movement, leading to terrifying SWAT arrests and the threat of years in prison.
“This characterization that someone quote-unquote kidnapped officers is absolutely ridiculous,” Ryan Hamby, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Marxist group with which House, Northam, and Lucero are affiliated, told The Daily Beast.
“It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious,” he added.
The July 3 protest was one of many that called for the termination of officers involved in the killing of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who died in Aurora Police custody last year. McClain was not accused of any crime but became the subject of police suspicion while walking home from the convenience store when someone called 911 to report him “look[ing] sketchy.” Police placed McClain in a now-banned chokehold, causing him to vomit and lose consciousness. Paramedics later injected him with the sedative ketamine.
An autopsy did not conclusively identify a single cause of death, and two of the three arresting officers have not been fired. The third arresting officer was fired for responding “ha ha” to pictures of other officers re-enacting and mocking McClain’s death. (That officer is suing the city over his termination.)
The firings of the police who re-enacted McClain’s death were announced July 3, the same day as the protest outside the police precinct where demonstrators believed the remaining officers worked. Media reports—and even police tweets from most of the night—characterize the demonstration as peaceful, with some 600 protesters sitting around. Police ordered protesters to disperse at 2:30 a.m., tweeted a half-hour later that protesters were throwing things, and had cleared out the site by 4:30, the Denver Post reported at the time.
But a statement from the Adams County district attorney this month accused protesters of holding cops hostage. Protesters “prevented 18 officers inside from leaving the building by barricading entrances and securing doors with wires, ropes, boards, picnic tables and sandbags,” the statement read. (The district attorney was unavailable for comment. In a call with Denver’s 9News, defendant Lillian House said she was unaware of the alleged barricade.)
Those allegations come alongside serious criminal charges for six protest leaders, including three who are accused of attempted kidnapping, inciting a riot, and inciting a riot by giving commands, all of which are felonies.
The protesters and prosecutors both point to a mid-protest phone call between activist Lillian House and Aurora’s interim police chief Vanessa Wilson, which House broadcast to protesters over a microphone. House called on Wilson to fire the remaining officers involved in McClain’s death; Wilson said she didn’t have the authority to do that but thanked the protesters for not trying to enter the precinct.
“I appreciate that you haven’t breached the building and I hope that you continue to keep that promise,” Wilson said.
Activists like Hamby have pointed to the call as evidence that protesters stayed within their rights.
“Like, why would you even say that?” Hamby said of Wilson’s call. “She’s basically admitting on the phone that we have not done any of the things that they’re now claiming we did in this affidavit.”
On the phone call, House, who is also accused of a felony count of attempting to influence a public servant, affirmed that the protesters wouldn’t enter the building. But they wouldn’t leave, either, until the two remaining officers in McClain’s killing were fired.
“I just want to make it perfectly crystal clear that everyone here has agreed that we are going to sit here,” she said. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re not going in, we’re not going out, we’re sure not going out, and neither are these pigs that are inside the building. So we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re standing here.” (The protesters did, in fact, reportedly leave before sunrise, when police advanced on them.)
House’s statements appear to be part of the basis for the prosecution’s claims that the protest was actually a kidnapping attempt. What followed, fellow activists allege, was a heavy-handed roundup of the protest’s most visible faces.
Hamby, who organizes with House, Northam, and Lucero, claimed the busts were an attempt to “strike fear into organizers, strike fear into the movement.”
House and Lucero were arrested by multiple squad cars—House while driving and Lucero while in her apartment—and detained in jail for eight days, Hamby said. Fellow organizers have accused corrections officers of verbally abusing the two women and failing to provide adequate COVID-19 protections. Another protester, John “Russel” Ruch, was followed from his home in unmarked cars and scooped up in a Home Depot parking lot around dawn by officers who gave him “no information” about the cause for his arrest, Hamby claimed.
In the most aggressive instance, multiple organizers claimed a SWAT team showed up to arrest protester Joel Northam, allegedly banging on the door and refusing to slide a warrant underneath. Aurora Police did not return a request for comment.
“He was on the phone with a lawyer the entire time, and the lawyer ended up telling him, ‘You need to comply with what they’re saying,’” Hamby said. “Because at that point we were worried that they were going to bust down the door and kill him.”
If convicted on all counts, the activists accused of attempted kidnapping could face decades in prison. The charges come as other activists associated with Black Lives Matter protests face heavy-handed charges, including a Utah protester who faced life in prison for allegedly purchasing paint that was used in a demonstration (the most aggressive charging enhancements in that case have since been dropped).
Hamby said protesters planned on further mobilizing around a call to drop the charges. “If anything, the fight-back will be strengthened and emboldened,” he said.