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Two Activists, One Message: Peaceful Change, Police Reform

Stephanie Daniel & Rae Solomon
Long-time civil rights activist Alvertis Simmons (left) and emerging activist Khyra Parker (right) in downtown Denver and on the steps of the Capitol.

For nearly two weeks, protesters have marched through the streets of Denver. They are demanding justice and police accountability in the wake of George Floyd's death. At the forefront of this movement are activists. Some are seasoned. Some are new. But all are fighting for change.

On Saturday, May 30, long-time civil rights activist Alvertis Simmons led a peaceful protest that was held after two nights of clashes between protesters and police.

"I wanted to get the message of George Floyd out. I wanted to keep his memory alive and I wanted to show the outside agitators and the inside instigators that they can't take over this movement," said Simmons, who is 63 years old. "At the end of the day, we had, we sent our message. We sent a message of love. We sent a message of grace. We sent a message of peace."

Two days later, Khyra Parker continued this message of peace.

"Everybody was just standing around and for whatever reason something placed in my heart to lay on the ground and I laid there," she said. "Then someone else laid down. It was almost like a domino effect."

As the 23-year-old mother laid on the ground, a new activist was born.

"So, when I seen that people were following I said, okay, maybe this is the time for us to really talk about why we're really here. We're not here to loot. We're not here to vandalize and destroy things, we're here for a reason. So, at that moment I got up," she said. "There was a man that was laying next to me, he was Caucasian, and I whispered, and I said, 'Can you breathe?' And he started yelling out, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe, I can't breathe.'"

"I became an activist because I wanted to change things. I wanted to see a change and I knew I wasn't going to be a politician because I didn't want to be put in a box," Simmons said.

Credit Khyra Parker
Emerging activist Khyra Parker marches with protesters through downtown Denver.

"I'm just a girl, African American girl, who just wants a change, who wants better," Parker said.

"I learned under the tutelage of Reverend Jesse Jackson. I've learned from Al Sharpton. I've learned some of my teachings from The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan," Simmons said. "I learned from Mayor Webb here in Denver and Mrs. Webb who orchestrated the Martin Luther King bill."

"Me and my sister, our mom, she was big on black history. She taught us to be a part of our history," Parker said. "The time that we're living in, the age that I am, the color of my skin, the black son that I have, I felt like this is the time for me to be a part of history. This is my generation's chance."

The following week, Simmons spoke to protesters at the Greek Theater in Civic Center Park in downtown Denver. He reminded them to remain peaceful.

"I don't care who shows up, you all stay peaceful," she said. "Please. Will you do that for me?"

"I remember 17 years ago, there was an officer by the name of James Tourney," Simmons said. "He shoots Paul Child, a 15-year-old black kid who wanted to be a police officer."

Simmons goes on to name other people of color who have been killed by Denver police officers: Gregory Smith, Marvin Booker, Alonzo Ashley and Jessie Hernandez. There's been so many it hurts to talk about them, he said, but there have been some positive changes.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Long-time civil rights activist Alvertis Simmons talks to protesters at the Greek Theater in Civic Center Park in downtown Denver.

Shortly after Paul Child's death, former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper appointed a manager of safety, which led to the creation of the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight agency for the police and sheriff departments.

"We worked on changing policy and procedures. That's what you have to do. You just can't holler, 'no justice, no peace,' and then go home," Simmons said. "You got to holler, 'no justice, no peace,' then you got to change policies and procedures."

After Parker laid down on the ground and the crowd followed, she spoke to protesters the following night.

"Last night, we were able to peacefully protest in front of this Capitol building, past nine o'clock, with no interruption from the police," she said.

"I really believe in my heart 2020 is going to be the year to change things. This is the time," she said. "Just to see so many different walks of life and different races come together for one cause it's just beautiful to me."

"It's about the police sitting down with the protesters, nonviolent, and the nonviolent protesters of sitting down with the police," Simmons said. "It's a balancing act both sides of the fence we have to have."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Protesters at the Greek Theater in Civic Center Park take a knee and raise their fists while listening to long-time civil rights activist Alvertis Simmons.

"I hope with the protest that it brings awareness to the police officials and just officials in general, that there needs to be a change in police interactions with civilians," Parker said.

"We are not losing an any more black lives this year," she said to protestors during a march.

"I'm glad for the young organizers that are doing what they're doing. They need to put their name behind it though," Simmons said. "Let folks know you're taking responsibility whether good of bad."

The work of Simmons, Parker, other activists, and protesters is making a difference. Since the start of the protests, a new police reform bill is working its way through the state legislature. The Denver Police Department has banned the use of chokeholds by officers and updated its Use of Force and Body-Worn Camera policies. The Denver Public Schools Board of Education is voting this week to end their contract with the Denver Police Department.

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