When Hana Berhanu stepped up to the mic Sunday in front of hundreds at a Castle Rock protest held in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, she first spoke about the anxiety she felt in deciding what to share that afternoon.
She didn’t know if she should talk about the secret friend she had in second grade, who continued playing with her despite the child’s parents forbidding it because Berhanu is black.
She could discuss the first time someone told her to “go back to where you came from,” Berhanu said. Or, she could talk about what it felt like, more recently, watching her hometown of Minneapolis burn on television, her longing to be there in person, protesting alongside loved ones, she said.
Instead, she decided to take the advice of a friend, she said, and say what was most on her heart. With that, Berhanu turned away from the crowd, leaned deep into the microphone and let out an agonizing scream.
“I’ve been wanting to scream for two weeks now,” she said to applause. “This is my pain. I am coming to you with my pain.”
That pain goes beyond watching George Floyd’s death televised and his character questioned, she said. It goes back to Emmett Till, and the countless murders of black Americans since.
Event leaders said Sunday's protest, their second in town, was not just to decry police brutality and racial inequality in the wake of Floyd’s death. It was also to remind people racism exists in Castle Rock, and to give local people of color like Berhanu, who has lived in Castle Rock since 2011, a space to share their stories.
Protesters started in the Philip S. Miller Library parking lot before marching through the downtown and gathering in Festival Park. Like the first event, organized by local residents Janine Reid and Josh Pease on June 2, their Sunday event remained peaceful.
Reid said some of her Castle Rock neighbors did not feel safe coming to the first event, but she hoped the peaceful display several days earlier encouraged them to come out this time.
Crowds chanted “Black Lives Matter” as they marched along Wilcox Street. They took a knee and laid face-down in Festival Park for nine minutes in memory of Floyd, chanting “I can’t breathe.”
For Pease, also a pastor, protesting is a way of showing white Christians they need to step up and condemn race inequality, and confess how they too have hurt people of color.
“It is time for us to say there is zero tolerance for inequality in our city. There is zero tolerance for our brothers and sisters to be hurt and marginalized,” Pease said.
He urged white Americans to educate themselves on race inequality but also to then advocate for marginalized Americans.
“It is not your black friend’s responsibility to educate you on systemic racism. Read a freaking book,” Pease said.
Helping lead the event was Denver resident and community activist Rev. Quincy Shannon. Pease and Shannon met at Denver protests one week earlier, the men said.
“The same way he showed up for us, I wanted to show up for him,” Shannon said.
Opening the event at 2 p.m., Shannon spoke for roughly 20 minutes about his own experience with police brutality — when a 911 call captured audio of a police officer pepper spraying him without cause — and the need to topple systemic racism.
White supremacy is real, he said, regardless of whether people believe they have “felt it personally” or not. Racism is present when people turn on the television and see only white individuals, and for marginalized communities that do not have a superhero “who looks like them.”
He wants systemic change so that no one feels afraid when stopped by police. When Shannon is pulled over, he turns off the car. He puts his keys on the hood. He places his hands on the steering wheel or outside the windows.
“I’m always making sure I’m telling the officer what I am doing before I do it. ‘Sir, my license is right here. I’m moving to grab my license right now. My registration is in the glove compartment. There is nothing harmful in the glove compartment. Sir, I just want to get home,’” Shannon said. “Some of you may not know what that feels like. What that nervousness of if I move to fast or move to slow my life is literally in danger. I look like a stereotype.”
Shannon also spoke about the COVID-19 pandemic, noting how it quickly and drastically altered daily life. People worked remotely. Children attended school from home.
“If we can change things within a month or a week because a disease or a pandemic has come into our communities and our states then why can’t we change something that’s been a pandemic for hundreds of years, when we think about what systemic racism is,” he said.
For Jourdan Henderson, a 20-year resident of Castle Rock, the protests were a positive sign. He hopes they create unity and change. Henderson, whose mother is of Italian heritage and his father African heritage, said he experienced racial profiling at the hands of Lakewood police in 2015.
On an icy day that year, Henderson’s wife called him in tears after her car ran into the ditch. Henderson and his father rushed to help her, he said, but found police already on scene.
Henderson recalled one officer placing his hand on his gun as he approached his wife’s vehicle and then yelling at him. Henderson said he was detained and forced to show identification. He was legally carrying a firearm but too fearful to tell police at the time.
“I did not feel comfortable and safe to tell them,” he said.
He filed a misconduct report, which proved a dead end, he said. To anyone who doubts racism is a local problem, Henderson would urge them to educate themselves.
“Even growing up in Castle Rock, it has been a struggle,” he said. “If you don’t know that racism is here, it’s clearly because you haven’t had to deal with it.”
Berhanu’s husband, Ebassa, also spoke during the event. The lead pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Castle Rock was hesitant at first to speak, he said, worried his advocacy would reflect on his family and church. But his wife encouraged him to speak up.
Ebassa shared stories of his children being told they do not belong or are not good enough at school because of their skin color. He shared their experience to make people aware of the realities for people of color in Castle Rock.
“The point here now is not to make any of you feel guilty,” he said.
Segregation may be over, he said, but the community is still divided by racism.
“What you don’t see," he said, "is the invisible wall that is up."
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