Commentary: Walking While Black in the Mile High City
This guest commentary is by Adrian Miller, Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches. He is also a James Beard Award-winning culinary historian and certified barbecue judge who shares food stories that unite people around the world. Learn more at www.soulfoodscholar.com and follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter @soulfoodscholar, Facebook @soulfoodscholar, and Instagram @soulfoodscholar.
Elijah McClain’s tragic death in late August 2019 still haunts me for several reasons. Another young Black man’s life was needlessly cut short, this time at the hands of law enforcement and first responders. McClain was killed in Aurora, Colorado: my hometown. McClain was killed doing something mundane, merely walking home, something that most people take for granted. I write “most people” because I’ve never taken walking for granted.
Walking has been risky for me. Why? Because some of the most memorable racist incidents that I’ve experienced in Denver happened when I was Walking while Black.
This may surprise some, since Denver has a reputation for being such a welcoming place. To capture this sentiment, I could see a visitor’s bureau official coming up with a catchy slogan like “Denver is the city too friendly to hate.” Yet, such idyllic thinking doesn’t square with reality. Denver’s African American population has experienced obvious and insidious forms of racism since the 1860s, when Colorado was a territory and not a state.
One caveat before I share my experiences. None of the events described below happened recently. Why? Because of a change in jobs, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, I just haven’t walked that much around Denver, save regular trips to the post office nearest to my home. While many see the election of President Donald J. Trump as a watershed moment that gave racists permission to be more vocal, all of these incidents happened before 2016.
The first incident was on the 16th Street Mall. It was a sun-splashed day after a cold snap of weather had everyone wanting to be outside. I invited a few interns from my office to lunch at a restaurant on the mall. As we walked back to the office, I accidentally bumped into a middle-aged white woman. I immediately apologized to her, and then turned to reconnect with my lunch party. I heard a voice rise above the din of the crowd packing the sidewalk. “Well, excuse me, n***! You think you can just bump into anybody!” I don’t remember what else she said, but when I turned around, I could see her flailing her arms as she continued to hurl race-tinged insults my way. As anger swelled within me, I momentarily thought about confronting her. Yet, I did a quick racial calculus. What good could come from a Black man confronting a white woman? What if she struck me? In what way could I retaliate? Would anyone vouch for me? If the police were called, who would they believe? I ultimately ignored her, but I felt impotent as I saw the expression on the interns’ faces. They had heard the same thing, and didn’t know what to say. I didn’t either. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, I told them “I’m not even going to sweat her.”
Another time was early in the morning. I was walking across Colfax Avenue on the north side of the Colorado State Capitol building. While in the intersection, I approached a middle-aged white woman in a wheelchair. She was struggling to get up the curb and onto the sidewalk. When I got close enough, I asked her if she needed any help. She screamed, “Keep your Black hands away from me!,” along with a string of unpleasantries. She didn’t use the N-word, but the sentiment expressed was the same. The situation was so appalling that the white woman walking behind me in the intersection gave me a shocked look and even apologized for the woman who was now rolling away.
The last memory that I’ll share here is the one that stung the most. I stood on the southwest corner of 18th Street and Glenarm waiting for the traffic light to change so that I could cross the street. As a brown car drove by, I don’t remember the make or model, the driver rolled down his car window. He was a white man, in his twenties, with brown furled hair and an unruly beard. To me, he epitomized the typical Colorado mountain dude. He flashed a smile and said, “Well, hello there n***!” I was shocked, probably because it was just so random an act. I was too dazed to get his license plate or pick up a rock to throw at his back windshield. He was so secure in his racism that he didn’t even try to speed away.
In my confused state, I was instantly transported back to my elementary school days in Aurora. While I walked home from school one day, a white, pimple-faced teenager driving by said the exact same words to me and exhibited the same smug expression. The driver slowed down so the message could be delivered with maximum effect. Come to think of it, he was also in a brown car, though this one was a station wagon. Who would guess that brown might be the official car color of racists? I cried as they drove away screaming a rebel yell. It was the first time I encountered hate speech. Later, I wondered why I didn’t have enough wits about me to throw a rock at the back windshield. Yet, humiliation has a paralyzing effect. It was a moment that I never wanted to relive, but here I was thirty years later, experiencing a sad circle of life.
As I still await justice for Elijah McClain, I grieve that Walking while Black can be deadly. I think about how white cops have only bothered me while I’m driving. When I’m walking, it’s the white private citizens who make me the most nervous.
Do you have an idea for a guest commentary? Please fill out this form.
Support the nonprofit mission of Streetsblog Denver. Give $5 per month.