Colorado Rights Blog

ACLU of Colorado By: ACLU of Colorado 7.29.2016

Protect Freedom on the 16th Street Mall

This column was originally published on 7/29/16 in the Denver Business Journal.

In any discussion of improving perceptions of the 16th Street Mall, it is essential to remember that the Mall is a public space, and therefore must be open to all segments of the public.  Any attempt to drive away some people because of how they look or how much money they have is an unacceptable abuse of individual freedom and civil liberties.

It is also important to remember that for the most part, the 16th Street Mall is doing well, especially compared to pedestrian malls in many other cities.  It is bustling with people, it is lined with businesses, not empty store fronts, and the free shuttle plays a valuable role not only on the Mall itself but as an essential part of Denver’s transportation system.

To the extent there is concern, it seems to be primarily directed at people on the Mall who are visibly poor or homeless, and the discomfort or perception of a lack of safety that some people feel as a result. In response to perceived safety concerns, police presence on the Mall has increased, and city officials have promised an increased crackdown on harmless activities like sitting, lying down, or leaning against walls. Ordinances that turn these non-violent behaviors into crimes lend themselves to discriminatory enforcement based purely on how people look, which should have no place in our city.

In any case, policy should not be based on false or exaggerated perceptions. Just as crime rates are down nationally by quite a bit yet some people imagine that crime is rapidly rising, the idea that the Mall is dangerous is much more a matter of perception than reality.  Quick response to actual violent crime should be the priority of police, not ticketing people or moving them along because they look  poor and their presence makes people feel unsafe or uncomfortable.  To the extent that perception matters, a large, visible police or private security presence is intimidating and can backfire on public perception, giving the impression that the Mall must be a dangerous place to require so much policing.

So what to do about the concerns and discomfort that some people feel?  It would help to recognize that as Denver grows it should be expected to feel like a larger city, not a controlled suburb.  Older and grittier East Coast cities thrive as tourist destinations because of all they have to offer, not because they feel pristine.  It would be better to highlight the attractions of Denver and the Mall rather than to highlight exaggerated dangers or perceptions of crime. One of Denver’s attractions is as a city of freedom and rights, not heavy-handed government, and that should be preserved.

As for homelessness, the solutions lie not in criminalization and aggressive policing, but in serious – not token – investments in housing and services.  Many cities and nations in the world have essentially eliminated homelessness, so it is not impossible to do. As a thriving city in a wealthy nation, Denver can do much more than it is doing or proposing now.  And the tax money that is currently being spent to sweep up, force out, arrest, and even jail people for simply existing would be much better spent investing in solutions to the root causes of poverty and homelessness.

In the meantime, we may need to feel some discomfort about the presence of people who are homeless or living in poverty.  Not because they are a great danger—it is people without a home who are in the most vulnerable situation—but because we have not yet found the will to truly address poverty and homelessness as a city or as a nation.  As a great city feeling growing pains, Denver should address challenges in ways consistent with our values, not by sweeping away people we don’t want to see and pretending that doing so solves anything at all.

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.  

Tweets

Videos

  • On November 21, 2016, 13 Aurora police officers responded to a simple noise complaint at Alberto Torres’s home. As happens all too often, Aurora police officers escalated this minor issue into a brutal affair. They beat Mr. Torres solely because he delayed exiting his garage to ask his wife to interpret for him. With that beating, the lives of Mr. Torres and every member of his family were changed and he has yet to recover. ACLU of Colorado fought to obtain justice for Mr. Torres, and Aurora has now paid him $285,000. But money is not justice, and the brutality of the Aurora Police Department against people of color has continued unabated.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Imagine, if instead of 13 officers being dispatched to Mr. Torres’s home for a noise complaint, the City of Aurora sent a civilian-led response team to check on his welfare and ask that he and his friends lower their sound, resulting in a non-violent solution to a minor issue?

    ACLU Settles Case With Aurora After Police Brutalize and Unlawfully Arrest Alberto Torres

  • Hope is a discipline. It’s a commitment that together, we can create a more perfect union. We won’t rest until we fulfill the promise of equal rights for ALL people in the United States.

    Join us in our fight to fulfill this promise and move forward with hope by donating to the ACLU of Colorado. Your donation supports the ACLU’s strengths that make our work effective and collaborative.

    Donate now at https://action.aclu.org/give/support-aclu-colorado

  • Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die.

    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

    Governor Hickenlooper shortened his sentence following testimony from family, friends and correctional officers advocating for his early release. Yet, he is still eight years away from parole. While he remains in prison, COVID-19 continues to spread. Ronald’s three siblings, four children and four grandchildren are desperate for his release.

    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.