The first time I encountered the Denver Justice Project was at a District Attorney Forum following the 2016 Martin Luther King Day event. Black Lives Matter 5280, elements of Denver Justice Project, and other community members took over the MLK event, re-navigating the parade to march adjacent to the corporatized, whitewashed celebration. This moment is one of my most treasured, empowering moments in my life as I can still remember being enveloped in the spirit of revolt and the embrace of community power. Throughout the entire event; through the drums, the singing, the chanting; rang a phrase that echoed in Denver for months. “Why is Michael Marshall dead?” I joined the Denver Justice Project a few months later, coming from a national organization called Justice Together. And I did so, in part, because I need people to know why Michael Marshall died. And more importantly, what to do about it.
Michael Marshall was killed by police in November 2015. He was Black. He was homeless. He was mentally ill. One night he was staying in a hotel that he had frequented when he lost his Bible and had an episode which led to him asking the hotel to call the police. Denver Police showed up and arrested Michael for trespassing and brought him to the Denver jail with bail set at $100. Because of a mere $100, Michael was kept in the jail where he suffered another episode and in response, five police officers, each twice Michael’s size, piled on top of him; beating him, yelling at him, and suffocating him until he died. His lifeless body was secured in a restraint chair as if he was still a threat while officers laughed nearby. He was taken to the hospital where he was eventually removed from life support by his family, who were never informed that he had been arrested to begin with.
Michael Marshall existed at the intersections of being Black, impoverished, homeless, and mentally ill. And because of that, he was killed. He was arrested because he was homeless, jailed because he was too poor to afford bail, killed because our system treats mental illness with violence, and was denied justice for his murder because he was yet another Black man killed by our decidedly criminal “justice” system.
Denver and the rest of Colorado need to stand against the systemic issues that allowed Michael Marshall to be killed. We need to be fervent in our opposition to policies such as Denver’s urban camping ban that criminalizes homelessness. We need to be deliberate in our fight against gentrification which forces people working for stagnant wages out of cities that become too expensive to live in. It is time to demand that issues such as mental health, drug addiction, and poverty be treated as public health issues rather than public safety issues. We must redefine what safety even looks like and how we, as community members, can ensure safety since our system uses notions of public safety to perpetuate racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and violence.
The Denver Justice Project focuses on three aspects of police accountability: the role of the district attorney, the discipline matrix, and independent oversight. All three of these measures failed Michael Marshall as the DA didn’t file any criminal charges against his murderers, only two officers involved were disciplined by virtue of receiving two week suspensions, and the independent monitor could do little more than issue a letter of condemnation. We continue to work on these areas, but we are also ardent in saying that what we need is transformation rather than reform. We need to get in the practice of envisioning what a world would look like if we couldn’t call police to address issues and instead had to rely on our own community to help us. This happens by organizing workers, neighbors, families, and students and using an intersectional lens to reclaim the definition of public safety and drastically transform the way justice is pursued in our society.
Michael was more than his identity and experiences. He was a warm soul who never intended to hurt anyone. According to his family, he had a great sense of humor and for the most part, genuinely enjoyed life. His charge of “trespassing” was one that posed no safety risk to others. He wasn’t a threat to anyone. So why is Michael Marshall dead?
Denver Justice Project is a community organization that focuses on transforming law enforcement, seeking racial justice, and ending mass incarceration. Like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter: @DenJustPro. Visit our website to schedule a Know Your Rights Training at DenverJusticeProject.org