Boulder Police, Homelessness, and Racism

Much like Boulder Police’s confrontation of Zayd Atkinson in March, their April 5 arrest of Sammie Leon Lawrence happened on a Friday and didn’t hit the news right away. The stories seemed to slowly gain momentum after the weekend before rising to the level of awareness within Boulder, let alone on a larger scale. But the similarities between the two police-initiated conflicts are more than striking, as are their direct and indirect ties to homelessness within Boulder specifically, and within the context of US history more broadly. Taken in combination and in context, the two incidents tell a story that goes a long way to explaining anti-black racism within police culture, as well as why our police seem to have such an issue with homeless people in a more general sense.

Let’s start our story in Mississippi, though, in the middle of the 1860s. The civil war was over, and slavery had officially been abolished, but what that really meant was that confederate states were trying to figure out a way to rebrand and reimagine what slavery could be, as their economy was so dependent on free labor. Mississippi was the first state to implement what would become known as the Black Codes, a not insignificant portion of which was to create vagrancy laws, such that newly freed black men could be arrested for being homeless and unemployed. And who was doing the arresting? From that linked History Channel piece: “The Black Codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces – often made up of confederate veterans of the civil war.” Once convicted, the penalty would often include, wait for it, being sentenced to perform forced, unpaid labor on nearby plantations.

So the historic connection between policing, homeless sweeps and racism is pretty clear. Let’s connect some dots here in Boulder. Actually, let’s start in Boulder in 2015, and just let Chief of Police Greg Testa connect the dots for us:

After watching the clip, we’ll let you decide if comparing percentages is actually hard, or if the Chief is grasping at straws to explain why blacks are arrested in Boulder at a significantly higher rate than other races. Does Chief Testa actually believe what he’s saying? Is the historic connection between policing, homelessness and anti-black racism so culturally ingrained in the police force that he hasn’t even stopped to think about it? Who knows?

So how about the vagrancy law connection to Boulder PD hassling Atkinson as he picked up trash at his home? Well, it wouldn’t be fair for us to assume that police initiated contact with Atkinson because they thought he might be homeless and trespassing at that property. We can’t say that for sure. Or maybe we can? What we can say is that citizens who showed up at the following city council meeting to protest Atkinson’s treatment were sharing space with protestors of another city-instigated action with ties to dubious, anecdotal, statistics from Boulder PD. In this case, city staff was asking the council for almost $1million to set up what would amount to a privatized police force to conduct homeless sweeps. The request, which was partly forwarded in response to a Boulder PD claim that as much as 80% of Boulder homeless use methamphetamine, has since been withdrawn, with very little coverage or reporting, most likely because it was overshadowed by the building outcry and protests to the Atkinson situation. Conversely, the city  moved forward, during the aftermath of the Atkinson harassment, with their plan to reduce the number of available beds in homeless shelters, after already significantly reducing the homeless services available within Boulder through a consolidation of service offerings in 2018.

Which brings us to Lawrence’s arrest last week – another connection between policing, racism and homelessness. Lawrence, a formerly homeless man who lives in Boulder and is well known to the city council and staff leadership was documenting Boulder police conducting a homeless sweep that we understand to have been based on complaints about littering. So, like the police confrontation to Atkinson, it was captured on video. Also like the confrontation of Atkinson, police ultimately demanded that Lawrence drop his weapon. In Atkinson’s case, the “weapon” was the trash clamp he was using to put debris into a plastic bucket. In Lawrence’s, it was the walking stick he is always seen using to help him stay upright and avoid injury when he experiences non-epileptic seizures (NES).

Anyway, we’ll leave you with this question: If it was not because of race, how do you suppose Boulder police justify their alleged fear of Atkinson’s trash clamp and Lawrence’s walking stick, when their response to non-Boulder-citizen white guys walking down Pearl Street with AR-15s was to, you know, not do anything at all.

So watch the Atkinson and Lawrence videos, and think about the difference between those and the AR-15 response, and we’ll see you at the council meeting. And seriously, if the police really can’t accept the idea of a civilian oversight board at this point, it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest (including the police) for the city to work on a plan to transition current officers and leadership out of policing, and to hire with an eye toward creating a culture of actually protecting and serving and working with the people of Boulder.