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Peaceful protests demanding justice for George Floyd in Denver turn violent for a 2nd straight day

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Denver protests for George Floyd on May 29 2020.jpg
Denver protests death of George Floyd for a second day.jpg
Denver george floyd protests
Posted at 12:36 PM, May 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-30 14:26:37-04

DENVER -- In a tweet just after 6 p.m. Friday, the Denver Police Department thanked protesters for letting their voices be heard for George Floyd in a peaceful manner, following a night of chaos near the Colorado State Capitol that ended with 13 people arrested.

Two hours later, that sentiment evaporated into thin air, along with the peaceful nature of the protests, which turned violent for a second straight day in downtown Denver.

The clash between residents and police flared up again around 8 p.m., after Denver police started firing tear gas at protesters gathered at the intersection of E. Colfax Ave. and Lincoln Street. Video captured by Denver7 showed protesters grabbing those canisters and throwing them back at police. It’s unclear what provoked law enforcement to fire upon protesters, but the smoke from tear gas did not deter the group – which exponentially grew by sundown – to confront police officers by throwing objects at officers, which law enforcement responded to by using tear gas and pepper balls against protesters.

A Denver7 crew was near the vicinity of protesters at Lincoln and Colfax Avenue when police began firing pepper balls and pepper spray at the crowd gathered in the area. Jan Czernik, a Denver7 photojournalist was hit by the pepper balls at least four times and his equipment was damaged in the melee.

When Denver7's Adi Guajardo asked police officers marching toward her with pepper ball guns pointed straight at her and at a Denver7 photojournalist (41:16) why they were pushing people back and where people were supposed to protest peacefully, an officer replied, "They haven't been! Move back!"

During a phone interview with Denver7 later in the evening, Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen said officers started firing at protesters after they were attacked.

"Our officers are adhering to a very strict use of force policy ... and reacting to much of the violence that is thrown their way," Pazen said. "We have (been thrown) rocks, we have (been thrown) bottles, and we have individuals that have shown up to this event armed. ... We have individuals who have shown up equipped to cause harm to our community, and our officers are reacting to that situation."

When pressed further about the use of tear gas at protesters from across the street at the intersection of E. 13th Avenue and Lincoln Street — which lit the match for what would become an hours-long clash between police and protesters — Pazen told Denver7 officers were defending themselves from attacks of protesters.

"What we are doing is trying to maintain a peaceful situation, and the actions of agitators within this group is dictating that," Pazen said. "Once that dynamic changes, when the group starts to hurl objects at our officers, then that necessitates a different kind of response. The pepper ball, less lethal, system that we utilize, has a lower-level threshold, and our 40-millimeter [shotgun] system has a higher level. We are acting in accordance of that policy."

Pazen then called for restraint during the protest, mentioning several officers had been injured due to the upheaval Friday night.

"We need calm, we need restraint, we need agitators who do not represent what the city of Denver is all about – what the people of Colorado are all about – to stay away from this area and stop causing harm to our community."

Several minutes earlier, Denver7's Gary Brode reported police officers began firing several rounds at protesters who were across the street from the Colorado State Capitol allegedly trying to make their way to the steps of the building. The ammunition not only hit protesters - some of whom were reportedly on the middle of the road - but vehicles driving by as well, he said.

Some of those protesters headed down Lincoln between 12th and 13th Avenues and reportedly took about four of five large recycling bins and tried to make a barricade in the middle of the road, at which point SWAT and police started firing into the crowd. Brode reported a woman was writhing in pain after getting hit by one of the pepper balls.

At one point, another group of protesters formed a human chain at the intersection of East 13th Avenue and Broadway, which created a stop to traffic in the area.

"We're here for justice. We're here for justice for George Floyd - to stand up for what's right," said one protester who added crowds would return every night until the violence stopped. "Everyone is equal. Everyone's a human being. Everyone's life matters."

Those protesters eventually broke the human chain they created to allow traffic through and moved south on Broadway to return to the State Capitol several minutes later where they met by about two dozen SWAT and police officers with tear gas and pepper balls to disperse the crowds which had gathered at the State Capitol.

Clashes between police and protesters continued to escalate through the night, with tear gas creating a billowing cloud of white smoke in the area that could be seen from the air by AIRTRACKER7. Some protesters responded by setting things on fire, including a dumpster and a car, defacing Civic Center Park with graffiti and vandalizing the Colorado Supreme Court building as well as the Denver Public Library.

By midnight, Denver police confirmed the Target store on the 16th St. Mall had been looted by protesters who made off with a few items. No other details were immediately available.

"What we're seeing is destructive, it's needless, it's senseless," said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in a Zoom interview with Denver7. "It's unfortunate for everyone in Denver. ... the demonstrations started peacefully... unfortunately as the night grew near, we had some folks show up who, quite frankly, meant to disrupt the peace. This is not who we are, and calmer heads must prevail. Our police officers have a sworn duty to maintain everyone’s safety – and they will. People are crying out to be heard, but this violent distraction only divides us.”

When asked by Denver7 anchor Shannon Ogden what message he had for protesters out on the streets Friday evening, Hancock only said he hoped the crowds would return home.

"The best message for all of us, the best act we can take, is to go home and allow the situation to be deescalated and get home safely," he said. "We want to thank those people who came down [earlier Friday] and peacefully demonstrated. We heard them, we saw them, and we stand with [them]."

Moments before the clash between police and protesters began earlier in the evening, Tay Anderson, the youngest member to have been elected to the Denver School Board and one of the organizers who led Friday’s protest, had asked people gathered at the City and County Building to not engage with crowds who were there to disrupt the peaceful protest.

Some of the protesters, who had mostly remained at the Colorado State Capitol before moving to the City and County Building, moved to just outside the Denver jail where they confronted police, who fired tear gas in order to disperse the crowds.

“We asked white allies to go home and some of them still insisted (in) throwing rocks, bottles, etc. at police,” he said in a tweet, after learning that tensions had escalated between police and protesters. “I am disgusted in how allies ignored our asks to go home and stay peaceful.”

The majority of the protests had remained peaceful most of the day, when the protest began at around noon at Civic Center Park. Hundreds gathered to demand justice for George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who died after an officer knelt on his neck earlier this week.

The crowd, numbered in the hundreds, started marching through downtown Denver, going from Civic Center Park to the 16th Street Mall. They held signs in support of Floyd and chanted his name along with the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot!” which became a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement following the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Businesses along the 16th St. Mall boarded up their windows in anticipation of the protests, while other businesses - who are now allowed be open in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic - closed for the day.

After marching back to the State Capitol, the crowds dispersed but protests resumed by about 3 p.m. along East Colfax Avenue and continued through the downtown area, including the 16th St. Mall.

The protesters would eventually again return to the State Capitol where they chanted anti-police slogans and spray painted the statue in front of the State Capitol.

The Friday protests marked the second night of violent demonstrations after shots were fired near the State Capitol Thursday night, which led to some protesters turning to vandalism and police firing less-lethal rounds and spraying tear gas to break up the crowds.

GALLERY: Images from Denver's night of protests demanding justice for George Floyd

Earlier Friday, city officials said the officers showed "restraint" in working the protests and were forced to use less-lethal force, such as pepper balls, to disperse crowds and prevent danger to themselves and other protesters.

Thirteen people were arrested in the Thursday protests for incidents of burglary, criminal mischief and assault, Chief Paul Pazen said. It's unclear how many were arrested after the free for all Friday night.

"We've made it clear. The chief and I stood together and said we would allow people to exercise their first amendment rights ... what we've asked people to do is to exercise those rights peacefully," Hancock said.

Our coverage of the second night of the George Floyd protests in Denver can be viewed in full below: