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Elijah McClain Protesters Speak Out on Attempted Cop Kidnapping Charges

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 1/9/2021 Alaina Demopoulos
a group of people walking in front of a crowd: Michael Ciaglo/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Michael Ciaglo/Getty

At six feet tall, with long brown hair and impressively direct eye contact, Lillian House is a commanding presence—even on a Zoom call. She recently spoke to The Daily Beast from the home she shares in Denver with her partner, Ryan. Her rescue dog, Hermie, lay on a small bed right behind her.

House is one of a group of socialist organizers in Colorado, gearing up for a lengthy and—as one of her co-accused puts it—“traumatic” legal battle, after peacefully protesting at the city of Aurora’s police station on July 3, using their own bodies to block 18 officers inside. Three of the group who were subsequently arrested, including House, have been charged with attempted kidnapping for surrounding the station.

“He’s clingy,” House said, glancing at Hermie. The eight days she has already spent in jail were “hard for him.” While advocating for House’s release, Ryan took Hermie to his parents house so they could look after the dog. “He just sat at the front door, looking out the door, that whole time,” House said.

If things don’t go well for her, Hermie could be looking out the door a whole lot longer. House, 26, faces 24 charges—12 of which are felonies—for organizing the demonstration. If convicted, she faces up to 48 years in jail.

As a member of the Party for Liberation and Socialism (PSL), House had spent nearly a year bringing awareness to the police murder of Elijah McClain. The Black, unarmed, 23-year-old massage therapist and violinist was put in a chokehold by cops while walking home from the convenience store in August of 2019. (A 911 caller had reported McClain looking “sketchy,” wearing a ski mask, waving his arms.)

In the struggle that ensued, as reported by The New York Times, McClain vomited. Paramedics arrived, and gave McClain the sedative ketamine, after which he went into cardiac arrest. He died in the hospital six days later.

The three officers involved in his death—Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema—faced no charges. This week, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a grand jury would open an investigation into the case. Woodyard and Roedema remain on the force. (McClain’s family has filed a civil suit against the police department.)

Last year, as protests against the murder of George Floyd galvanized activists around the country to revisit officer-involved killings, three other officers—including Rosenblatt—were fired from the Aurora force, and one other resigned, after selfies were released showing them mocking the same chokehold used on McClain.

The same day the photos were revealed on July 3, PSL organized the demonstration outside of Aurora PD.

Social media footage from that night shows a diverse crowd. Some brought water and snacks to share with other protesters, and others did the Cupid Shuffle as a tribute to McClain, who was reportedly dancing on his walk home.

The Denver Post reported that night House said, “We are not storming the station tonight. We’re going to sit here, because that’s our right. No one comes in, and no one goes out.” It was a statement echoed during a phone call Hill had with Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, which she broadcast to protesters over a loudspeaker.

“I just want to make it perfectly crystal clear that everyone here has agreed that we’re going to sit here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re not going in, we’re not going out, and neither are these pigs that are inside the building,” House said.

Wilson said she did not “have the power to fire,” citing “separate investigations” into Woodyard and Roedema launched by Governor Jared Polis, the FBI, and “another independent investigation.”

As the night turned into early morning, some protesters used sticks, rope, and other makeshift barricades to keep officers inside, though House has said she was uninvolved and did not know about any alleged obstruction. The police were able to clear out protesters around 4:30 am.

Two months later, House and two fellow PSL organizers named Eliza Lucero and Joel Northam were arrested and charged with a litany of felonies, including the confounding attempted kidnapping charge.

Northam, who did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, told Denver’s 9News he realized he was being arrested when he noticed a SWAT tank outside of his apartment one morning. A SWAT team “in full tactical gear [with] fully automatic weapons” was there, too.

House and Lucero were also taken in that day; the three organizers spent eight days in jail.

Aurora is one of the largest suburbs of Denver and spans three counties. The group faces charges in both the 17th and 18th judicial districts. Representatives for both DAs were unable to comment for this story; a spokesperson for the 18th judicial district said, “In this office, we do not typically discuss open cases outside the courtroom.”

Dave Young, the DA for Adams & Broomfield Counties who is pursuing the attempted kidnapping charge, attempted to justify the charges in a September news release. “We support the First Amendment right of people to protest peacefully in our community but there is a difference between a peaceful protests [sic] and a riot,” Young said. “When individuals cross the line and break the law, they will be prosecuted.”

Young contends that PSL leaders “prevented 18 officers inside from leaving the building by barricading entrances and securing doors with wires, ropes, boards, picnic tables, and sandbags.”

An affidavit from the Arapahoe County Court cites House’s phone call with Wilson as “intent to imprison all the officers inside,” and claims that the “blockade of the police station was preventing officers from providing police services to the city.”

A representative for the Aurora Police Department turned down The Daily Beast’s request for an interview, writing “Chief Wilson respectfully declines as she is a victim.”

“I am a revolutionary now, I really believe that we can—and have to—have another system.”

Lillian House has run @SpaceMineShop, an Instagram and Etsy store filled with mostly Y2K-era vintage goodies, like chunky platform boots and knitted bucket hats. She had around 50,000 followers until this week, when she came out to her page as an activist facing charges for the protest. Now, she’s gained over 2,000 more fans.

She likes the flexibility running her own business provides, because it gives her more time to organize. But she began her career in resale at a college student at Penn State. She had stopped buying new clothes for herself and was spending a lot of time at thrift stores. Her height kept her from keeping some pieces she thought were “really cool.”

“I would see in the back of the thrift store, where they just have a warehouse full of clothes getting crushed together after they were taken off the store floor for not selling,” House said. “I came to the realization of how much waste there was. That was part of what led me to really stick with selling vintage. Also, I really needed money.”

Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign spurred House to begin aligning with various socialist groups and causes. “When I was in college, I started to think more systematically about the issues that had always been really disturbing about the world, and the country that we live in,” she said. “I am a revolutionary now, I really believe that we can—and have to—have another system and that we won’t see the end of all of these different forms of suffering without that happening.”

She traveled to New York City for Black Lives Matter protests against the murder of Eric Garner, who was killed on Staten Island when Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in an illegal chokehold while arresting him for selling cigarettes. “I was so disturbed, and being in the streets with so many people who were fed up - there’s such a power [and] it occurred to me that we can achieve change. Not just that—I felt the life and death urgency of needing to take action. That really changed me.”

House moved to Colorado in 2015. The Bernie Sanders campaign spurred her to begin aligning with socialist groups, and she ended up with a PSL leadership role. “I am a revolutionary now, I really believe that we can and have to have another system and that we won’t see the end of all of these different forms of suffering without that happening,” she said.

It was important for House to join an organization that was “about building for revolution,” and wasn’t just a study group. “It’s not just that I believe socialism is ‘good,’ but there are so many people suffering in so many different ways under this system,” she said. “I don’t just like the idea of socialism, we need socialism. This system isn’t working, and we don’t have to live under capitalism, but it is going to take a fight.”

House and all of the arrested protesters adamantly maintain their demonstrations were peaceful, and well within their First Amendment rights. “This is a protected right, a cherished right, something we have to defend in this country,” House said.

As the local outlet Westworld reported, House has received support from local unions, like The Denver Labor Association. “If this protest is a kidnapping, what does that make a picket? This kidnapping charge is meant to color us as dangerous and violent,” House said, quoting a statement the union released.

Eliza Lucero, another organizer facing the attempted kidnapping charge, is 23 and also sells vintage on Instagram, under the handle @Celestial.Vtg. “Lil does clothes, and I do home goods,” she said. “I was super inspired by Lil to start my shop. She’s helped me a lot in developing my shop and finding the confidence to accept that I do have an eye for this. It takes an eye to find things, to pick out stuff from piles of what other people consider junk. I love vintage because it’s a treasure hunt.”

Lucero, who is 23 and lives with her husband in Denver, grew up attending protests with her parents. “I think my passion for social justice really came from them,” Lucero said. “It really stuck with me, from a young age, that you should always fight for the right for people to live happily and healthily, no matter what their income was.”

Born in Chicago but raised in rural Pennsylvania, Lucero said she went to her first protest around age 7. “It was against mass incarceration and it was a really big, long march.” She grew up “poor,” the daughter of a grad student father who became a pastor and stay-at-home mom who became a social worker.

“Class lines became very clear when we moved to rural Pennsylvania,” Lucero said. “Most of the people who live there are poor, and then there are a few well-off families. There was a sharp divide between the kids who came from those families and lived on top of this big hill, and then the rest of the town was constantly struggling to get by.”

Lucero moved to Colorado to attend UC Denver and quickly fell in with PSL. Even though she was no stranger to protesting, the events of this summer—and police response to those movements—felt “so profound and so insane.”

“I’ve seen protesters get arrested before for things, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lucero said. “The first time I really experienced police brutality to this extent was this summer during the first few days of Denver protests. We would be entirely peaceful, and the police would come out and tear gas people. It was in the air. You could feel tear gas pretty much everywhere downtown. I think people who weren’t protesting, but live in that area, could feel it.” (The ACLU of Colorado has filed a federal lawsuit against Denver over the city’s treatment of protesters last summer.)

Lucero was the last of her three friends to be arrested. House had been pulled over by several cop cars while driving and taken to jail. Lucero was at home with her husband. “At that point, I got in the shower,” she remembered. “I thought that if I’m going to jail next, I want to be clean. I didn’t know at the time that once you’re in jail showering is nearly impossible, but I guess I had good instincts.”

Eight officers came to her home to arrest her, surrounding her husband as he went to take the trash out. “None of us deserve any of this, but Dominic definitely didn’t deserve that,” Lucero said.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, the jail House and Lucero were held in was on a 23-hour lockdown. “You’re in your cell all day with nothing to occupy your mind,” Lucero recalled. “It’s mental torture.”

Inmates got 30 to 40 minutes of “out time” a day, and the women had to make tough decisions about how to spend it. “You have to choose between, do I want to clean out the cell that I’m living in, eating in, going to the bathroom in, or do I want to take a shower, or do I want to call my loved ones to find out what’s going on?” Lucero recalled.

Since there is no set schedule, Lucero’s husband did not know when she would be able to call. Sometimes it would be 6 in the morning. It could be 9 at night. “He took off work just to be able to get my phone call,” Lucero said. “He was amazing.”

House had a cellmate who had been inside “for a long time” and “developed what a lot of women in there had developed—a skill to sleep 20 hours a day.”

“In those conditions, you have nothing to do but look at the ceiling,” House added.

Books were hard to come by. Lucero eventually got her hands on reading material, but all the jail had were “cop books about murders and things like that.” The women were given coloring pages—no crayons, just pages—but the pictures were of tanks and guns. “There was some Frozen too, but mostly tanks and guns,” she said.

a close up of a piece of paper: Eliza Lucero © Provided by The Daily Beast Eliza Lucero

Lucero rationed out her reading time, and tried to sleep in between. “It’s really your only solace,” she said. “And it’s really hard to sleep because there are bright fluorescents on you all the time, and you get thin sheets, nothing to put over yourself.”

The women were not told when they would get out. “I think the uncertainty of when it was going to end would give us crippling anxiety, which is the last thing you want in prison,” Lucero said. Still, Lucero told her lawyer that if her bond was made available before House’s she did not want to leave. “I told my lawyer, you better not bond me out before you bond her out,” she said. “We’re going out together, or not at all.”

When she finally knew her release date, Lucero let her parents know what happened. She did not want to worry them, since they live out of state and could not have done much to help. “When my parents heard what was going on, they didn’t know what to make of it,” she said. “But they do have confidence in me and they know that we weren’t in jail for doing something wrong. We were in jail for doing something right.”

A crowd of PSL supporters came to meet House, Lucero, and Northam when they were released.

“It was overwhelming to see so many people after being in near-solitary confinement for eight days,” Lucero said. “The first thing we did was hug each other and cry, because that was a very traumatizing and terrifying experience. Then we thought we wanted to eat, because we hardly ate in jail. But then people brought us food, and we couldn’t eat, because we hadn’t eaten in so long, it was going to make us sick.”

House “knew how ugly the prison system was” before she experienced it firsthand, but still nothing could prepare her for those eight days. “I do think it’s important to say that what we experienced is routine for so many people,” she said.

“There are millions of people behind bars, tens of thousands in ICE custody, and it’s hard to comprehend that this kind of torture happens to so many people on a daily basis. Meeting women who are really good people, but are in there for things like not being able to pay a traffic ticket, yeah, I don’t know how you could get out and not fight even harder.”

Lucero had nightmares for weeks after the ordeal. Sleeping was difficult. “I don’t remember this, but my husband tells me that one night I woke up, put all of the shades down in the apartment, and said, ‘They’re coming for me, they’re going to arrest me right now,’” she recalled. “I locked the doors and said, ‘Please don’t let them take me back.’”

Lucero spoke to The Daily Beast just hours after the MAGA mob stormed the Capitol. When pro-Trump rioters seemed to brush past a limp line of Capitol Police on Wednesday, she, like other progressive activists, could not help but recall the brutality they have faced while protesting.

How the police treated the MAGA rioters compared to how Lucero feels she and the Aurora protesters were treated seems striking to her. “I’ve been thinking about that all day,” she said. “Just. . .it’s such a double standard, for sure.”

“There’s quite a precedent for these kinds of charges, not just for protesters of color, but for left-leaning protesters in general.”

Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies the right to assembly, told The Daily Beast that the attempted kidnapping charges House and Lucero faced were not surprising.

“Unfortunately, there is a precedent for this kind of thing, and it goes beyond BLM protests,” Fisher, also the author of American Resistance, said. “My guess would be that the assumption [by the courts] is that if you give people a big, rough sentence, it deters others from participating in that kind of protest.”

She cited laws that were changed in response to protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. States like Ohio and Iowa made it a felony for protesters demonstrating against so-called “critical infrastructure.” The activist Michael “Little Feather” Giron was sentenced to three years in prison for participating in a standoff with police in 2016.

“These were people who were not even near human beings, but trying to block construction,” Fisher said. “There’s quite a precedent for these kinds of charges, not just for protesters of color, but for left-leaning protesters in general.”

Nick Tilsen, the 38-year old president of the activist organization NDN Collective and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, faces 15 years in prison for taking part in a protest against Donald Trump’s July 4 Mt. Rushmore speech.

Tilsen and 15 others stayed present at the event after police gave them a half-hour warning. According to the AP, “prosecutors say Tilsen’s actions made a law enforcement officer ‘frightened for his life.’” Tilsen’s lawyer contends his client is being targeted because he is a well-known organizer.

House and Lucero have no trial date set, but this month both have preliminary hearings scheduled. They are helping to launch the National Committee for Justice in Denver, and will release a documentary about their case. Both House and Lucero’s Instagram shops link to a PSL petition demanding their charges be dropped.

“I don’t want to diminish the fact that this is absolutely a fight,” House said. “This is not easy. But that said, we are very confident we’re going to beat this. These charges are so absurd, so nakedly retaliatory [in response to her organizing the protest outside the police station and embarrassing the cops]. I do believe that we are going to beat this. And in 2021, we also want to see those cops who killed Elijah go to jail.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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