Grand Junction’s burgeoning racial justice movement is the largest expression of dissent that the area has seen in almost two decades. Thousands of Mesa County residents have attended anti-racist events in the past eight weeks, as part of a national response to the police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Before this current wave of activism, the largest local protest since the turn of the millennium was in April 2006 when 4,000 people marched along North Avenue to advocate for immigration rights.
That march, more than 14 years ago, was in response to proposed federal legislation that would have classified illegal immigrants, and those who help them, as felons. It was organized as part of a series of marches occurring in over 100 cities across the nation, and it was identified by many at the time as possibly the largest political gathering in Grand Junction’s history.
Tom Acker helped organize the 2006 march and said, “It was the founding moment for Hispanic Affairs Project, and was the beginning of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition,” both of which have become influential regional organizations.
Similarly, this summer’s anti-racist activism has birthed the new local group Right & Wrong, which has already inspired change in the Grand Junction Police Department, Grand Junction City Council, and Mesa County Valley School District 51.
A common thread between these two public upwellings is their representation of minority populations. While Grand Junction has a documented history of racial tensions, the high attendance numbers at these events show that racial justice and equality are cultural values that are prioritized by a significant segment of the community.
For now, that segment is using its voice and maintaining a public presence. Since a candlelight vigil honoring George Floyd drew 600 attendees on May 30, the city has brimmed with countless marches, teach-ins, and demonstrations, each drawing crowds sized anywhere from 20 to 800. Attendance at City Council and County Commission meetings has boomed, with public comments focusing on the lived experiences of minorities in Grand Junction.
Acker, who serves as the Board President of HAP, warns that continuing this momentum will require strategic movement building. “There’s this huge emotional rush” after a successful march, Acker said. “But it’s deceptive, because you’ve got to organize and take advantage of allies.” He compared immigration rights activists and anti-racist organizers to the historical civil rights demonstrators in the deep South. “Before they went and sat on a lunch counter, they had extensive training,” and Grand Junction’s organizers will need the same.
From large public events, to small groups of individuals on sidewalks, to active engagement with local government, racial justice is becoming a part of the community dialogue. Whether the current surge of activism gains a permanent foothold, or if it’s another 14 years before the community rises up again as allies to people of color, remains to be seen.