The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colorado’s youngest black elected official is now the face of Denver’s protests

Tay Anderson, Denver school board at-large director, uses a bullhorn to speak during a protest outside the State Capitol on Friday, May 29, 2020. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER — Tay Anderson stood on North Broadway in the heart of downtown Denver, hundreds of protesters milling around him. SWAT officers pulled up, got out of their cars, gripping paintball and tear-gas guns, and tried to herd the crowd back onto the sidewalk.

The protest that Friday had been noisy but peaceful. Now, as rush-hour traffic eased its way past the mass, the situation grew tense and uncertain. Officers shoved Anderson as he tried to ask the commander for permission to remain on the thoroughfare.

So Anderson texted the police chief.

“I gave him a directive,” said Anderson. “I said we are going to go onto the streets, and either you block them off, or we block them off. And he worked with us.”

At 21, the Denver school board member is the youngest African American ever elected to public office in Colorado. He has also become the de facto leader of protests in Denver following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. For a week, protesters have marched peacefully and periodically faced off with law enforcement clad in bulky body armor. Some demonstrators defaced landmarks, looted businesses and threw stones at police, who responded with sponge bullets, pepper balls and stun grenades.

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After officers fired chemical agents into a crowd that included Denver Public Schools students on May 28, Anderson stepped into the leadership vacuum. The stocky Manual High School graduate quickly became the public face of what some in the Mile High City term a second civil rights movement. Even as he called out white allies for disrupting rallies, Anderson himself was tear-gassed twice and shot with rubber bullets.

His style has drawn praise and criticism. Some marchers disagreed with Anderson’s coordination with police. He said he was not trying to tell them how to protest, but rather working to keep them safe. He confronted white protesters as they spray-painted “All cops are bastards” on a wall, and he urged everyone to get tested for the coronavirus. Gov. Jared Polis (D) thanked Anderson for helping to distribute masks at the events, saying he has lost sleep worrying that the protests will lead to a second surge in covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.

After pandemic-related closures left him cooped up for weeks in a stuffy basement apartment near Cheesman Park, where he attended school board meetings on Zoom, the plain-spoken Anderson suddenly found himself representing millions of Coloradans on CNN and television stations in Australia and Canada.

His newfound celebrity came with threats; after a Google search turned up results including “tay anderson shot,” Anderson obtained a bulletproof vest. There have been public disagreements with conservative state legislators, who criticized his bold exhortations on social ­media in the wake of Floyd’s death. The backlash strengthened his resolve to address injustices against people of color, including Denver Public Schools students.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said the once-homeless Anderson, as he typed on a tablet the outline of a measure that would end the district’s agreement with the Denver Police Department to provide school resource officers, or SROs, on about 18 campuses.

Anderson won his second school board race in November for an at-large position with 67,213 votes — in part on a promise to replace SROs with nurses and counselors who would prioritize restorative practices.

“It’s about eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said. “Too often, students of color are targeted in schools and given tickets and citations.” He added that he and fellow school board members would ask the community on Friday to help draft the measure to end the SRO agreement. Denver police would still patrol school parking lots, and unarmed security personnel would remain in buildings under his proposal, he said.

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Anderson, who honed his leadership skills as Manual High School student body president during his junior and senior years, said he wants to help kids cultivate a sense of trust in law enforcement that is lacking today.

Anderson moved with his mother to Denver from Kansas City in 2012, on the night President Barack Obama won reelection. He entered the foster-care system his sophomore year. After moving home, Anderson and his mother had a falling-out, and he became briefly homeless his senior year before a family in east Denver invited him to stay with them. The daily bus ride from their house to Manual — which he chose to attend because the teachers and administrators “looked like me” — took three hours round-trip. Today, he seeks advice from his mom.

The product of a family of educators, he skipped college and worked as a legislative aide, a high school restorative justice coordinator and a protest organizer before his 2019 school board run.

Anderson is among a cadre of young elected officials of color in Colorado pushing for systemic change in education, criminal justice and police policy amid rapid gentrification of the region’s historic black and brown communities.

The fast-growing Front Range at the base of the Rocky Mountains, home to two-thirds of the state’s residents, boasted among the nation’s lowest unemployment rates before coronavirus-induced layoffs pushed it to 12 percent. Only about 10 percent of Denver County is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There’s a lot of frustration with us being a booming city, a wealthy city, but we’ve made no investment in education, in affordable housing, in food deserts,” said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor at the ­University of Denver who specializes in forensic psychology. “That’s causing racial tension here.”

Elder African American leaders say they are encouraged by Anderson’s emceeing of the disparate protests, adding that the demonstrations are attracting a more diverse crowd than such events have seen in the past. Instead of mostly white people, the marches now include many young black faces, said Timothy Tyler, pastor of the Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The social justice leader met Anderson several years ago at Manual and attended rallies with him, sometimes having “to snatch the bullhorn away from him.” He keeps a close eye on the young activist, whom he considers “like a son.”

“I busted Tay one day,” Tyler recalled. “I said, ‘Tay, put on your mask.’ We are fighting two pandemics, racism and covid-19, and I’m not sure which one of them is the most dangerous.”

Not one to shy away from controversy, Anderson, who failed his first year of high school, sided with Denver teachers in a 2019 strike and earned the endorsement of the union and some of Colorado’s best-known elected officials.

“He was very aggressive in fighting on behalf of the students,” said former Denver mayor Wellington Webb (D), the first African American to hold the position. “He tended to reach out to everyone, whether they were friend or foe, and to develop his own constituency.”

Anderson built coalitions to protest the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and to march in support of gun control and Black Lives Matter. This time around, he faces increasing scrutiny from elected officials across the political spectrum.

State Rep. Patrick Neville (R) reacted to a tweet that Anderson posted in advance of the Denver protests that read: “Sometimes you must burn it down in order to rebuild.” In response, Neville wrote: “This doesn’t sound ‘peaceful.’ Why would he put this out hours before the riots started?”

Anderson responded: “Coming from a guy that poses with White Supremacists . . . HAVE A SEAT, Pat.”

Dressed in a white T-shirt and black shorts, the barefoot school board member recently handed quarters for laundry to his
high school friend and roommate as he explained how the controversial remark lines up with his calls for protesters to refrain from violence. He said he can relate to the pain and anger of black activists in Minnesota who burned down a police ­station, but added that “war doesn’t always mean tanks and murder.”

“I think we finally have the attention of America,” Anderson said. “We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking just to be treated as humans.”