A history of Aspen protests, from the 1950s to today
The Back Lives Mater demonstrations in downtown Aspen over the past month follow a long tradition of protest in Aspen.
Remote and small as the mountain town may be, modern Aspen has made its voice heard on local and world issues since it started to become a hub of international wealth and power in the years after World War Two.
“Aspen has way too much influence nationally and globally not to say anything,” Jenelle Figgins, co-founder of Roaring Fork Show Up, said at a downtown rally last month, echoing the sentiment of local activists of decades yore.
This summer’s marches and protests about systemic racism and police violence may be the largest and most sustained in Aspen history, drawing hundreds of people for consecutive weekends. There’s no precedent for its size and longevity, said Aspen Historical Society curator Lisa Hancock.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s didn’t lead to any on-the-ground action in the “so lily white” Aspen of the day, she said. The larger Aspen protests of the 21st century – over war, climate and women’s rights – were single-day affairs.
Large-scale activism and political organization in Aspen began with the formation of the Aspen Miners’ Union in 1894, but historical evidence of locals exercising their First Amendment right to free assembly for political demonstration is scant until the town’s era as a ski resort.
Those protests have centered on both local and national issues. These are some of the most significant:
Water Rights, Wintersköl 1954
The famed musician and local gadfly Freddie Fisher during the annual winter carnival parade, staged an elaborate bathtub float protesting diversions from the Roaring Fork River to the Front Range. Water and access to public lands have frequently called Aspenites to political action.
Against Humble Oil, 1965
The Humble Oil Company sought to build a gas station in the West End in 1964, sparking a zoning change from the city to keep it out, which in turn sparked a lawsuit from Humble against the city. Protestors took to the streets and to the courthouse to oppose the gas company and its plans.
Vietnam and Robert McNamara, 1967
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a frequent Aspen visitor, drew organized demonstrations from locals as the war in Vietnam escalated and the anti-war movement grew. In 1967, protestors surrounded a home he rented during a vacation. In his memoir, McNamara recalled being “surrounded by a mob of chanting demonstrators.” In separate incidents, protestors twice attempted to burn down a vacation home McNamara was having built in Snowmass.
Rulison Underground Nuclear Test, 1969
Roaring Fork Valley residents fought the detonation of a 40-kiloton bomb underground in Rulison, west of Glenwood Springs. The federal Operation Plowshare sought to find peace-time uses for nuclear bombs. Here one was set off for natural gas exploration. Though they didn’t stop the bomb, the protests did give birth to some of the earliest protest art by Tom Benton, whose “no contamination without representation” posters were ubiquitous during the demonstrations.
Aspenites vehemently fought against the potential of bringing the 1976 winter Olympics to Aspen, citing the accelerating development and growth in the mountains at the time. The protestors – rallying under the “Stop the Final Rape of Aspen” slogan – won out, and a statewide vote went against the Olympic bid in a landslide.
Locals’ Ski Pass, 1975
Locals organized to fight the Aspen Ski Corp. and petitioned the U.S. Forest Service after the company stopped honoring the three-mountain “local’s pass” on Aspen Mountain, ostensibly because crowds of ski bums were scaring off tourists. Without success in the fight, local skiers began flocking to Aspen Highlands, which operated independently.
Aspen Society for Animal Rights, 1989-1990
The anti-fur movement in Aspen made international news and influenced the animal rights movement. Organized protests date back as far as 1979 against people wearing fur coats in town, which led to bans on inhumane animal traps in the years that followed. The movement crested in 1989 as Mayor Bill Stirling began moving to ban the sale of fur in town, which gained world press attention and made Aspen a major force in the early animal rights movement, though Stirling’s ballot measure lost in 1990.
The “Honk-In,” Dec. 30, 1994
Ten days before paid parking went into effect in downtown Aspen, protestors staged a noon “honk-in.” Drivers circled City Hall honking their horns through the afternoon. One protestor burned a cardboard parking meter in effigy.
“It was deafening,” city parking department head Tim Ware told the Aspen Times in 2005. “I kind of hid inside. I’d already had enough hate mail and bad things said about my mother.”
“It created gridlock in the entire downtown,” Mayor John Bennett told the Times in 2005. “They were supposed to circle City Hall. Nobody could circle anything.”
Iraq Invasion, February 2003
During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of protestors filled Paepcke Park for an anti-war rally over X Games weekend in 2003. Speakers included Hunter S. Thompson, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and former Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards. Protestors criticized the congressional resolution for military action and also called for local governments to pass resolutions opposing it.
Occupy Aspen, 2011
As the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from New York across the U.S. to protest the corruption of the U.S. political and financial systems, Aspen – playground of the 1-percenters – was a natural locale. Locals made Aspen’s Wagner Park ground zero for Occupy Aspen in October 2011, when 30 demonstrators hosted an initial rally that continued with smaller demonstrations through fall.
Women’s March and Ski, 2017-2020
Spawned as part of the national march for women’s rights in January 2017, this has grown into an annual event that includes a group ski down Aspen Mountain, a march to Paepcke Park and a rally featuring women speakers.
Global Climate Strike, September 2019
Some 400 Aspen high school and middle school students walked out of class on Sept. 20, 2019 and marched on Aspen City Hall, joining an international call by young people for government action on climate change.
Black Lives Matter, May & June 2020
Protests spread around the world following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, seeking to right the injustices of systemic racism. The streets of Aspen filled with what may be the largest and most sustained protests in its history. Crowd estimates have topped 400 for marches and demonstrations that began in late May and grew in the weeks that followed.
Additional protest photos from the Aspen Historical Society