Taking a stand: Aspen locals peacefully protest, speak out about death of George Floyd

“I can’t breathe.”

For nine minutes Sunday, dozens of Aspen locals repeated these three words over and over while face down on the pavement next to Wagner Park, their hands behind their backs.

“Nine minutes is a long time, y’all,” Jenelle Figgins said to the group as they began to get back to their feet. “But you can breathe now, right? There are so many people in this position who can’t when they finish.”

One of those people was George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died after now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground by holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes May 25. He was reportedly confronted, handcuffed and pinned by officers for trying to pass a fake $20 bill.

For days, peaceful and violent protests have erupted across the country in response to Floyd’s death — and the systemic, anti-black racism and seemingly more commonplace police violence against people of color it exemplifies.

In Aspen, with the help and support of her close friends, Figgins — an African-American woman and dancer with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company — began the weekend protesting as well, peacefully setting up signs near Wagner Park and walking through the mall area Saturday. She said about nine people joined her.

When she returned for a similar demonstration Sunday morning, more than 50 people showed up with masks on and signs up, voicing their outrage at what led to Floyd’s death.

“I figured if I don’t do this now it’s not going to happen,” Figgins said Sunday of protesting. She said a friend reached out to see how she was doing and told her they didn’t want to stay silent about Floyd’s death either, which gave her the push she needed to take action on a community level.

“I wasn’t going to publicize it, I was genuinely just going to sit out here by myself. I was already doing that in my apartment,” she said, adding, “George Floyd didn’t have to die in that way and I think there’s more uproar right now because that was just so blatant. People are just fed up with seeing blatant violence against people of color.”

The protests in Aspen and across the country aren’t just to speak out against Floyd’s death; his is one of many over recent years that resulted from racism and police violence under otherwise common circumstances.

For example, in 2014 an unarmed black man named Eric Garner died in New York after police threw him to the ground and put him in a chokehold reportedly for selling cigarettes without tax stamps. His death was filmed with a cellphone, like Floyd’s, and he was heard saying “I can’t breathe,” too.

There are many other examples like this one, Figgins said, and with the reported disproportionate affects the novel coronavirus pandemic has had on communities of color versus white communities over the past several months, what happened to Floyd was the tipping point for many Americans, including herself.

“It has gotten to a point where we can’t be silent. Silence is unacceptable,” Figgins said. “Aspen has way too much influence nationally and globally not to say anything … and for the residents in this community who are of color, we show up for you guys every day and rarely do we feel you guys show up for us. So it’s time for Aspen to show up.”

Since she moved to Aspen six years ago, Figgins said she’s struggled when reported deaths similar to Floyd’s and Garner’s have not elicited any response from the Aspen community.

“In my time here I’ve never seen anything happen and as a resident that hurts to not feel the solidarity of the community that you put so much work into,” said Figgins, a Washington, D.C., native. “I have so much energy and anger and I’ve honestly lived a lot of my time here with that feeling and not having an outlet for that energy.”

But after Sunday’s peaceful protest turnout, Figgins said she doesn’t feel as alone as she has in recent years and hopes the demonstrations will help create an outlet and opening for all Aspen locals to speak out against future injustices.

“This is really, really encouraging. I think it’s great we have so many people out here right now.” Figgins said Sunday. “But I can only do so much, people of color in this community can only do so much; it’s everyone else, the majority here that has to be fed up enough to be there for other people.”

Starting with a few words from Figgins and Aspen Community Church Pastor Jerry Herships, then spending more than an hour on each corner of the Main and Mill streets intersection chanting things like “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace,” Sunday’s protest aimed to remain peaceful but to speak out against racism and police brutality toward people of color.

Participants like Peter Rispoli, who grew up in Aspen, said he spent most of his Saturday watching the country “unfold in chaos” as a result of Floyd’s death and wanted to express his outrage and disapproval, too.

“A lot of people aren’t necessarily oppressed themselves but are still enraged,” Rispoli said. He found out about Sunday’s demonstration through Instagram. “This (protest) exceeded my expectations and shows a lot of people care.”

Alma Garrett and Kyle Light expressed similar thoughts, all three saying they feel even though the majority of Aspenites don’t see or experience a lot of oppression in their daily lives that the community has an important role to play in speaking out against it.

“When a lot of people think of privilege one of the first places they think of is Aspen, and it’s true,” Light said. “We’re able to switch off and ignore things like this.”

“That’s why there’s an extra need for people here to go out and show that this isn’t right. … There’s white privilege here and we know it, which is why we need to show the rest of the world where we stand,” Rispoli added.

The three locals said they hope the Aspen community can come together and form one voice to speak out against what has happened to Floyd and other Americans of color, and use its international platform as a tool for more good.

“It’s time for (Aspen) to step up and take a stand,” Garrett said.

After more than two hours of chanting and walking signs with phrases like “Aspen isn’t untouched,” and “We will not be ignored” written on them around the city core, many Sunday participants said they plan to return to Wagner Park next weekend to peacefully protest with Figgins, continuing to take a stand and to advocate for more community action in response to Floyd’s death.

“We’re not here to destroy, we’re here to create a change,” Figgins said to the group Sunday. “If we in this community do not sacrifice the things that we have, there will be no change and nobody will be free. If we’re not all free, nobody is free.”

Figgins posted Sunday night on Instagram that she will hold rallies again this coming weekend starting at 10 a.m. at Wagner Park on Saturday and Sunday.