PUEBLO, Colorado — Several speakers at the Juneteenth Rally at Pueblo's Mineral Palace Park Friday called out the unequal treatment Black Americans face in modern society. The was organized by the NAACP of Pueblo and the Juneteenth and Organization of Pueblo. It included musical performances and speeches by a variety of young activists.
After more than 40 consecutive years, Pueblo's Juneteenth is one of the longest-running events of its kind in the state.
"It's not a Black holiday," said Silvester Abron, president of the Juneteenth Organization of Pueblo. "It's a celebration of freedom of peoples."
He is sensitive to the fact that Americans are paying closer attention this summer to the treatment of Black citizens following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.
"This is the time to bring awareness to all of this because we've got so much stuff going on and it needs to be brought to the forefront," Abrons said.
The differences occur in ordinary traffic stops. Local teacher Frida Hancock told the audience about a time Pueblo Police stopped a car she was riding. The officers explained they were looking for suspects from a robbery on the east side. They asked her brother and cousin to get out of the car and put their hands on the hood. Hancock was riding in the back seat and also got out to question what was happening.
"You guys look like you could've matched that description," Hancock recalled the officers saying. "What did the car look like, I dunno."
Her story moved Pueblo Mayor Nicholas Gradisar.
"People need to make sure their leaders are here to see what those issues are, and what those problems are so that we can address them," he said. "If we're not exposed to it personally, then we're not aware of those issues and those problems."
Gradisar said he spoke recently with the police chief to make sure the city addresses issues of perceived bias in policing like the incident Hancock described.
Still, some of the speakers called for bigger changes. Robert Donovan is part of a recently-formed group calling to defund the Pueblo Police Department.
"The safest communities in America are not the most policed communities," he told the audience. "They are those with the most resources."
Donovan went on to explain that defunding the police doesn't mean completely disbanding the police department. However, he feels there should be more consideration given to other needs in the community when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars.
"How can we address things like mental health, poverty, and addiction," he asked.
One example is the city's school resource officer program. Donovan questioned whether a police officer is the most appropriate person to handle behavior issues at school.
"The budget for school resource officers, the city puts in $650,000," he said. "And nothing against the police officers, but the social, emotional, and mental health needs aren't being met by our school resource officers."
The protest slogan "Defund The Police" doesn't appeal to everyone.
"There needs to be reform, but not getting rid of the police which is silly," Abron said.
Mayor Gradisar said the idea of defunding the police is a hard sell to the people of Pueblo considering how recently the community voted to increase taxes to hire more officers. He also applauded the groups participating in the rally for having such a strong commitment to changing their community.
"I hear these voices, and I hope they'll stay involved because that's how they can make a difference is by continuing to stay involved in the community and making sure that we hear their voices."