On the first anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown, our Denver chapter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, got up before sunrise to cover the Northeast Denver, CO neighborhood and Stapleton business area with more than 3,000 flyers asking, “Did You Know?”
Stapleton is a business-and-neighborhood development built up after the original Denver airport (also named after Stapleton) moved farther east. The neighborhood is predominantly white and relatively well-off, in contrast to the older surrounding neighborhoods historically and currently made up of Black, Latinx, and poor/working class white folk.
“Did You Know?”
The flyers taught residents and businesses that their neighborhood was named after Benjamin Stapleton, a Denver mayor in the 1920s-1940s, who also happened to be a major leader in the KKK and appointed several other KKK members to high-level city positions.
BlackLivesMatter5280 asked folks to be in conversation and take action to change the name.
A dear friend of ours lives in Stapleton. She, like many white folks who responded after the action, did not know the history of her neighborhood’s name and was horrified to learn of it. Nothing should be named after a Klan leader, she agreed, and the name should be changed.
“Still,” she said hesitantly. “I have a question.”
She reminded us she’s new to activism.
So she knew her question came from a place of unknowing. She had the courage to ask anyway.
“Still, is this the most important thing?” she asked. With all that’s going on, police brutality and people dying, is changing a name the most important thing?”
We talked a bit about the reality of movement work.
For one thing, there are always many, many moving pieces of “important things” going on at once, and this was one piece of a larger movement.
This was one issue our local Black leaders identified as important and we wanted to follow their lead.
I keep thinking about her question.
I keep thinking about the kinds of stories we, the dominant white culture, choose to tell through our symbols, such as neighborhood and street names, monuments, flags, and holidays.
What stories are we telling about who we were and who we want to be?
I keep thinking about:
- The past is present. There’s a reason indigenous peoples continue to protest Columbus Day, and it’s not only because of the atrocities Columbus committed. When we memorialize those who have terrorized marginalized communities, we’re saying: “We’d rather tell this story than yours. We’d rather celebrate this person than celebrate you, or assure you are safe and welcome.”
- #BlackLivesMatter. There’s a connection between naming neighborhoods and streets after Klan leaders and Native American killers and the too often deadly devaluing of Black, Native American, and Latinx lives on those same streets, in those same neighborhoods. With the stories of those symbols we’re saying, “Your life, your trauma, matter less.”
- Unsanitizing history. Some say changing the name is “sanitizing history,” but history is already sanitized – for white folks anyway. Marginalized communities are well aware of these histories and the trauma they perpetuate by memorializing people like Stapleton as heroes without the full truth of their legacies.
- Which Ancestors? My new best friends from my home state of Arkansas have been challenging the rise of Confederate flag defenders by asking, “What kind of ancestors do we want to be?” They are telling a different story in the hopes that in the struggles for justice to come, we will be the ancestors our grandchildren call upon to strengthen them, in the same way we call upon Anne Braden and Zilphia Horton
Is #ChangeTheNameStapleton the most important thing to address in Denver?
Is changing/tearing down (fill in the blank) the most important issue where you live?
Yes, the most important thing is actually assuring that all lives really DO matter, in our policies, our community accountability, our economies, and our schools.
And maybe recognizing the stories we tell through our symbols about whose lives matter and then choosing to tell new stories—liberating stories, good news stories—is an important piece of that work.
Which stories to celebrate? Which stories to live? We can choose.
Rev. Anne Dunlap is an ordained United Church of Christ minister serving as a “street pastor” for racial justice and solidarity in the Denver, CO area. Rev. Dunlap is committed to the work of collective liberation, working in freedom movements with folks across race, gender, and class lines for more than 25 years, with a particular passion for solidarity with Black, immigrant, worker, and indigenous communities. Anne also serves as adjunct faculty at the Iliff School of Theology, and loves herbal practice, tending goats, and hanging out with friends and her beloved of over 20 years.