Social Justice, Conservative Values, Vaccine Policy: Polis’ Grand Junction Visit Brings Protesters Of All Stripes

Stina Sieg/CPR News
A demonstrator shows off her sign outside of Gov. Jared Polis’ bill signing event in Grand Junction, July 6, 2020.

As Gov. Jared Polis presided over a bill signing in Grand Junction Monday afternoon, several groups of protesters — representing very different causes — gathered with homemade signs in the burning sun.

The biggest group had just finished a vigil that demanded justice for Elijah McClain and Jayne Thompson, who both died after interaction with police in Colorado. McClain, a young Black man who died in Aurora, has recently come to national attention. Thompson’s death has attracted less scrutiny.

In May, a state trooper shot Thompson, a transgender woman, to death on the outskirts of Grand Junction after he said she acted aggressively with a knife. The District Attorney concluded the trooper acted in self-defense.

Joanna Gibson, a transgender woman from neighboring Parachute, wishes she could have intervened that night in May.

“If I would have been in town several hours before, I could have met Jayne,” Gibson lamented. “I could have hung out. I could have had her in a different situation.”

LGBTQ activists across the country have criticized police for not recognizing that Thompson was experiencing a mental health crisis — and for releasing her birth name and gender to the media, as opposed to the name and gender she identified with.

“I feel a really big sense of personal failure for not making my community safe for people like me,” Gibson said.

Right And Wrong, a new social justice group in Mesa County known as RAW, invited Gibson to speak on behalf of the trans community. A handful of RAW members met with Polis in-person to talk about issues in the region, including the push to reduce racism in the local school district.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Protesters with Right And Wrong, a new social justice group in Grand Junction, were on hand for Gov. Jared Polis' visit to the city, July 7, 2020.

The afternoon’s vigil was just one of many events RAW has organized in the month since it formed following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

For Jay Freeman, who’s Black and the father to a new baby, this movement gives him hope.

“It makes me feel like one day my son won't have to have the same conversations or go through the same trials and tribulations I had to go through,” he said. “So it's making me feel very good, and when I go home and look at him, it makes me want to go harder every day.”

He said he recently changed his family's last name to "Freeman" to replace the name that a slave owner gave his ancestors.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Carlee Allen with the group Right And Wrong, speaks at a violin tribute to Elijah McClain in Grand Junction, July 6, 2020.

A few protesters for conservative causes also came out to mark Polis’ Monday visit, including a small group of bikers whose shirts carried the words “MY GOVERNOR IS AN IDIOT” printed across the chests. They uniformly declined to speak on the record with CPR.

At times the atmosphere between the two groups grew strained, with each side accusing the other of insults and the bikers revving their engines to drown out the RAW members.

Boone Savoca, who lives nearby in De Beque, was happy to talk, as he waved an American flag between the bikers and a group of anti-vaccination activists. 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis' visit to Grand Junction brought out protesters for a range of causes, including conservatives and opponents of a new law changing the vaccine opt-out process for parents.

While Savoca said he has many issues with Polis, one of the biggest is a Colorado law the governor signed in June that required parents who do not want to vaccinate their children take an online class or get a medical professional to sign a form before they can enroll in school.

“I think vaccinations are very unhealthy personally, and I think I should have the right to say whether or not I have one,” he said, “and I think the so-called COVID-19 ‘plandemic’ is being used to scare people into doing that.” 

"Plandemic" is a reference to a viral video that shared debunked information about COVID-19. Savoca added that while he believes the virus itself is real, he also thinks its risk has been overblown, one of many attempts by Democrats to sow division in the country.

“It quickly moved from COVID to Black Lives Matter,” Savoca said, calling these issues “last-ditch efforts” to smear the president.

“They’ve tried to destroy Trump in every way possible.”

While the groups stood outside the Grand Junction DMV for about an hour, the target of all their messages never put in an appearance among them. Inside the building, Polis signed a few bills related to motor vehicle registration, how counties record plats of land and the criteria for broadband expansion grants. He left by a separate entrance.