Last week’s protests that disrupted the State of the State address are still provoking strong conversations at the Colorado state Capitol.
On Thursday 38 people were arrested for disrupting the Capitol before Gov. Jared Polis’ second State of the State address. One man glued his fingers together between the balusters of the third floor House gallery; they were pried apart by the Colorado State Patrol.
Those arrested are being investigated for disrupting a lawful assembly, trespassing and obstructing a peace officer. But as of Tuesday, none of the 38 have been charged, according to Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, who advocated against any charges for those protesters during the House’s morning business Tuesday. He said some arrested, including young people, were held for up to 30 hours without charges.
“I’m announcing that I’m opening my offices, starting Friday at 2 p.m., for the 38 protesters who came to the Capitol, the sergeants, the State Patrol, Denver Police or anyone else who wants to discuss what happened, and every week until everyone has their voice heard,” he told the House on Tuesday.
“After I heard our institution was besmirched by what happened, I thought they needed a voice too.”
Singer said the discussion is about making sure people feel safe in or out of the Capitol in the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Ultimately, he said, it’s about “having that conversation about what the role of civil disobedience is in this building, so we can make sure meetings happen, that everyone gets a fair hearing and that we uphold this institution” and the people who created it.
He also asked Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, a former member of the House, not to file charges.
That drew a pretty strong back-and-forth between lawmakers on the role of civil disobedience and decorum.
“Civil disobedience has its place,” said Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, who was brought up Quaker. “You stand up for something bigger than yourself.” But “you pick those times and places where your voice has the most effect and you accept the consequence if that’s a place where it shouldn’t be.”
The decorum of this institution is important, McKean said. When someone interrupts the House’s business, lawmakers can look at it as coming from a voice who says “you ought to think about this." But “if that were the only opportunity to have their voice heard, I would buy what you’re selling. But it’s not.”
This is “an important issue that we don’t always have the courage to talk about,” said Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton. But what happened was an attempt to read a manifesto, not an invitation for debate or an elevation of public discourse, he said. “I would be very reluctant to encourage that kind of behavior,” which he called an assault on the governor.
The House’s calendar on Tuesday — no bills to debate, and only a few committee hearings scheduled for the day — appeared to dictate just how long lawmakers were given the latitude to continue the discussion. Then there was the reaction — or lack thereof — from Speaker of the House KC Becker, D-Boulder, who said little during the discussion. That won her kudos from some lawmakers for her willingness to allow the unscheduled 25-minute debate to continue.
You can’t perform an act of civil disobedience and claim you’re being mistreated, said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. “I’m all for freedom of speech, not freedom of disruption.”
However, Democrats had a different take on the history of civil disobedience and how it applies to the House. Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, pointed out that on Friday, the House will recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
No one ever said there’s a time and place to do this when the bus and lunch counter boycotts were taking place in the civil rights movement, he said. “It’s not our job to dictate or lecture change.”
Becker later told Colorado Politics that she felt the discussion was important, given that the House has never had to deal with such a situation before and that people are still figuring out how to deal with it.
"I didn't know [the debate] was coming," she said, adding that it was a worthwhile debate that fit under the House rule on how it conducts business. The minute Singer spoke, she said she could see Republicans coming to the well to respond. "Each time that happens, you figure it out as you go.
"It's tough, but I hope we can work through things together."