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2 arrested during protest over cleanup of homeless camp near Colorado Capitol

City crews were out at Lincoln Memorial Park in downtown Denver early Wednesday morning executing a public health order.

DENVER — A cleanup of the large encampment near the Colorado State Capitol Wednesday led to a scuffle between protesters and law enforcement that led to two arrests and injured a prominent member of the Denver Public Schools board.

“When the police had to activate and get involved in the situation, it was only when the advocates and agitators who were on the scene when the cleanup commenced stopped the progress of the cleanup itself,” Denver Executive Director of Public Safety Murphy Robinson said during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) said the cleanup at Lincoln Memorial Park was the execution of a public health order that stemmed from deteriorating conditions at the camp. Robinson said escalating violence and the increased presence of the novel coronavirus were also factors.

The camp made headlines last week after a shooting nearby left one person dead and two others injured.

"I think it's the magnitude of what we are seeing in the park, the disposed needle paraphernalia, the various types of waste, trash, we just can't let it continue the way it was," DDPHE Executive Director Bob McDonald told 9NEWS. "It just got to the point where I wasn't comfortable allowing it to continue anymore."

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Robinson said people living at the camp were given 24 hours notice about the cleanup, and have been connected with services to find housing. Some were bused to the National Western Complex, where the city has set up two shelters for people experiencing homeless amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a news release, advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud disputed this claim, alleging that many people who lived in the Lincoln Memorial Park camp were not given notice about the sweeps, and that law enforcement prevented some of them from retrieving possession that had been left there.

“Many residents of this encampment are newly homeless after losing jobs or housing due to COVID,” a news release from Denver Homeless Out Loud reads. “These people are totally at a loss for where to go or what to do. They do not feel safe at a shelter and are currently scattered around our city looking for somewhere to be.”

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DPS board member Tay Anderson was injured when he was apparently knocked down during a scuffle with officers. Denver Homeless Out Loud alleged that at least one other man was also hurt by law enforcement.

“I will assure you today if there was an improper use of force, that will be handled and the person involved will be held accountable,” Robinson said.

He went on to call the protests a “distraction” and said that people present during the clash were not following direct orders from law enforcement, who were acting as security for public health officials.

“We’re distracting from what happened at [Lincoln Memorial Park] because we had these advocates that were advocating for something I don’t believe they’re completely educated on when it comes to the City and County of Denver,” Robinson said.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Robinson also alleged that some of the people living at the camps were not actually experiencing homelessness, but would not elaborate further on why they were there.

“There are some that are embedding themselves in this population who are not there to receive services and are there for a political agenda,” Robinson said.

He said future cleanups are planned at the large camp at Morey Middle School.

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“We are currently meeting on that and plan on dispersing the camp soon,” Robinson said.

Denver Homeless Out Loud estimated there were 150 tents with 200 inhabitants at the camp near the Capitol. It called on people to contact the mayor to vent their complaints. 

"We cannot let the State or the City get away with this kind of destruction and injustice," their news release reads. "They have violated the communities rights and left hundreds of people with no property and nowhere to survive." 

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) said he supported clearing encampments from state property, but Robinson said this did not prompt Wednesday’s action and that instead, talks have been underway for weeks.

“The situation that we have in homeless camps can’t stand like they do today in Denver,” he said. “They are unsafe and they are unhealthy.”

Polis issued a statement Wednesday afternoon praising the cleanups, saying in part: 

“The State and our local government partners have been working around the clock to protect public health and safety during this unprecedented pandemic. I value and respect Mayor Hancock’s actions to protect the wellbeing of Denverites, those experiencing homelessness, and everyone who visits the city.

“The capitol is not only the symbol of our Republic but also where the legislature convenes and a popular site for the exercise of free speech from perspectives as varied as our state is large. When people attend these hallowed grounds they should feel safe. Instead, the area recently became a public health hazard dangerous for both those experiencing homelessness and for visitors, and that is not acceptable especially during a pandemic.

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