Earlier this year, Alan Kennedy, a captain in the Colorado National Guard, emailed state lawmakers to let them know he had sued his commanders after they reprimanded him last year for attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Denver last May.
Kennedy said he was hoping lawmakers would show their support. But one made a case against him.
Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican from Akron and Army veteran, told Kennedy in an email that members of the military must be “apolitical.” And, he said, “These service members must not affiliate with anti-government protests.”
In an interview with the Colorado Newsline, Holtorf said he would not answer a question about whether he considered Black Lives Matter an anti-government movement. Instead, he said antifa, an anti-facist political movement, participated in Black Lives Matter protests last summer. And, he said, the raised clenched fist, a symbol of fighting oppression and Black solidarity, represents “uprising” and “revolt.”
“What are those associations and relationships? And are they dangerous?” he said to Newsline.
Referring to Black Lives Matter and antifa interchangeably, Holtorf added, “They’re anti-law enforcement. They’re anti-municipal law. They’re anti-local government, state government. You’re protesting at the Capitol. Assaulting the Capitol building. Attacking the Capitol building. Did you know we had bullet holes in the Capitol?”
Commanders in the Colorado National Guard also characterized Black Lives Matter protests as violent when they reprimanded Kennedy for attending a protest while he was not on duty or in uniform. His commanders cited a provision in military rules that limits rights of military members from participating in protests where “violence is likely.” The case is pending in federal court and could set a precedent for the First Amendment rights of certain military members.
More than 90% of the racial justice protests last year were nonviolent, according to a report by the U.S. Crisis Monitor, a research nonprofit supported by Princeton University.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora who was a lead sponsor on a police reform bill last year, emailed Kennedy and thanked him for his advocacy. She said she’s looking into his case before deciding how to respond.
State lawmakers are unlikely to get involved in Kennedy’s lawsuit, even though they have some oversight and spending authority over the Colorado National Guard. Kennedy said he emailed every state lawmaker and Gov. Jared Polis, and three lawmakers responded: Holtorf, Fields and Rep. Brianna Titone, a Democrat from Arvada.
But the opinion that Black Lives Matter protests were violent could resurface as Democrats seek to pass police accountability measures, including a bill to eliminate qualified immunity for State Patrol officers and require that police use their body cameras more often.
Rhetoric suggesting a racial justice movement is violent could fuel tensions among lawmakers at the Capitol. Black lawmakers say they are already hurt and exhausted by comments made by Republican state lawmakers about race, including a lynching joke a white legislator recently made on the House floor.
Holtorf said he didn’t intend to debate Black Lives Matter with Kennedy. Instead, he said he wanted to share his perspective that military members must serve the U.S. Constitution and be loyal to their chain of command. He said this means losing civil liberties, such as the right to protest.
The court will likely decide this question. Kennedy told the Newsline that people’s views on his First Amendment rights are affected by their views of Black Lives Matter.
“We are a very divided country. And a lot of people have trouble separating their personal opinions from constitutional principles,” Kennedy said. “I think that is an open question for the courts to decide. That’s why we’re in federal court.”