By Cecilia LaFrance
The sun clears the edge of a blanket-sized cloud relieving the morning of its January chill. Within minutes, the brick facade of the 1st Bank building at the corner of Colfax and Franklin St. collects welcome rays and reflects it back on the small group forming to watch Denver’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Marade, more march than parade. With barricades blocking its intersections and no cars parked on either side, the 3-mile stretch of Colfax is oddly quiet and liberating for pedestrians looking for their spot. Among the handful who found a place to perch on the building’s low window ledges, Cleveland Tate sits with his grandson in a stroller next to him.
Tate’s lets out lighthearted laughs sounding like quick happy hiccups, enough to let a gathering of familiar faces to the left and right of him. He hears them. He gets it. He welcomes more from them. They’re together, awaiting a public demonstration of the American Civil Rights icon who preached to end separation.
“I’ve been coming here every year since they put the statue in the park (2002).” Adding credence, Tate connects to his lineage. “My dad was in the (Chicago) riots. He’d come home bloody and go right back out there.” Tate grew up in the crime-riddled Cabrini-Green high rise apartments of Chicago in the times of Black Panthers, police wielding hoses, and barricades. “Back then, black people had to fight for food, housing and jobs.” The pride for his father is followed up with justification for wanting better. “We couldn’t leave the apartment. It wasn’t safe,” Tate’s voice deepens with severity. “On Christmas Eve, someone died on our couch. A pimp stabbed him.” He shakes his head and re-positions his hands on his knees. “We are not a prejudice people, but we are proud of what we do.”
“It has gotten better, but we’re still divided,” Tate says of the progress since MLK Jr.’s days. “You hear about progress, but now we’re going back again.”
The statement raises a volley of opinions from the panel of voices against the ledge. Walls torn down in Russia but supported by the electorate. Homelessness. Drugs. The divide between classes. Police killing black youth. “They” taking away Five Points from blacks. Only President Trump gets formally named among culprits to blame.
Tate’s head sags between his pronounced shoulders for a second. “I wish I never voted for him.” An instant barrage of objections from the panel gets his wide smile to lift again. “I didn’t want Hillary to win.”
Taking advantage of the closed off thoroughfare, pedestrians move out of the way as a Denver Police patrol car drives down the center of Colfax. Tate and company volley good-natured greetings and offer critiques of those who ignore them. Like a rebel schoolboy, Tate snickers as the officer doesn’t return a wave. “See,” he gestures with an upturned palm, like a defense attorney letting evidence speak for itself, hinting at a greater slight in law enforcement.
Today, education is the biggest area of need, Tate says. “Lack of education causes and keeps depression.” He cites his 18 hours toward an associate degree as hope in his own life. Tate learned about the position of a Health Navigator. “People tell me what they aren’t comfortable telling the doctor,” he says, projecting himself into the role.
Tate may have inside perspective that suits him to the role, in addition to his bare-all personality, which invites reciprocation. He’s been to jail, but never to prison, the distinction between the two incarcerations thick in his voice. His paths crossed a treatment program in Ft. Lyon, CO, for alcohol abuse and some mental conditions. “It changed my life around. Saved my life.” Two others in his small grouping voice agreement, also former attendees of the program. Tate accelerated through the two-year program, found assistance with housing and school, and has his eye on an internship at Mercy Hospital. “Anyone who wants help can go to the Stout Street Clinic and get enrolled,” he offers.
Another patrol car approaches and announces the impending start to the Marade over a speaker. The sun casts a shadow over Tate’s face, providing relief to the faded whites of his eyes. “I’ve got eight sisters,” he looks around and chuckles out of a toothy grin, “and they better be down here.” He rests his elbow on a handle of the stroller next to him and continues a tradition with his grandson.