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Watch extended video of protest, American flag removal at Aurora immigration detention center

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Simultaneous protests at the immigration detention facility in Aurora last Friday drew national headlines after protesters from the smaller group crossed makeshift barriers, removed the American flag, and raised the Mexican flag and anti-police flags outside the facility’s entrance.  

Rocky Mountain PBS covered the protest as part of an ongoing project exploring the medical care inside the privately-run facility in the wake of the 2017 death of detainee Kamyar Samimi.

Friday’s demonstrations began with a march around the privately-run detention center as Aurora police looked on, blocking streets around the detention facility. After the march, organizers from a separate group began a scheduled vigil on the street outside of a bridge leading to the facility’s front entrance. That vigil was organized as part of a national effort called “Lights for Liberty,” described by organizers as shining a light on “the horrific abuses of the Trump administration in human detention camps.”  

The entrance to a bridge leading to the private facility’s employee parking lot was blocked with traffic cones connected by plastic chains with a sign denoting the area was private property. Aurora police later said they had encouraged the detention center’s private operators, the GEO Group, to place more substantial barriers before the event.

As the organized event began, some protesters broke off and went past the barriers to protest outside the facility’s doors. Speakers with microphones from the organized event asked the group to leave the blocked area, warning them they could be arrested.  

The organized event continued on the street with several speakers including local politicians and a woman who said her father was detained inside the facility.  

Eventually people in the smaller group of protesters took down several flags from the flagpoles outside the detention center’s entrance. They removed the American flag and a chant broke out to “Burn that s---!” but there was no indication the American flag was actually burned. Protestors also removed the Colorado flag and a flag bearing the GEO Group’s logo. Police later released photos of a suspect they said burned the Colorado flag and the suspects they said removed the American flag

The group later raised a Mexican flag, a seemingly handmade flag with obscenities aimed at police, and a thin blue line flag flown upside down with “Abolish ICE” written in red paint. (Thin blue line flags resemble American flags but have black stripes and stars with one blue stripe. They typically signify support for police.) 

Some protesters who had crossed the barriers shouted at the larger group to join them, but most did not. Some protesters threw the cones GEO had placed to block its entrance over the side of the bridge onto the grass below.  

Shortly after the flag incident, protest organizers announced that police were planning to move in to disperse the crowd and many demonstrators left. Police on social media denied ordering the crowd to leave, and some demonstrators from both groups decided to stay. The demonstration ended with a candlelight vigil on the street outside the detention center.  

Police never moved in on the protest and did not arrest any of the protesters, explaining in a statement that the group was largely peaceful. As the demonstration ended, protest signs could be seen attached to the front entrance of the detention facility along with poles from metal signs that appeared to be holding the doors closed.  

A spokesperson for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition told the Denver Post the chaos put undocumented attendees in danger. 

RMPBS asked the GEO Group about any property damage, to respond to comments from Aurora police that they had recommended stronger barriers at the entrance, and about the police department’s decision not to intervene. A spokesperson for the GEO Group said he could not comment, referring instead to a company tweet reading: 

"Like all Americans, we at The GEO Group are concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our Southern border; we acknowledge the challenge, but we are appalled by this historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities. Contrary to the images of other facilities on the news, our facilities have never been overcrowded, nor have they ever housed unaccompanied minors. The GEO Group’s facilities, including the processing center in Aurora, offer modern amenities with air conditioning, a bed for every individual, recreational activities, 24/7 medical care and access to legal services on the premises as we carry out our mission to provide the safest, most humane care possible."

ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) also responded to questions with a statement, theirs from ICE Denver field officer director John Fabbricatore: 

"We value and respect people’s right to peaceably assemble and express their discontent with our country’s laws. However, disrespecting our flag should not only be an insult to me as a federal law enforcement officer and as a military veteran, but to all Americans. ICE officers are unfortunately experienced in dealing with unruly mobs who often do not have facts to back up their often misleading assertions. Our ICE officers enforce federal immigration laws on a daily basis. By doing so, they improve public safety in local communities by removing criminal aliens from the streets and the U.S. ICE officers maintain the integrity of the U.S. immigration system by enforcing the laws that Congress has enacted. ICE officers are true professionals and will not be dissuaded by organizations or groups who have never truly seen how the staff at these facilities focus on ensuring the safety and well-being of the individuals who are detained."

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat representing Aurora whose office began weekly inspections of the detention facility on Monday, released a statement about the flag incident reading: 

"I condemn the desecration of the American flag. I fought to defend our flag and the values it represents. To deny the dignity and decency of people in detention is an affront to those values. I stand with the peaceful protesters who were there to raise awareness for the conditions at immigration detention centers and thank the Aurora police for their professionalism at the event.” 

A group of Aurora city council members who attended the organized protest also released a statement Monday condemning desecration of the flag, while adding they “remain committed to fighting for our immigrant and refugee communities and against the abuses occurring within our city and at the border. As always, we welcome our colleagues to join us in representing all of our residents and speaking out against the conditions within the GEO Group facility here in Aurora.” 

The Aurora Sentinel reported those council members faced criticism from a colleague Monday night who said they “were complicit in these acts, and we the veterans hold you accountable.” 

On Thursday, the Boulder County Democratic Socialists of America fired back at organizers who criticized the protesters who crossed the barriers and removed flags with an opinion piece in the Colorado Independent, writing in part, "It is absurd to equate peaceful occupation of GEO property and the damage of three pieces of nylon with violence ... Are any among us proud to see an American flag waving over a concentration camp?"

Aurora police said they are investigating to identify and pursue prosecution of those who may have broken laws at the protest.