A year ago, Henry Allen told the Independent that as the new president of the Colorado Springs branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he'd be asking questions.
Allen today says that's exactly what he's doing. He points to the case of an 11-year-old Widefield student who Allen claims is facing criminal charges after what Allen describes as a run-of-the-mill classroom argument. Allen says he's spoken with 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May about the case and plans to be at the boy's trial.
"When you talk about equality in the justice system, and when you're dealing with the hearts of people, they don't see beyond ... ," Allen says. He pauses mid-sentence and his voice grows heavy. "They see a young black man."
What Allen sees is a little boy who got in an argument with a friend over cutting in line in class. He says the teacher, school administrators and the DA have taken seriously the claims of a little white boy — who says his black friend threatened to kill him — over the word of a little black boy.
"The teacher contacts the administration — now, nobody witnessed this, allegedly — and tells the administration that the black kid threatened the white kid with a [wood] saw," he says. "The [wood] saw that the school provided. The [wood] saw that was in the classroom. The [wood] saw that was under the supervision of the teacher.
"But instead of holding the teacher accountable, they charge this child with assault with a deadly weapon. They charge this child with felony menacing. They put this child in Spring Creek [Youth Services Center] for 72 hours."
Aside from an ID number, Allen did not provide documentation on the case, citing its sensitivity. The DA's office declined to comment, because the suspect is a juvenile. A phone call to Widefield School District 3 was not returned.
One thing is certain, though: Allen, a retired Army First Sergeant and former El Paso County Sheriff's Office patrol deputy, says this is exactly the type of scenario in which the local NAACP should be taking an active role. In his efforts to rebuild the local chapter of the storied civil rights group, he says he's focused on organizing leaders, bringing a more diverse group of members into the fold, and helping people facing discrimination.
"We're showing the community that we are involved," he says. "We are just inundated with cases, or complaints, that we are managing very well."
When complaints come in to the local NAACP, the chairs of relevant committees review them and decide on next steps, which can include showing up in court. If a complaint appears to be a violation of someone's civil rights, it may even be forwarded to the FBI, which takes the lead in enforcing federal civil rights laws.
The organization also tries to look for trending problems and proactive solutions. For instance, the chapter has been receiving an alarming number of complaints from low-income renters who say landlords aren't making needed repairs. In response, the NAACP is partnering with the city's Human Relations Commission to create a program that educates tenants and landlords on leases and offers advice when problems arise.
HRC board member Anja Wynne says the plan is to create community forums with a panel of experts who can help. "I think it's just people not understanding all the rules," she says.
Allen says he's been concerned with the treatment of minorities by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In response, he's testified against the death penalty at the state Legislature, and the local chapter has worked with the Colorado Springs Police Department on diversity and sensitivity training.
Police representatives note that anti-bias training has been a Colorado Peace Officers Standard and Training requirement since 2001, for which community representatives have long been invited in to speak. In 2013, the Colorado Springs NAACP was among the groups to speak to recruits. Leonard Andrews, a longtime member and the organization's third vice president, says that one of the subjects the group addressed is the tendency of some African-Americans to use their hands to gesture when speaking, which police sometimes misinterpret as threatening.
"They need to understand that there's a culture part of us to do that," Andrews says.
Allen says the NAACP's biggest focus lately has been unemployment among minorities, the rate of which runs about double that of whites nationwide. His education committee is looking at the percentage of minorities hired at local school districts, and he's spoken to Mayor Steve Bach about the city's hiring practices.
There does appear to be some improvement. After two police academies in 2012, only 15 percent of hires were minorities. In August 2013, however, 21 percent of police hires were minorities. One-third of hires from a 2012 Colorado Springs Fire Department academy were minorities, but after two fire academies in 2013, 36 percent of hires were minorities.
Violet Heath, the city's human resources manager, who is African-American herself, says the city advertises jobs through the NAACP, the military, and many other organizations that reach out to minorities.
Allen says he's also been concerned about the impact of the city's bus system on minorities' ability to reach jobs. He noted that no bus route connects the minority-heavy southeast to the jobs-heavy Powers Boulevard corridor.
Allen had just reached out to southeast District 4 City Councilor Helen Collins about the issue at the time of the Independent's interview. City workers, however, appear to have solved that problem before Allen could raise Cain. A new Powers Boulevard bus route is expected to start in March (see Noted, p. 15).
Change from within
Allen's first order of business when he was elected was reorganizing the group to better suit the needs of the community. For instance, the monthly member's meeting is today an informative session that lasts no more than an hour and a half, as opposed to the marathon meetings that once were commonplace.
That's meant that more members actually show up for those meetings and take an active role in the organization, he says. And those members, in turn, have volunteered for the NAACP, allowing it to keep regular office hours four days a week.
Andrews says he's been impressed by the turnouts at meetings. And he notes that many pastors from local black churches — which are historically fiercely independent of each other — have gotten involved. "We have members from almost all the churches," he says.
Allen didn't respond to requests for exact membership numbers, but did say that when he took office the local chapter had around 260 members. He said there are now more than 400.