The Centennial State is home to iconic mountain scenery, legal weed, one of the world’s most famous outdoor music venues, and, occasionally, riots. Riots in Colorado are not a new phenomenon, though recent widespread protests and violent clashes in Colorado over George Floyd’s murder will come to mind for most readers who live in the state.
Fueled by everything from unfair working conditions in mines to the anger of not getting to see a Red Rocks show has inspired rioting in Colorado, with one event so shocking and influential that American history was altered in its wake. This is a list of some of the most famous and important rioting events that have taken place in Colorado.
The Colorado Coalfield War and Ludlow Massacre
What began as protests over unfair working conditions in southern Colorado culminated in a massacre that horrified the world. From 1913 to 1914, strikes were organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which was owned by John Davison Rockefeller Jr.
The miners were striking for safer working conditions and higher pay. Rioting broke out on multiple occasions when both strikers and Rockefeller’s security forces attacked one another. In September 1913, a security marshal with a reputation for insulting the strikers’ wives was ambushed and killed. A month later, a Walsenburg sheriff and 55 deputies fired into a hostile crowd of strikers and killed three miners.
Violence continued to escalate in southern Colorado until the spring of 1914 when an estimated 11 children and 14 adult miners and their wives were murdered during the Ludlow Massacre. On April 20th, 1914, the Colorado National Guard and hired members of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company security team attacked miners and their families at a tent colony in Ludlow, Colorado.
It’s not clear what incited the violence, but a day before the Colorado National Guard encircled the tent camp and installed a machine gun on a bluff overlooking the community. Some believe the massacre began when the miners refused to turn over a fellow striker, or perhaps an individual they’d taken hostage.
The National Guard fired on the camp and a day-long battle began. Some evidence suggests that one union leader was lured out of the camp with the promise of a truce, and was then killed by the National Guard. Women and children who were hiding from the gunfight died that evening when troops and security guards set the camp ablaze.
The miners abandoned the camp, regrouped, and retaliated over the following months, killing dozens of anti-union officials and strikebreakers until President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops into southern Colorado to restore peace. Trials for more than 400 miners occurred over the following six years, but not a single one was convicted.
The UMWA never received official recognition from Rockefeller’s company, but the strike and massacre were seen as a turning point that helped improve American mining conditions and labor laws, and legitimately recognized unions were formed over the following years.
Red Rocks Riot of 1971
On June 10th, 1971, thousands of Jethro Tull fans from across America Converged on Red Rocks to catch the British rock band’s show, which had sold out weeks prior. In a scene that would fit seamlessly in a Game of Thrones episode, an estimated 2,000 fans without tickets tried to breach the defenses of the world-famous venue by overwhelming the security officials and climbing the surrounding hills to see the performance for free.
When it was clear the situation was getting out of hand, Red Rocks staff deployed tear gas to disperse the volatile crowd. They responded by throwing rocks and bottles, flipping cars, and sewing chaos outside the venue, which had slowly begun to fill with smoke.
Many injuries were reported ranging from broken bones to some concert-goers becoming overwhelmed by tear gas and fainting. Rock concerts were reportedly banned for five years from taking place at the venue after the riot.
Hop Alley Race Riot
On the Halloween of 1880, an argument that took place between Chinese and white bar patrons grew into Denver’s first recorded race riot, which resulted in one death and widespread property damage. Following the altercation, an angry mob of 3,000 people tore through the area yelling racist chants and destroying the Chinese community that was once called “Hop Alley,” which is located in the modern-day LoDo neighborhood.
Many injuries were reported, and 150 claims were filed on behalf of Chinese residents and business owners, but none were paid out. Sing Lee, a laundry worker, died from his injuries after he had become inadvertently caught up in the rioting and was ruthlessly beaten.
George Floyd protests
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer in the spring of 2020, communities in Colorado and countless others across the world took to the streets in protest. While the majority of the demonstrations in Colorado were peaceful, incidents of rioting and violence did occur in Denver and along the Front Range.
In Aurora, the Party for Socialism and Liberation gathered a group of protestors and blocked I-225 temporarily. In Denver, a large group of protestors blocked I-25 and was later shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas by police in an incident that caused multiple injuries and property damage. Footage showing a car intentionally hitting a protester was filmed in Denver during the protests, a citywide curfew was implemented to ease tensions, and over 100 protestors were arrested.
More clashes occurred throughout the year at the Denver Civic Center, first during the Pro Police Rally Colorado on July 19th, and then during the Patriot Muster, Peaceful Patriot Rally on October 10th in which an unlicensed security guard shot and killed an attendee after being sprayed with bear mace.
University Hill riots in 1971 and 2021
In the spring of 1971, Boulder’s University Hill saw three days of riots after local police attempted to enforce “broken window” policing. After 30 people were arrested in the area for minor infractions like jaywalking, large crowds began to swarm the area in protest, which fueled more arrests.
Soon, a crowd of hundreds overwhelmed police and began targeting local businesses that were notorious for being unfriendly to students and street people. Looting was reported during the rioting, and some businesses never reopened after the event.
Fifty years later, University Hill saw a less significant series of rioting involving a flipped car and minor clashes with police. However, this riot was said to be inspired by the pandemic fatigue local university students had been experiencing.
From lethal fighting over labor conditions and racial injustice to pandemic fatigue and frustration over a sold-out Red Rocks show, rioting in Colorado is a way to view larger trends and events in the state’s history, and how they impacted human behavior as a result.