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Presidential candidate Hickenlooper calls for presidential apology on slavery

NEW YORK – Today, in a speech at the National Action Network’s annual conference, former Colorado governor and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper called for a presidential apology for slavery.

“A great country should acknowledge its mistakes. We were founded on the idea that we could be better — that our union could always be made more perfect. Slavery is the nagging, unrelenting shame of America that continues to deny the true promise of the country to too many its citizens. We must own our past and acknowledge the shame, the sin, the injustice, and the ongoing consequences of enslaving an entire race of people. We must apologize, and that apology must come from the Oval Office.”

Hickenlooper also detailed his long history of justice reform, as a two-term Mayor of Denver and two-term Governor of Colorado. In 2003, Hickenlooper instituted comprehensive reforms to reduce lethal force and to increase accountability in the Denver Police Department — requiring crisis intervention training, creating an independent monitor, strengthening the discipline policy, and arming officers with less-lethal defense tools. As Governor, he ended long-term solitary confinement, enacted drug sentencing reform, and shuttered two state prisons all together — turning one of them into a comprehensive campus for the chronically homeless.

The speech was received warmly by conference attendees, according to Business Insider and the Huffington Post.

***Full remarks as prepared***

It’s an honor to be here with so many leaders of the civil rights movement, mothers of the movement, advocates for social justice, and leaders in the black church.

I like to personally acknowledge the Chairman of the National Action Network Board, Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson.

And NAN’s President and Founder, the Reverend Al Sharpton, who learned from his mother that life isn’t about where you start, but where you’re going.

That just about sums up this event — we see the barriers and the hope of a day free from racism and discrimination.

We see the grinding struggles and the strength to rise.

We see talent and brilliant contributions to America.

And mostly, we see triumph over tragedy.

My name is John Hickenlooper. I’m here today because I had opportunities and privilege, free from many barriers, to be who I wanted when I wanted.

I had never run for any office, even student council until I was elected Mayor of Denver at 50 years old. Within two years, Time Magazine listed me as one of the five best big-city mayors in the country.

My success had little to do with me, and everything to do with the people around me — my team.

I had surrounded myself with some of the most talented and experienced individuals in any Mayor’s office anywhere in America.

Our strength was rooted in our diversity, reflecting the richness of the city.

More than half of my cabinet leadership were people of color and sixty percent of them were women.

We were tested right from the beginning.

Paul Childs was a 15-year-old black high school student with developmental disabilities. One day he was walking around the kitchen, holding a kitchen knife straight up, as if he was holding a candle in church. He was talking to himself, not threatening anyone, when an inexperienced police officer shot him four times in his own home.

His story is like that of so many black kids and mothers who bury their children.

Two weeks before I took office, I attended Paul’s funeral with outgoing Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife Wilma.

Mayor Webb, one of America’s greatest mayors, connected me with the Denver Ministerial Alliance — an assembly of 35 African-American Pastors and Reverends from the Denver Metro area.

They quickly became my invaluable partners in all we did.

A wise man has often said, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

As Mayor, I did my best to make the table bigger.

My team and I put in place reforms to reduce lethal force and bias in policing.

As a community effort, we transformed the way the Denver Police Department handled issues of police misconduct. We required all officers to go through crisis de-escalation training. As a result, we reduced the number of officer-involved uses of deadly force under the leadership of my director of public safety, Al Lacabe.

Al was raised in a low-income parish of New Orleans. At age 16, he was one of three black students who desegregated Loyola University. He worked his way through law school as a police officer.

He went on to work for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and later as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Together, for the first time, we created what he called a discipline matrix that allowed us to discipline officers, including firing them, instead of just slapping their wrists.

This wasn’t exactly popular among the police force. Hundreds of cops protested on the steps of City Hall, chanting “chicken-looper,” “chicken-looper!”

Which isn’t even that much worse than “Hickenlooper!”

But we didn’t stop there.

Together, we established the Office of Independent Monitor, that was empowered outside the authority of the Mayor to investigate allegations of police misconduct. We created a Civilian Oversight Commission to give the community direct input on how their community was policed.

For the first time, we created a minority recruitment unit. We armed officers with less-lethal defense tools.

We fought back on the damaging impact of racial bias in policing. We did it because our basic American compact says: people have a right to be safe, unafraid, and secure in their communities.

This was 10 years before Ferguson.

It was a battle. And I’m proud of what we did in Denver.

Candidates should be judged not just on their words today, but what they did yesterday.

In the end, our actions were a small wave in a big ocean.

As a country, we often just nod at injustice.

Today, we face a crisis of faith and division.

Dr. King called it “the fierce urgency of now.”

He said, “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy and complacency.”

For every one of our neighbors who is attacked and vilified for the color of their skin — there is an urgency of now.

For those who wake up, not knowing if the gunshots that ring out every night will turn on them — there is an urgency of now.

From the assaults on communities of color to the nonstop demonization of immigrants, the rising tide of Anti-Semitism, and the terror and anxiety in our cities between police and neighbors that seems to go unchecked.

We must have a fierce urgency of now.

When it comes to empathy, there is such a thing as being too late.

The term “law and order” has never just been about fighting crime — going back to the days when loitering was declared a felony to deny black people the right to vote.

The criminal justice system has long been a tool to control people of color and limit their political power.

Today, millions of formerly-incarcerated people who have paid their dues are still denied the ability to participate in our democracy.

That is wrong.

In Colorado, we have this crazy idea that the more people who vote, the better our democracy. So we have same day registration and mail-in ballots, leading to some of the highest voting rates in the country.

We also believe in Colorado that people should not lose their right to vote or their very freedom because of a joint.

After we legalized recreational marijuana, we changed the focus of sentencing for drug use to rehabilitation and treatment, giving prosecutors and law enforcement the option of diversion instead of jail time.

We also granted clemency. We pardoned and commuted sentences for hundreds of people. Individuals like Eric Lightner and the Lee brothers, who were sentenced as young men to life in prison for homicide, even though the bullet didn’t match.

They weren’t perfect kids but they have become model inmates in prison. As Bryan Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy: “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Last year, I commuted their sentences. We need to give people like the Lee Brothers the chance to seal records as we’ve done in Colorado.

We need to end long-term solitary confinement, which is not only cruel and unusual punishment but makes it almost impossible for offenders to reenter society.

We banned solitary in Colorado for inmates with mental illnesses and ended the practice for longer than 15 days.

With these reforms, in just a few years we dropped solitary confinement from 700 to 18 inmates.

We should also just shutter some prisons altogether. We closed two of them in Colorado. And gutted one of them and turned it into a place of reinvention — a campus with wraparound services for the chronically homeless.

We need an intense focus on transitioning out of incarceration and we need to “ban the box” — to end discrimination in housing and employment.

When I hired people for my first restaurant, I didn’t require applicants to disclose criminal convictions. And we were more successful because of it.

A great country should acknowledge its mistakes. We were founded on the idea that we could be better — that our union could always be made more perfect.

Slavery is the nagging, unrelenting shame of America that continues to deny the true promise of the country to too many its citizens.

We must own our past and acknowledge the shame, the sin, the injustice, and the ongoing consequences of enslaving an entire race of people.

We must apologize, and that apology must come from the Oval Office.

As Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has proposed, Congress should convene a study on the best way to provide reparations.

“Equal opportunity for all” can no longer be just a cute politically correct phrase.

Our progress is measured by the growing freedom of conscience, mutual respect, and empathy toward others.

We have to find the time and temperament to listen, learn, and rebuild communities.

Dr. King said, “Life is a long, continual story of setting out to build a great temple and not being able to finish it.”

Our temple is justice. We are the humble workers whatever our circumstance of birth.

That was Dr. King’s dream: all of us working, arms linked, to build the temple. It’s not easy. But it is urgent — that we not lose faith in each other and never stop building.

Thank you again for this opportunity to listen, to learn, and to join you in building America’s temple.

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