As hundreds march in Laramie to protest police brutality, the international movement is reinvigorating local activism around a police killing some feel has been overlooked.
The crowds that marched night after night last week largely echoed the Black Lives Matter messages heard at protests across the United States and beyond.
Shouts of “say his name” or “say her name,” were met with the now familiar responses of “George Floyd” or “Breonna Taylor,” — the names of black Americans killed by police sparking nationwide protests. But as the week wore on, crowds increasingly chanted another name too: “Robbie Ramirez.”
Signs with “justice for Robbie” and “fire Colling” also proliferated over the course of the week.
Ramirez was a Laramie resident. Derek Colling is the Albany County Sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed him during a confrontation that followed a traffic stop in November 2018. The incident, as well as Colling’s history of violence in uniform, led to immediate calls in Laramie for his dismissal. Colling made a previous controversial shooting in Las Vegas, and was dismissed from that department following allegations of assault against a videographer.
Ramirez and Colling, both in their late 30s last November, were once classmates in high school and shared time on the school choir and a baseball team.
An activist group formed in the wake of Ramirez’s death and organized protests on the courthouse steps. Albany County Commission meetings grew tense at the time and acerbic letters flooded into newspapers and online. Accusations flew between county officials and activists.
Albany County for Proper Policing has kept Ramirez’s cause alive with events and petitions. The incremental process of Colling’s acquittal has generated news coverage and kept Ramirez’s name in public discourse. But the incident never sparked chants of “justice for Robbie” that echoed through downtown. At least not until this week.
“You didn’t see anything like this,” following Ramirez’s death, Timberly Vogel, one of the protest organizers, said. “You would think that would be the initiation point,” for protests in Laramie, she said.
Still, drawing a connection now between Ramirez and Floyd or Taylor was natural for the marchers. “He was a victim of police brutality,” Vogel said, “the most recent and intimate example we have.”
Like most officer-involved shootings in Wyoming, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, a statewide law enforcement agency, investigated Colling’s use of force.
In an unusual step, Albany County District Attorney Peggy Trent held a secret Grand Jury proceeding where she presented evidence in the case. The jury ruled there was no evidence Colling had committed involuntary manslaughter. The grand jury did not evaluate whether Colling followed proper police procedure, Trent said in a January 2019 press conference.
At the same press conference, Trent questioned DCI’s investigation, which members of Ramirez’s family and activists have said focused unfairly on his history of mental illness and previous interactions with police, while only lightly examining Colling’s own checkered past.
“I believe that DCI and how this was investigated and how this matter was handled needs to be reviewed,” Trent said. Scrutiny of Wyoming’s procedures for investigating officer-involved shootings has mounted in recent years.
Colling remains with the Sheriff’s Department. By Sunday, the sixth day of the marches, protesters were kneeling on the corner of Grand Avenue and 15th Street, police blocking traffic around them, and chanting for Colling’s removal.
“Fire Derek Colling now,” the crowd of several hundred chanted in unison for several minutes. By that day, many of the organizers were wearing T-shirts produced by ACOPP that read “Justice for Robbie” above a picture of Ramirez on a skateboard.
Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley and undersheriff Josh Debree did not respond to voicemails and emails on Monday seeking comment.
Signatures and donations jump
ACOPP has been circulating a petition since December 2019 that calls for the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to decertify Colling, which would prevent him from working in law enforcement in the state. ACOPP members, concerned that Colling remains armed and badged, have said they see pursuing decertification as the best option left after Albany County officials — from the sheriff to the county commissioners — declined to act.
The POST commission’s director Chris Walsh told WyoFile the agency is responding to a complaint about Colling but declined to comment further.
By Monday, ACOPP’s petition had accumulated more than 2,000 signatures, the group’s director Karlee Provenza said. Around 700 of those have been added since the protests started, she said, and protest organizers have more physical signatures they haven’t entered into their online database yet. They had also accumulated a wave of cash through donations and sales of the T-shirts.
It’s “incredible,” Provenza told WyoFile.
Provenza, who is now running to replace retiring Democrat Rep. Charles Pelkey in Laramie’s House District 45, spoke to protesters before Friday’s march. She called on the marchers to maintain their activism and push for reforms, including community oversight boards for law enforcement and statute changes facilitating public access to police disciplinary records.
“George Floyd needs you here for the long haul,” Provenza said. “Breonna Taylor needs you here for the long haul. Robbie Ramirez and his family need you here … to do the hard work, the not sexy work, the difficult work to make sure their son, their nephew, their grandson didn’t die in vain.”
In a Facebook post over the weekend, Ramirez’s mother, Debra Hinkel, thanked protesters. “I thank you for also honoring Robbie,” she wrote. “Watching the life of George Floyd snuffed by a police officer reopened all of our wounds that had unsuccessfully been trying to heal since Robbie was killed by Derek Colling.”
“Please care enough about creating change to stay involved,” she added.
Watching the protests assume a cause ACOPP has long toiled for has in some ways been humbling, Provenza told WyoFile Monday.
“It’s incredibly inspiring watching the young people in Laramie organize this. For the ACOPP board and leadership, it makes us wonder how we’ve failed to touch young people in this town,” Provenza said.
Though Ramirez’s death was local and state news, it never became a national story.
“I think a lot of young people are following national news,” not local outlets, Provenza said.
“In November of 2018 people weren’t ready to have the conversations we’re having now in Laramie,” she said. “Having a national movement allows people to feel that they can get involved. Marching is something people feel like they can go do.”
Provenza wants to channel the protest energy into more activism and, ultimately, law-enforcement policy reform — a goal she described as part of her motivation to run for office. “We’re going to craft these ideas and sentiments [of the marches] into state statute,” she said.
In interviews, several protesters said they were either just learning of or becoming more interested in Ramirez’s death as a result of the protests.
After one of the marches, 31-year-old Brynn Murphy went home and read news stories about Ramirez. She also watched the video of Colling’s violent intervention with the Vegas videographer, she told WyoFile. Murphy has lived in Laramie for a year, she said, and had heard about Ramirez’s death before but had not done the research she did this week. Now, she questions why Colling is still with the sheriff’s department.
A group of college students protesting said the national events were bringing their focus to a local one.
“Just like many names, I’ve heard of Robbie Ramirez,” said Jahmari Moore, a tight end for the UW football team, “but never in full detail until this protest. When you shed a light on this issue, a numerous amount of names come up.”
College students aren’t always exposed to events like Ramirez’s death in their communities, said Jackie McBride, a 21-year-old student. Taylor Dodd, another student who marched with McBride, echoed that sentiment.
“George Floyd brings light to Robbie Ramirez,” Dodd said.
Other marchers, including the ones who carried signs referencing Ramirez’s death long before his name became a focal point of chants, said they have been seeking action on Colling for some time.
“He needs to not be policing in our community and not in any community,” Rachel Shimek, who carried a “fire Colling” sign on Wednesday, said.
Trevor Kuma, a 32-year-old resident who said he knew Ramirez from his time working at the Ranger Liquor Store & Bar, a business once owned by Ramirez’s mother, marched for Ramirez early on.
“It was time to remind people that we have a killer in our community as well,” Kuma said, referring to Colling. The sudden support for the cause is “amazing,” Kuma said. But, he said, “it’s unfair that George Floyd became an unwilling martyr and the straw that broke the camel’s back.”