Photographer captures viral images of Colorado coronavirus protest

When Aurora native Alyson McClaran heard about Sunday’s planned rally at the Colorado state Capitol to protest Gov. Jared Polis’s coronavirus-induced stay-at-home order, she knew she had to be there.

But McClaran, a freelance photographer, was not planning to protest. She’d been out of work for a month and was itching to photograph something “for my own sanity,” McClaran said Monday.

She had no idea she’d end up capturing the most powerful moments of the Colorado protest: two people who identified themselves as health care workers treating COVID-19 patients at a Denver-area hospital, dressed in aquamarine scrubs and medical-grade face masks, standing in a crosswalk silently obstructing the path of shouting, car-bound protesters.

“I honestly thought, ‘This is big… this is big, this is it,’ ” McClaran said of when she saw the modest counter-protest at 12th and Grant streets.

Her images went viral after they were shared on Twitter and other social media — they were also published by news organizations including The New York Times —  soliciting reactions both positive and negative.

The scrubs-clad woman and man declined to be identified at the scene, McClaran said. A reporter from Denver’s Westword who was there tweeted that they identified themselves as health care workers at an unspecified Denver-area hospital, where they’ve been treating coronavirus patients for weeks.

On Monday, The Denver Post inquired with representatives of several Denver hospitals who said they couldn’t identify the two counter-protesters.

“We don’t know who they are,” said April Valdez Villa, spokeswoman for Denver Health. “At this point, we don’t have any way of identifying the individuals in those photos.”

One of the two counter-protesters told Westword she is a physician assistant and asked to be identified by her nickname, Jo.

“Some people have said ‘Thank you,’ which is very confusing,” Jo told Westword of the protest scene on Sunday. “But mostly people have been very aggressive. It’s been overall pretty negative from people in the cars, but very nice from people in the street.”

McClaran said she just happened to be in the right place at the right time. A former staff photographer for the Greeley Tribune, she said her journalistic instinct inspired her to go to the protests, which drew hundreds of people on foot with signs that heralded “freedom over fear” to the lawn outside the Capitol. Dozens more drove their cars around the surrounding streets honking and waving signs.

Many protesters were not practicing social distancing or wearing masks, McClaran said, which made her feel unsafe. Instead of going onto the main Capitol lawn, she posted up across the street with a long lens to take in the action. When she decided to leave, she took Grant Street toward her home on Capitol Hill. That’s when she saw the two people in hospital garb standing in the street and took off running to capture the scene.

“When I saw one of the protesters push his car physically against the nurse, I kind of blacked out a little bit. I started shooting wide, low, tight. I went crazy,” McClaran said.

It was only a few minutes before police moved the health-care personnel out of the street to let the cars pass through a green light. According to McClaran, the two were allowed to remain in the crosswalk facing protesters while the traffic light was red.

The photos aptly portray Americans’ divisiveness about the novel coronavirus and how the country should be dealing with it, said McClaran, which is why she believes they resonated with so many.

“The nurses, these frontline workers were out there saying, ‘Hey, we’re here for you. We’re trying to help.’ And for (protesters) to be disrespecting them, it was a crazy thing to witness,” McClaran said.

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