The apology took 10 years.
But it came Friday evening when Denver Zoo President Bert Vescolani looked into the eyes of Gail Waters and offered sympathy in the death of her son, Alonzo Ashley, at the hands of Denver police officers on zoo grounds.
“We are really sorry for that,” Vescolani said.
As the zoo neared its closing time and as animals were making their nests for the night, zoo officials did what Ashley’s family and community activists had been asking for years — take responsibility and make amends. Along with the apology, Vescolani unveiled a plaque with Ashley’s image, a short description of Ashley’s character and a Bible verse. The plaque will be placed on a rock beside a new water fountain and cooling station built in Ashley’s memory.
For Denver community activists, it is the first time in their memory where an institution installed a public memorial for someone killed by police and offered a public apology, said Alex Landau of the Denver Justice Project.
“What we’re doing today is monumental toward accountability,” Landau said.
On July 18, 2011, Ashley, 29, was visiting the Denver Zoo with his girlfriend’s family when he started exhibiting strange behavior and ran to find a water fountain. A zoo volunteer called for police, who tackled Ashley and shocked him with a Taser.
The coroner’s report said that during the fight Ashley was placed face down on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back and his legs crossed and flexed and pressed toward his buttocks. He began convulsing and stopped breathing before paramedics arrived. The coroner ruled Ashley’s death a homicide and said his death was caused by cardiorespiratory arrest brought on by heat, dehydration and exertion during the struggle.
The eight officers involved in Ashley’s death were cleared of wrongdoing by the Denver district attorney’s office and did not face any disciplinary action from the Denver Police Department. In 2016, Denver paid Ashley’s family $295,000 to settle a lawsuit, but for years the Denver Zoo refused to acknowledge any responsibility in the death.
Ashley’s death led to police protests and calls for accountability for zoo officials for their staff members and volunteers failing to recognize that Ashley was in distress and not a danger to the public. Many in the Denver’s Black community boycotted the zoo.
For years members of the Denver Justice Project would go to the zoo on the anniversary of Ashley’s death to hand out water and remind people of what happened. Over the years, zoo officials asked them to leave the zoo’s plaza, then the parking lot and eventually the entire property.
Activists never forgot.
This year Helen Rigmaiden, a community organizer, made yet another call to the zoo. This time, a new president was in place, and someone listened to her plea. She gathered Waters, Landau, the Rev. Terrence Hughes and others to figure how how the zoo could make amends.
They decided to ask for a water fountain and cooling station in Ashley’s honor. On Friday, Rigmaiden said the zoo boycott would end.
“We declare on Oct. 1 this zoo is open,” she said. “This zoo is safe for all of us.”
Waters declined to speak at the ceremony but asked her daughter-in-law, Ashley M. Ashley, to talk about him. Ashley remembered her brother-in-law’s infectious laugh, generous spirit and love for his family. He spoiled his nieces and nephews with lavish gifts and junk food. He never hesitated to help friends and neighbors in need.
“Alonzo deserves this and for his name to live on,” Ashley said. “This memorial is so much more than water for those of us who deeply miss him.”.
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