Rumors of War

How the Government Is Accelerating Its War On the Right to Protest

Our First Amendment right has been systematically dismantled — just when we might need it most

Aaron Gell
GEN
Published in
17 min readOct 27, 2020

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Photo illustration: Anthony Gerace; source: Ira L. Black — Corbis/Getty Images

Nobody sets out to be a political prisoner. But as Lillian House sat in a 7-by-14-foot cell, listening to the faint hum of chanting supporters in the distance building to a roar as they approached the Denver County Jail to demand her immediate release, the 25-year-old Etsy seller realized maybe that’s what she’d become.

House, who is white, stands six feet tall and has green eyes and straight brown hair. Though she’s most often seen in a red T-shirt promoting the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), House has a keen eye for fashionable vintage wear from previous decades, and she’s made a living buying and selling old clothes since college. At the time of her arrest on September 17 — part of a coordinated sweep of local activists that involved an armada of squad cars, tactical teams, and an MRAP armored vehicle — she was on her way to a local estate sale to scope out the merchandise. “I thought I was going to have a great day,” she recalls.

House and five fellow defendants — Joel Northam, Whitney “Eliza” Lucero, Terrance Roberts, Trey Quinn, and John Ruch — had been active in a series of protests aimed at bringing attention to the police killing of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was approached by officers in Aurora, a Denver suburb, on August 24, 2019, after a tipster reported seeing someone who “looked sketchy.” Restrained with a chokehold and injected with ketamine, McClain, a massage therapist and self-taught violinist, died shortly thereafter from cardiac arrest. Although some officers were later fired after taking a mocking selfie at the site of McClain’s death, district attorney Dave Young, a Democrat, declined to bring charges for the incident itself.

McClain’s death drew little attention until the PSL, for which House acts as an organizer, and…

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Aaron Gell
GEN
Writer for

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com