Nervous to recount her experience of being brutalized by police once again, this time on national news, Vanessa Peoples begins to cry while braiding her hair to decide on a look for the televised interview.

'I'm still walking down this dark tunnel'

In the summer of 2017, Vanessa and her family had their lives upended when Aurora police came to their home and brutalized her. Her kids and mother heard it all from the back room as officers grabbed her by the neck, threw her to the ground and dislocated her shoulder as they hog-tied her.

A year later, she received a $100,000 settlement from the City of Aurora. The money was a welcome help with bills, college tuition, a rare vacation and a car.

But today, the settlement money is mostly gone and she's left with the insidious trauma of that dark day and an arduous healing process. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent racial justice uprising dug up the 2017 incident once again for her, bringing much public attention to what she and her family had experienced. "I'm still walking down this dark tunnel," she said. Lately, though, she's begun to see the light at the end of that tunnel a bit more clearly.

Before this story published, Vanessa wrote her feelings on a piece of notebook paper, explaining her intentions for speaking out in such a public way. She writes:

“When you dust yourself off, stand up and let the world know it’s time for change, such as justice for all and changes in the criminal justice system, it’ll help people understand that this is not the way we have to live - in fear... I just hope and pray that by telling my story, it will help people across the world be able to speak about their stories and be at peace about it… I hope someday they will hear our voices and make change, but please, never give up, never lose hope.”

I pitched, co-reported and photographed this story for The Denver Post, with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Brothers Mahjae and Tamaj Hike, six and then-7, play in their front yard in Aurora, the same house in which their mother was brutalized by police.

Old photographs decorate the Peoples home. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this house,” said Vanessa, center left at age 10.

Mahjae holds onto his mother after getting into a scuffle with his brother. Mahjae has been particularly attached to Vanessa since the 2017 incident, she says.

Vanessa recovers from an epileptic seizure in her living room. She says the murder of George Floyd and resulting movement led her to relive her trauma with police. The summer’s racial justice protests along with the coronavirus pandemic, virtual schooling and family issues led to increased stress, a trigger for epileptic seizures.

Vanessa gives her youngest son, then-8-months-old Zamari Hike, a bath. Zamari was born five days after the murder of George Floyd. “He was a fighter…He’s my gift, my little miracle baby.”

Mahjae looks to his mom, wary to go to sleep for the night. For a year after the 2017 incident with Aurora police, he, as well as his brother, Tamaj, had nightmares and trouble sleeping. Mahjae sometimes still has trouble going to sleep.

Vanessa smokes a joint in the hallway in her family home, the same hallway police grabbed her by the neck, shoved her to the ground and dislocated her shoulder while hog-tying her. She says walking through that hallway every day forces her to think about the worst day of her life. Often, decompressing with a joint, when her kids aren't around, is the only way she can have time for herself and relieve her stress, depression and anxiety.

Vanessa kisses Mahjae goodbye for the day as she drops him off at school one morning. Earlier that week, he came home early from school because an Aurora police officer was at his school to speak at an assembly. Vanessa offered for Mahjae to stay home from school the next day, but he said that he wanted to be strong for his mom and go to school.

Tevin Hike, Vanessa's husband, and their son, Mahjae, scream and laugh while sledding down a hill as Vanessa watches, smiling, and Tamaj plays with his cousin at right. Enjoying family time is what matters most to Vanessa, so moments like these are healing for her and the family.

One of Vanessa's tattoos reads, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There has been immense power and healing for her in telling her story. She's felt like she's helping get the word out, holding power to account and potentially preventing what happened to her from happening to others. But that hasn't made it easy.

Vanessa takes a selfie with balloons brought by her close friend, Carletta Taylor, to celebrate her 30th birthday. It was a day of mixed emotions. She felt happy to have a day to celebrate herself, but felt stuck as a 30-year-old woman, unable to get a job because of her criminal record, still living with her mother in the house where her worst day took place.

Vanessa walks into the Aurora Police Department Headquarters to start the process of sealing her criminal record. She was noticeably nervous and agitated as soon as she arrived. “It’s like every time I come here I just get sick to my stomach. Just standing here makes me sick to my stomach because I seen the door they took me to,” she said as she parked at the building.

Vanessa poses for graduation photos, smelling a bouquet of roses. She graduated from a technical college, completing programs in nursing and legal office work. “It felt great. I just started crying when he handed it [diploma] to me.”

 Vanessa adjusts her college graduation tassel in her car she purchased with money from the settlement paid to her by the city of Aurora.

Tamaj, then-7 at left, his grandmother Patricia Russell and Vanessa dance in the hot tub the evening after Vanessa completed her interview on national television. “It’s finally done now. My nerves is calm...," she said, on cloud nine. " It was emotional. You’re just letting the world know you’re still hurting… It was a big relief to let everyone know.”

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