Several people in a group that included members of the Montezuma County Patriots joined a counterprotest Saturday evening against the Walk for Justice and Peace, crossing Main Street and confronting walkers face to face during their weekly demonstration in Cortez.
Cortez police officers were called to the scene.
Justice and Peace walkers remained silent, holding signs and continuing to walk along Main Street as counterprotesters followed them, shouting “Go home” and “You don’t belong in our community.”
One counterprotester yelled, “Go back to Boston, and if you come back, you will be in trouble,” referring to Dawn Robertson, a co-organizer of the Walk for Justice and Peace. She recently moved to Cortez to work for AmeriCorps, a nonprofit organization that hires volunteers to fulfill community needs in fields such as health care and education.
Pickup trucks with American, Trump for President, Don’t Tread on Me, Thin Blue Line and Confederate flags were parked along Main Street.
Raleigh Marmorstein, an organizer of the Walk for Justice, called a nonemergency dispatch number to alert the police as phrases from the counterprotesters turned threatening and included obscenities.
Two Cortez police officers approached the counterprotesters and asked them to stop using swear words. Counterprotesters replied that they have First Amendment rights to speak on public property.
“But when you guys start swearing obscenities, that’s a problem,” the officer said.
A handful of counterprotesters then crossed Main Street to where members of the Walk for Justice and Peace stood, yelling “All lives matter” and calling the Walk for Justice members holding Black Lives Matter signs “part of a terrorist organization.”
“We’re trying to run them out of town,” one counterprotester said.
Police officers stayed with the Walk for Justice marchers to monitor their safety as several counterprotesters targeted one woman with a rainbow flag draped over her shoulder. He confronted her, asking “Are you gay? Are you gay?”
One woman holding an American flag bearing the words of the Second Amendment crossed the street and followed Robertson, a co-organizer of the walk, as she led marchers on Main Street toward St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, where the walk begins and ends each Saturday.
Another counterprotester yelled that a Justice and Peace walker did not deserve to hold an American flag. Only a veteran should carry a flag, he said.
“I’m a disabled Vietnam veteran,” the walker, Jim Mischke, said. “Yelling ‘go home’ doesn’t make sense,” because he’s lived in Cortez for 41 years.
Another confronted a Journal reporter, saying “You’re an uneducated (expletive deleted.)”
After the walk, counterprotesters drove by the church courtyard, continuing to yell “go home” to the marchers.
“I relish free speech,” Mischke said, “but it doesn’t need to be aggressive or intimidating.”
Marmorstein said she was proud of the Justice and Peace walkers for remaining calm and resilient.
Tiffany Ghere, a co-organizer of the Montezuma County Patriot rides, confirmed during a phone interview with The Journal that she was at the counterprotest Saturday, but she added that it was not a Montezuma County Patriots event.
“It was a group of concerned citizens,” Ghere said.
One of the counterprotesters who crossed the street was a disabled veteran, Ghere said, but she did not answer a question about whether that condoned his language.
“The language people use is their own choice,” she said.
Ghere said the counterprotester, whom she did not identify, was frustrated that people filmed his actions on their phones.
The Walk for Justice and Peace changed the time of its march on Sept. 19 to about 5 p.m., so that it did not coincide with the Patriot rides.
Response from the cityLate Saturday night, Cortez Mayor Mike Lavey told The Journal the City Council “needs to get together to discuss this.”
Several business owners contacted the mayor with complaints that the confrontation Saturday deterred customers from their restaurants and stores, which have been hit financially by the pandemic.
“We need to have the police there before something happens,” Lavey said. “We need to avoid these confrontations.”
Cortez Police Chief Vern Knuckles said Tuesday that he spoke with members of the Montezuma County Patriots on Monday, and they expressed concerns about how police handled the confrontation.
“They were informed correctly that First Amendment rights end when the speech becomes disorderly or harassment,” Knuckles said.
People may assemble lawfully, but if the marchers or Patriots call the police, they will enforce the law, he said.
“We’ve done that for both the Patriots and the marchers,” he said.
Lt. Andy Brock watches the morning Patriot rides and the evening Walk for Justice, Knuckles said. The Cortez Police Department assigned overtime pay to bike patrol officers to monitor safety on Main Street.