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Local cops defend gassing protesters; Council calls emergency meeting

According to the odometer, it was a little under a mile.

That's not much when you're doing 60 on the Interstate, but a road lined a mile long with thousands of chanting, drum-beating, sign-shaking Coloradans is a pretty long stretch of pavement.

Last Saturday's antiwar rally at Palmer Park and Academy Boulevard moved along peaceably for several hours, then spilled onto the sidewalks lining the major traffic corridor. A passing pickup truck with a giant American flag rigged on top honked rhythmically at the crowd, the drivers' two fingers dangling out the window in a peace sign. A semi truck blasted its air horn.

One woman leaned out of her F-250 to flip off the entire line of protesters, screaming curses.

Suddenly the street was empty. No more cars, just lots of confused protestors. Ten traffic cops stationed at the intersection, outfitted with Secret Service-style earpieces, milled around, telling people to stay on the sidewalk. The crowd started to panic.

"They're blocking it over there, and over there," said Mary Meadows, an elderly protestor from Denver, as patrol cars lined up on the surrounding side streets, making entry to Academy Boulevard impossible. "That's not right! We should have cars going by to see this!"

Tear gas and pepper spray

According to Colorado Springs police spokesman Lt. Skip Arms, officers redirected traffic around the demonstration area on Academy Boulevard after a small group of protestors blocked traffic in the intersection.

Riot police were deployed after demonstrators ignored repeated commands to clear the street, Arms said. When the crowd began to move south in order to bypass the closed section of highway, so they could be seen by passing traffic, officers with shields and helmets formed a shoulder- to-shoulder line along Constitution Avenue, preventing the crowd from continuing their march.

The riot squad eventually used tear gas, pepper spray, and a 40 mm rubberized bullet to drive away the crowd. Thirteen protesters were arrested for "failure to disperse." Twenty-one more were arrested at a later demonstration at the front gate of Peterson Air Force Base.

Two of 603

Colorado Springs was one of 603 cities on all seven continents that staged events as part of the International Day of Protest against the impending war in Iraq last weekend. There was even a protest outside McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Yet among the hundreds of demonstrations, many of which attracted crowds in excess of 1 million, Colorado Springs (where the crowd was estimated at 3,000-4,000) was one of only two cities worldwide where police were compelled to use this degree of force.

In Colorado Springs, tear gas was used on demonstrators for "failure to disperse," Arms said. In Athens, Greece, where 50,000 people gathered in anti-war solidarity, tear gas was deployed when demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs at riot police.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Police Chief Luis Velez defended the force. According to Velez, on Saturday, 150 protesters refused to clear the street necessitating the use of gas. Members of the group, he said, jumped on cars and harassed passing motorists.

At 2:18 p.m., police used a bullhorn to warn demonstrators that tear gas would be deployed. Five minutes later they launched the first canister into Academy Boulevard.

Witnesses say the gas then drifted into Palmer Park and an adjacent parking lot, preventing demonstrators from reaching their cars in order to leave the protest.

"The protestors were given ample opportunity to disperse and comply," said Lt. Arms. "The degree of force used by the police was directly correlated to the degree of noncompliance by the protesters."

Emergency meeting

During Tuesday's press conference, Velez said that riot-control tactics were directed against an aggressive splinter group calling themselves "Ashira Affinity," principally from the Denver area, who came to the event with the specific intention of creating a conflict with police. They were able to anticipate and target this splinter group based on information the department received through their intelligence department, he said.

Velez also noted that only eight of 35 people arrested were Colorado Springs residents.

The chief said that seven, and possibly eight, complaints about police conduct have been lodged related to last Saturday's demonstration. But Velez indicated that an internal affairs investigation of the tear-gassing episode was not warranted.

Also on Tuesday, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace called an emergency meeting of the City Council for the following day to discuss, in executive legal session, last Saturday's events. Councilman Ted Eastburn, however, questioned whether it was appropriate to meet in secret to discuss the matter.

"I'm going to have to have compelling reason to go into executive session for events that happened last weekend," Eastburn said of the meeting, which was scheduled to occur after press deadline.

Out in the street

In contrast to the police department's version of events, demonstrators and witnesses maintain that officers on the scene confused the crowd and used riot-control tactics unnecessarily. Several said that shutting down the road only complicated police efforts to disperse the crowd.

"The result of shutting down the road was that all the protestors then went out on the street ... they thought that the road was cleared so that the could march on it," said Luke Terra, an activist with the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission.

Also, the police description of the scene on Academy Boulevard, which they said necessitated the use of tear gas, has been disputed by several witnesses.

CopWatch, a Denver-based police watchdog group, had five observers stationed at the protest. The group criticized the use of gas against what they called a crowd of "non-violent protesters and their children." Moreover, at the time of the first tear gas volley, at 2:23 p.m.--after the protest had officially ended--"the streets were clear and protestors were getting in their cars."

Dorothy Schlaeger, executive director of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, also condemned the use of tear gas. "Our general feeling is that gas was not justified at all," she said. "I've never looked upon our police as being brutal ... and it just really kind of shocked me."

Several protestors, including Terra, provided a starkly different account of how force was used. While two youths were being arrested near Palmer Park, Terra said he saw another officer standing in the street with his Taser gun drawn and extended, panning it haphazardly across the crowd at the edge of the curb.

"There were women and children and dogs and a whole motley crew of folks there, and he was just sort of pointing it indiscriminately at all of them," Terra said.

Schlaeger said families at a playground in Palmer Park, who were not involved in the demonstration, were suddenly caught in a cloud of tear gas, unable to escape the fumes. "Mothers with children were there," she said.

"More candy, less war"

During the demonstration itself, the vast majority of the crowd was calm, deliberate, and dedicated to the stated purpose of the demonstration. Several of the placards were written in Spanish.

A soft-spoken man in sunglasses held a sign that said, "Vietnam Vet Against Insanity," with an arrow pointing to President George W. Bush. Even the more light-hearted activists -- like Jenny Pierce, who doled out leftover Valentines Day treats under the slogan "More Candy, Less War" -- offered clearly stated arguments against the war in Iraq.

"We're not all just wacked-out weirdos looking for some cause to kick up a ruckus about. There's doctors and all kinds of people here, standing around saying this isn't right," said Bruce McNaughton, a construction designer from Denver.

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