Eric Verlo, like other seasoned peace activists in Colorado Springs, is rarely surprised to see a cop. Yet when the cruiser arrived at the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission headquarters at 214 E. Vermijo Ave. on Friday, July 18, he was taken aback. Verlo and a handful of activists were packing up lawn chairs after a couple hours of chatting in the balmy afternoon sun along the sidewalk. The small gathering was more meeting than demonstration, with a single banner promoting peace waving in a light breeze.
Not exactly Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
But this was not a case of police needlessly harassing a few hippies. Turns out, PPJPC vice chair Jo Ann Nieman had called police and asked them to ensure that Verlo was not holding a meeting on commission property. Verlo concedes he was told he couldn't have a meeting in the commission's offices, so he opted for the sidewalk.
Still, he didn't think the commission would call the cops to check up on him considering he was the commission chair until recently, and is still a dues-paying member. Others felt similarly.
"I found it to be extremely unconscionable that she would do something of that nature," says activist Rita Ague, who was at the gathering.
A call to the commission this week was answered by staffer Pete Haney, who said Nieman did not want to talk about the incident.
"I mean, there's really no point in us talking to press about it," he says. "I really don't think there's a story."
From a legal standpoint, the incident indeed was insignificant. Verlo says the officers were "friendly," and according to police records, they stayed just 10 minutes and ticketed no one. But Verlo says the run-in was "embarrassing to the peace community," and a sign that long-simmering tensions over methods of activism have reached a boil.
It was not, however, the first sign. Many, including Verlo, say philosophical differences have surfaced since seven marchers were forcibly removed from and arrested at the 2007 St. Patrick's Day Parade. The arrestees, including Verlo, together became known as the "St. Paddy's Day Seven." A case against the marchers ended in a hung jury, and the city eventually dropped all charges, which were related to obstruction of the parade route.
But feelings remained. Verlo says some activists think the parade made for bad PR. He views it as a wasted opportunity to use media attention to bring more people into the commission's fold. Disillusioned, Verlo left his PPJPC leadership role earlier this year, saying it was not as "active" as he had hoped.
In May, the commission organized a quiet presence outside the Colorado Springs World Arena at the Colorado Democratic State Convention, where demonstrators handed out leaflets. Verlo, along with activist Peter Sprunger-Froese, opted for a different approach. They brought signs and allegedly demonstrated outside the "free speech zone," leading to arrest.
The two plan to fight the charges in court, and Verlo says he won't allow such run-ins to tone down his message a point he says differentiates him from many at the commission.
"The activist side is kind of up against this group of people that don't want to be doing as much public protest," he says. "There are some people that would rather have the peace message voiced internally."