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Reign on our parade 

Nursing fresh wounds, the city wonders what's next

click to enlarge About 45 people in the St. Patricks Day parade marched - in the name of peace and to oppose wars in Iraq and - Afghanistan. After parade officials complained, Colorado - Springs police removed them. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK LEWIS
  • Photo courtesy of Mark Lewis
  • About 45 people in the St. Patricks Day parade marched in the name of peace and to oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After parade officials complained, Colorado Springs police removed them.

Almost a week after marchers wearing T-shirts with peace symbols were kicked out of the local St. Patrick's Day parade, another kind of procession continues.

It includes independent investigations by police, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and peace activists; photographs and videotape, which raise questions about the actions of Colorado Springs police; and promises by parade chairman John O'Donnell to ensure "this never happens again."

And of course, this procession is led by the parade marchers who allege that they were injured during an assault on their free speech.

During the incident last Saturday in which seven marchers were cited for failure to disperse, a police officer brandished a Taser, apparently for crowd control.

Two officers dragged a woman, who has difficulty walking, off the street, leaving her with large red abrasions that were treated at Memorial Hospital.

An officer placed a man in a hold described by marchers as a chokehold, and by police as an apparent "pressure-compliant hold."

The marchers, many in their 60s and older, claim police shoved them or twisted their arms. They say an officer broke an anti-war sign over his knee during a surreal crackdown in which the parade was waved around them and nobody, not even Mayor Lionel Rivera, stopped to help.

"We asked the mayor personally if he would do something, and he looked over his shoulder and said, "I'm busy,' and walked away," says Joshua Cabrera, a student and researcher who came to see the parade with his wife and kids.

Rivera did not return calls this week.

Pushing and shoving

The trouble began as about 45 peace-promoting marchers making up one of dozens of parade groups came to Tejon and St. Vrain streets holding signs such as "Peace Now" and "War is Theft."

click to enlarge Two Colorado Springs police officers drag Elizabeth - Fineron, 65, on the street, tearing her clothing and her - skin. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK LEWIS
  • Photo courtesy of Mark Lewis
  • Two Colorado Springs police officers drag Elizabeth Fineron, 65, on the street, tearing her clothing and her skin.

They were preparing to "march in the parade without a permit, and ... had an anti-war message that was in violation even if they had a permit," according to the police blotter.

Police soon cuffed Eric Verlo, who displayed a parade tag on the rearview mirror of his lime-green Bookman van, and placed him on the asphalt.

Two officers also dragged Elizabeth Fineron, the van's 65-year-old passenger, along the street and away from the parade. Her pants slid down, exposing her skin, and the asphalt cut into her upper left leg and stomach.

She admits that she asked an officer for his name and badge number, with a raised voice.

"The next thing I remember was, I was on the ground and he and another policeman were dragging me across the street on my hip, on the left side of my body," says Fineron, who needs a cane because she's had both hips and knees replaced. "They kind of pushed me into the curb and walked away from me."

She was briefly hospitalized, and this week was taking pain pills.

When marcher Frank Cordaro, a 56-year-old former Catholic priest visiting from Des Moines, Iowa, saw the officers dragging Fineron on the pavement, he sat in the street, concerned by unfolding events.

"It was time to take a stand for free speech and against police brutality," Cordaro says.

When an officer told him to get up, he refused.

"I said, "I'm sorry, I can't in good conscience move,'" Cordaro says. "He just immediately put me in a headlock. Of course I complied with the guy, as he had me almost lifted off the ground around my neck. He had his finger in my temple. It was excruciating pain."

Genie Durland, 72, of Colorado Springs, alleges that an officer grabbed her roughly on the arm and aimed a Taser at marchers.

"[Officers] were very rough," she says.

click to enlarge Two Colorado Springs police officers drag Elizabeth - Fineron, 65, on the street, tearing her clothing. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK LEWIS

Bill Durland, 75, an attorney and co-chair of the ACLU's local chapter, alleges that police twisted his arm, and says it still hurt earlier this week. After he was pulled from the parade, a medic checked him for his heart condition.

Betty Kerwin, 73, showed arm bruises Monday that she alleges occurred when police confronted her. Others, including Esther Kisamore, 67, complained of being shoved by officers.

'Social issues' at issue

Police Chief Richard Myers, out of town this week and unavailable for comment, is aware of the situation and supportive of the department's internal affairs investigation, says Deputy Chief Steve Liebowitz.

"We are in the middle of our investigative process," Liebowitz says.

Fourteen of the 35 officers working the parade responded to the scene of the arrests.

Liebowitz disputes marchers' allegations that police failed to give clear dispersal orders, stating that witnesses have indicated otherwise.

He also says photos could be misconstrued, including the one with an officer's arms wrapped around Cordaro.

"For the untrained eye, if somebody were looking at that, they would think that that was a chokehold, which is how it is being described by the people that are involved in this, and that is not actually the case," Liebowitz says. "This is a pressure-compliant hold that the officer is deploying or utilizing."

As for the use of the Taser, which several people said made a clicking sound, he says it was never fired. However, it may have been un-holstered to keep the crowd moving, he says.

Meanwhile, Verlo maintains he did nothing wrong. He says he paid $60 to enter the parade.

Verlo and several marchers maintain that in 2006, a similar group marched with a similar message, without incident.

click to enlarge A Colorado Springs police officer points a Taser stun gun - in an apparent crowd-control effort. Though - paradegoers claimed to have heard clicking noises from - the gun, a police spokesperson says the officer never - fired. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK LEWIS
  • Photo courtesy of Mark Lewis
  • A Colorado Springs police officer points a Taser stun gun in an apparent crowd-control effort. Though paradegoers claimed to have heard clicking noises from the gun, a police spokesperson says the officer never fired.

"Some of us wore the same shirts we had last year," Verlo says. "Maybe this year, we were a little more direct in speaking out against the Iraq war."

Parade chairman John O'Donnell says the anti-war message violated written policy banning "social issues" at the parade. He says Verlo's application said he was coming with his Bookman van, which distributes books to children, and did not mention signs.

"They lied," O'Donnell says. "My opinion was that they did this intentionally to get press."

Verlo says his group did not plan to protest, and that the group's message was visible prior to the parade's start. He wondered why organizers didn't approach earlier with concerns.

"We would have put the signs away," Verlo says. "No problem."

O'Donnell says he is working with the parade committee on a solution to prevent such problems in the future, but could provide no details earlier this week.

"I am very, very, very concerned about what happened, from all angles," he says.

The ACLU is contacting people involved in the incident, says ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein. The organization could pursue a range of actions, from defending arrestees to "filing a civil suit to vindicate the rights of those who were adversely affected by the police action," he adds.

The arrested marchers, dubbed the St. Patrick's Day Seven, are considering legal options. Others are simmering over the parade's position against allowing marchers with social issues.

Kyndra Wilson, a Springs resident and witness stunned by how police responded, says the parade's policy appeared hypocritical.

"There were Hooters girls there," she says, raising concern for her daughter. "Don't get me started on the social message there."

"My goodness gracious, who are they kidding?" Cordaro asks. "They had Democratic and Republican candidates in the parade. More than that, they had uniformed military personnel representing armed forces. They even had young children dressed in military clothing. So if pro-war is a non-political statement and peace is a political and social statement, then there is something very, very wrong with the cultural climate of Colorado Springs."

Fineron worries about the broader message.

"There's something in this town that we can't say the word "peace,'" she says. "We heard a policeman I don't know who it was say that it was very inappropriate. What do you mean, the word "peace' is inappropriate? People can differ on how they want to get there, but isn't that why the soldiers are there to bring peace to the Middle East? To bring peace in the world?

"Don't we all hope for peace eventually?"

  • Nursing fresh wounds, the city wonders what's next

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