Mayor Lionel Rivera says he's willing to meet with peace marchers who were arrested March 17 in the downtown St. Patrick's Day parade.
But Rivera also said at Tuesday's City Council meeting that he supports the actions of Colorado Springs police at the parade, and he doesn't agree with the marchers "throwing out terms" like "excessive use of force" and "police brutality" to describe the explosive incident that marred the event.
"I think our police department acted professionally," Rivera told peace activists attending the Council meeting in his first public comments about the controversy.
In an escalating confrontation involving 14 police officers, parade organizers banished 45 marchers wearing lime green shirts with peace symbols, some carrying peace or anti-war signs.
At one point, an officer placed a Taser stun gun in "dry-fire" mode, an "ineffective" and eventually aborted crowd-control effort, according to police reports that describe marchers as resistant and noncompliant. An officer also describes a restraint hold that marchers called a "chokehold" as a "jaw hinge push," according to reports.
Police also dragged 65-year-old Elizabeth Fineron in the street, causing large abrasions that were treated at Memorial Hospital.
In all, seven marchers were arrested and now face charges of failure to disperse.
A public meeting?
To avoid similar situations in the future, Rivera wants to sit down with new police Chief Richard Myers, activist Eric Verlo and others affiliated with the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission.
Verlo said Tuesday that although the mayor already appears to have made up his mind regarding whether police actions were justified, he welcomes the proposed meeting.
"We're going to push for this to be a public meeting," said Verlo, who prior to the mayor's remarks had urged a "town hall" event.
It was unclear as of press time how or when the sides would meet.
Meanwhile, the police department's internal affairs unit continues to investigate the incident. So far, arrestees, who have made strong assertions that police used excessive force, have not been interviewed.
"The problem [with an expected internal-affairs interview] is that you basically give evidence without a lawyer present," Verlo, one of the seven arrestees, said, adding that he and others are speaking to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and want a lawyer present during an investigative interview.
The ACLU has said it is exploring whether to represent marchers facing criminal trials, or in a possible civil freedom of speech lawsuit.
Blaming the marchers
The arrests followed a last-minute decision by parade organizers to halt Verlo's marchers at Tejon and St. Vrain streets.
Verlo, with his Bookman van that distributes books to children, paid $60 to march and had been approved by parade organizers.
But in a phone interview this week, parade marshal Peter Page said Verlo had not mentioned an anti-war message on his application. An organizer working closely with Page on March 17 concluded that some signs were "inflammatory," alleging that one even said "something like "Bush kills babies,' or something like that," Page said.
Page called parade chairman John O'Donnell, who was elsewhere along the parade route. Page says he told O'Donnell, ""Hey, you know, I'm not so sure about these banners. These look pretty bad,' and then apparently John said, "Don't let them proceed.'"
O'Donnell was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Verlo doesn't recall anyone marching with such a Bush sign. At the Council meeting, he reiterated earlier statements that prior to marching, the group removed signs it deemed inappropriate, placing them in his van.
The Independent reviewed dozens of photos taken prior to, during and after the arrests, and could not find the sign Page mentioned. Marchers carried signs that read, "Kids not bombs," "War is theft," "War no more" and "Peace not war."
Police reports make no mention of signs with more radical messages.
The signs were more focused on war than those Verlo and marchers carried in the 2006 St. Patrick's Day parade, which took place in Old Colorado City without incident. Signs that year read, "Education is the key to peace," "Peace on earth" and "Goodwill to men."
Page maintains marchers became confrontational when he approached and asked them to leave the parade. He blames them for the disturbance, saying, "If they had come to us and said, "Well, what about if we put the banners in the truck and we won't take them out,' we could have called John, let John make that decision and gone from there, but they did not offer that to us."
Verlo says organizers only had to ask: "There weren't any offers to say, "You may march as long as you remove your banners.'"
Perhaps hundreds of photos, along with videos and other evidence, are certain to be scoured by lawyers for the city and defendants approaching criminal trials in April.
Meanwhile, Brian Wolfe, an Army veteran of the Iraq war who marched with Verlo's group because he disagreed with what he saw in Iraq, was disheartened.
"What I didn't realize is when I came back I'd be engaged in another struggle for freedom," he told City Council on Tuesday. "Here I am."