City must call off St. Paddy's 7 prosecution

click to enlarge Colorado Springs police took fast and forceful action in - removing peace marchers from the annual parade. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Colorado Springs police took fast and forceful action in removing peace marchers from the annual parade.

Colorado Springs is at risk of another round of negative national publicity. And it's our own damn fault.

At the St. Patrick's Day Parade in March, about four dozen local participants donned neon green T-shirts that sported a peace symbol. They also carried signs proclaiming "Peace Now,""Give Peace a Chance" and "Schools Not Bombs." They marched under the Bookman parade permit. As in previous years, Bookman owner Eric Verlo had e-mailed friends, local clergy and peace advocates to join his Bookmobile entry.

The parade registration form, as in past years, included a line stating: "Promotion of social issues will not be allowed." But in 2006, peace activists carried similar banners while marching under the Bookman permit, without incident. Over the years, parade organizers have allowed numerous participants to promote social messages, from candidates seeking office to pro-military floats to Hooters girls.

Heck, in 1997 and again in 2003, I marched in the parade under the Independent permit and each time we were joined by more than two dozen people carrying banners and wearing dark green T-shirts supporting a TAX INCREASE certainly a controversial issue in Colorado Springs. (Two-thirds of Colorado Springs' voters eventually endorsed the Trails, Open Space & Parks tax measure.)

What happened

At this year's parade, eyewitness reports and video evidence show the Bookman entourage milled around for about an hour in the parade staging area, proudly wearing their T-shirts and displaying their signage. When parade marshals ushered them onto the route, they carried their signs high while throwing green and white candies to the polite, often applauding crowd.

After they marched several blocks, with floats and music ahead and behind, a man wearing an event T-shirt stopped the people at the front of the Bookman contingent, informing them that since they lacked a permit, they had to immediately leave the parade.

Apparently, some parade officials believed the peace marchers were with the Justice & Peace Commission, which was not the case. When participants said they were marching under the Bookman's valid permit, numerous exchanges started happening all at once between organizers, police and the Bookman contingent. Additional discussions took place simultaneously via cell phone between police officers and the parade's lead organizer, John O'Donnell, who was at another location along the parade route. (Disclosure: I consider myself a friend and admirer of Mr. O'Donnell.)

It must be stressed that all these interactions happened amid the hectic hoopla of a huge parade. The marchers had difficulty communicating with one another, let alone the numerous police officers and parade officials shouting at them.

One of the parade organizers John O'Donnell states he was not the one then requested that the police clear the street of everyone in the Bookman contingent. While it's unclear why our police allowed one private citizen to order the arrest of other private citizens, it's evident that officers acted with incredible speed and force. A 65-year-old retired schoolteacher who suffers from diabetes and relies on a cane to walk was dragged 30 feet, causing a large laceration on her thigh. A local businessman was kneed in the back, handcuffed and left on the pavement in front of his kids. Some officers drew their Tasers while others confiscated banners and actually broke signs over their knees.

Dozens of adults and children were crying, shouting and/or bleeding, and at least a half-dozen citizens needed medical attention.

Afterward, the city should have realized that what transpired was not only a monumental screwup, but also a colossal public-relations disaster with every group at least partially at fault.

The Bookman application should have noted that as in past years, citizens carrying peace signs would be part of their entry. And if event officials did not want the peace marchers to participate, marshals should not have ushered them into the parade. Moreover, O'Donnell should not have allowed some participants to promote social messages while denying others the same right. And the police clearly used excessive force.

The city should have taken steps to put this entire mess behind us. Instead, City Attorney Pat Kelly is pursuing criminal charges against seven parade marchers, and these peace supporters face potential jail time. Jury selection starts this morning, Thursday, Aug. 23. The trial, open to the public in the Colorado Springs Municipal Court House at Kiowa and Weber streets, will likely conclude Friday.

I am not a lawyer. But from my lay perspective, it appears that the city has a weak case. And even if the city wins, we will all lose.

If convicted, some marchers have pledged to seek redress all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As the appeals process generates more and more publicity, video footage, already on the Web (youtube.com/watch?v=skhKBHSIh98) will be played and replayed countless times. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And the video footage will showcase Colorado Springs in the worst possible light.

But we are less concerned about our city's reputation than the reality on the ground.

Colorado Springs needs safeguards to ensure citizens of all political and moral persuasions have the constitutional right to openly and peacefully question government policies and officials. If, today, participants are not allowed to wear peace signs in a city-subsidized parade, what's next prohibiting "Support our troops" buttons or Star of David pins in the future?

Where to go from here

City leaders need to act quickly to minimize the damage from this trial. Before jurors deliberate, City Attorney Pat Kelly must be persuaded to drop all charges against the St. Paddy's Day Seven.

Especially if the city drops all charges before jury deliberations, those arrested should find it in their hearts not to press for damages from the city and/or individual police officers. It's difficult for needed healing dialogue to commence with lawsuits proceeding.

To show good faith, City Council should appoint a citizens advisory board to:

-- determine why city funds were used to subsidize a private event organized by a for-profit company;

-- examine why the police's official internal reports of the parade are so contrary to videotaped evidence, and why a few officers employed excessive force against clearly non-dangerous elderly citizens;

-- and develop recommendations for how the city should handle future requests from citizens seeking to stage events using public streets and parks.

To help this healing process commence, the Independent is proud to announce its support of two upcoming events:

The first gathering, a three-day symposium (Sept. 28-30) at Broadmoor Community Church (315 Lake Ave.), will focus on how citizens can promote nonviolent activism in the realities of our post 9-11 world. It is organized by Bill Durland, a St. Paddy's Day defendant and retired Notre Dame logic professor and civil rights attorney. For details, call 201-8597 or email durlandwe@msn.com.

In mid-November, the Independent will host a town meeting to enable citizens to talk directly with our city's elected and appointed leaders. For information, contact Renee Hartslief, Independent community outreach director, at 577-4545 or renee@csindy.com.

We are pleased that Police Chief Richard Myers, several city councilors and Mayor Lionel Rivera have agreed to participate in one or both of the events.

My hope: The 2008 St. Patrick's Day parade will feature huge crowds and much fun, and everyone will be welcome.


How we got here

Five years of rancor between Springs officials and citizens compiled by Independent staff:

November 2002

The Independent learns that grom 1997 to 1999, the Colorado Springs Police Department has spied on local peace activists, including members of Citizens for Peace in Space and the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission. The department also has kept records on them and shared the information with the Denver Police Department, which, in turn, has included the records in their controversial "spy files" on social activists. None of the local activists appear to have a history of violence.

Feb. 15, 2003

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people gather in and around Palmer Park to protest the impending start of the Iraq war. Police wind up stopping the rally, claiming some activists are blocking traffic, and they use tear gas to subdue the crowd. Thirteen people there are arrested.

Later in the day, following another rally near Peterson Air Force Base, nearly two dozen more are arrested, including a group that had followed police orders to disperse and were apprehended at a local Dairy Queen.

Weeks later, amid public outcry over the Palmer Park incidents, Colorado Springs Police Chief Luis Velez says his officers will try to avoid using tear gas in the future. But, he adds, "there's no concession" that its use in Palmer Park was wrong.

Oct. 8, 2003

Peace activists rally outside a military summit at The Broadmoor. The group, which is infiltrated by an undercover police officer, is barred from public streets by a two-block "security zone." Officials say they fear the presence of activists could make the hotel more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

The activists seek permission to assemble in a toned-down fashion inside the security gates, maintaining they have a right to communicate their anti-war message to the media inside. They are denied.

Citizens for Peace in Space files a lawsuit, with the aid of the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming the city's rules squelched their right to assemble. In July 2005, a federal judge rules against the activists, stating that security concerns were reason enough to keep the activists outside the gates. An appeals court later upholds the ruling.

September 2005

Another suit stems from the Oct. 8 summit: A federal magistrate in Denver rules that Brian Hildenbrandt of Colorado Springs may sue the city regarding his arrest at The Broadmoor.

Police claimed Hildenbrandt and another man stepped past barriers into the "security zone." Both men, who maintained they weren't protesters but merely curious onlookers, disagreed. Within a couple months, the "criminal trespassing" charges brought by the city against Hildenbrandt were dismissed; he sued the city in response.

City attorney Thomas Marrese describes the suit as "frivolous," but the case is settled in December 2005. Hildenbrandt receives $5,000 in damages from the city and retains the right to speak publicly about what happened.

Oct. 13, 2006

Magistrate Judge Michael Watanabe issues a settlement agreement to the wrongful arrests involving 12 activists at the Dairy Queen in 2003.

The city apologizes and admits to "erroneous" arrests. A city letter states, "Both the City and the CSPD understand and defend the rights of all citizens to speak freely and to protest without fear of unlawful arrest. We invite you to join with us in an open forum ... so that misunderstandings do not transpire in the future."

March 17, 2007

At annual St. Patrick's Day festivities, parade officials ask police to eject peace marchers for promoting anti-war messages, which is against the parade's written policy banning "social issues." This happens although other entries include political candidates and armed forces representatives.

Police respond by attempting to remove the approximately 45 marchers. A few marchers employ nonviolent resistance techniques.

In the course of arresting seven marchers, police use what they later call a "jaw-hinge push" to restrain one marcher; some onlookers contend it is a chokehold. Two officers drag a 65-year-old woman off the street, leaving her with abrasions to her stomach and hip. At least one officer brandishes a Taser gun. Other marchers, including some who are not arrested, are bruised.

With public anger still hot 10 days later, Mayor Lionel Rivera says he supports the police actions at the parade.

May 2, 2007

After a tense meeting, Rivera and activists report they've begun a dialogue meant to prevent incidents similar to the one seen on St. Patrick's Day. Rivera reiterates that he doesn't believe there was police brutality, as activists allege.

May 4, 2007

The planned free-speech, citizen-police forum involving the Dairy Queen Dozen from 2003 falls apart. Informed by city spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg that they will not be allowed to take part in editing of the forum video (to be played later on Channel 18), the activists walk out. With a small crowd remaining in attendance, the city goes through the motions to fulfill its promise of holding the forum. Eric Doub, a Boulder activist and one of the 12 arrested in 2003, threatens legal action.

May 7-8, 2007

Police Chief Richard Myers presents a summary of findings from a yet-to-be-released internal investigation into police handling of the St. Patrick's Day event. He says that though officers could have handled individual marchers differently, the investigation found no actual police wrongdoing.

He also concludes much of the trouble was caused by poor communication between PPJPC president Eric Verlo and parade organizers, led by John O'Donnell.

The following day, parade marchers address City Council. Some of their accounts differ from what Myers has described, and videotape appears to contradict some details included in Myers' recounting of police response. But while most council members agree to participate in a community forum in the future, nobody calls for an independent investigation.


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