(Note: This article contains obscene language.)
An incident Saturday, Jan. 2, in downtown Cortez has highlighted the ongoing tensions between protesters supporting differing causes.
About 20 members of a group calling themselves the patriots confronted five people in a “justice and peace flash mob” on the sidewalk along Main Street. The five were holding signs with messages such as Black Lives Matter and This Is Stolen Land.
Videos of the event that were posted on Facebook show the patriots approaching the five from two directions, then standing near them, shouting insults and obscenities at them. Some comments by the patriots that can be heard on the recordings were:
“A bunch of gutless turds is all they are.”
“Even the cops don’t like you guys.”
“All lives matter, you fucking idiots!”
“You idiots, anti-American bastards, get down on your knees.”
“All lives matter, bitch.”
“Stolen land, you have no clue, you fucking idiots.”
“Fuck Black Lives Matter.”
“We’re reliving Germany with the Nazis and you’re the Nazi bastards.”
“Burn, loot and murder, that’s what you fucking stand for!”
“I hope you guys like company because you’ll get this every Saturday.”
They also shouted, “God bless America.”
The five in the flash mob don’t respond, leading to one patriot commenting that they are scared and don’t speak because of their “group mentality.”
For months, Saturdays have been a time of dueling demonstrations in Cortez. Around 10 a.m. the patriots drive up and down Main Street in vehicles bearing American flags as well as flags supporting Trump, the Confederacy, and police and first responders. The peace and justice demonstrators would march along the sidewalk with signs supporting Black Lives Matter and other progressive causes. They frequently changed the time of their demonstrations to try to avoid the other group. Recently, they have downsized in numbers because of concerns about the coronavirus.
One of the peace and justice organizers, Raleigh Marmorstein, told KSJD that on Jan. 2 the peace “flash mob” was to take place at noon. She and her partner were in town at 10 a.m. dropping off food from City Market for Grace’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, which is at the corner of Elm and North streets, a block from Main. The peace marchers generally begin their walks by meeting there.
Around 10:30 she noticed that people from the patriot group were standing at Main and Market streets holding flags, so she sent an electronic message to the peace participants telling them about the other demonstrators.
Marmorstein said that at noon she and her partner walked to the corner of Main and Elm and there were no other people there, so they stood there holding their signs and waving at passing vehicles. Three other peace marchers parked their cars on Main Street and joined them.
After a short time, they noticed people walking toward them.
“About 20 people, all unmasked, including a man with a dog and two youths, came down the block and surrounded us as best they could, and hollered,” she said. Many in the group were carrying firearms, she added.
She said they stood “too close,” in some cases shoulder-to-shoulder with the peace group. “There was no social distancing. At one point they were making an effort to cover our signs with their own flags. The yelling just continued. I checked with each person in our group and asked if they could stay until 12:30, when we were supposed to end, and they said OK.”
Then, Marmorstein said, she “made the error” of deciding to move her group away to show they weren’t part of the patriot gathering. When they began walking, the other people walked after, mocking them.
“They followed, yelling, ‘baby killers, communists,’ and comments about our physical appearances,” Marmorstein said.
The peace marchers did not talk back, she said. “I will say proudly that not one of us broke the group norm – silence and de-escalation,” Marmorstein said. They returned to St. Barnabas. Though the patriots followed, they didn’t enter the church courtyard.
She said she got a call from Cortez Mayor Mike Lavey, who was watching the scene, and he asked if they were all right and she said yes.
Marmorstein said she was disappointed that police drove by but did nothing to intervene. She said there was an informal agreement between the two groups that they would not interact during their demonstrations and if either group approached the other, that would be cause for police intervention.
However, one of the organizers of the patriots, Tiffany Ghere, disagreed. Ghere, who was present during the Jan. 2 confrontation, told KSJD she has never met or had any conversation with any of the Black Lives Matter organizers and was not aware of any such agreement.
She said she began organizing what she called the freedom rides in May because of “the hate coming down on police” as a result of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. The freedom rides took place before the peace marches began in downtown Cortez, she said.
Ghere said every time there is a freedom ride, “we tell people, ‘do not engage’.” She doesn’t threaten anyone, she said, and does not support the use of the F word. She too has been yelled at by opponents, she said, and doesn’t like it.
On Jan. 2, the patriots were on Main Street before the peace marchers and had a right to be there, she said.
Ghere also said her group is very involved in the community, taking part in the Veterans Parade, the Junior Rodeo, and the Parade of Lights, in which their float took first place in its category.
Because some vendors from the Cortez Farmers Market had complained about the noise from the patriots driving up and down Main this summer and fall, patriots brought candy to the market for Halloween, Ghere said. “I was verbally assaulted while doing it,” she said.
Ghere is manager for the restaurant J. Fargo’s in Cortez, and it has held “Tip a Cop” fundraisers for law-enforcement programs for years, long before the start of the pandemic, she noted. In 2020 they sold T-shirts to raise money for families in need, she said, and they made sure the Shop With a Cop annual holiday tradition took place. It involves law officers helping buy items for local children referred by social service agencies.
Cortez Police Chief Vern Knuckles told KSJD that handling the conflicting demonstrations is “a little touchy” for his officers because both sides are exercising their constitutional rights.
“It’s really kind of walking on a fine line,” he said.
When officers do contact demonstrators, they immediately say they are exercising their rights and not doing anything wrong, he said.
On Jan. 2, officers were indeed in the area and were probably handling the situation the same way they did all summer, Knuckles said, by watching to see if things seemed to be getting out of control or people were getting physical, in which case the police would intervene.
He said he is still waiting for sworn statements from the officers who were there that Saturday and trying to determine what exactly happened. However, if people need police help, they should call, he said. Marmorstein didn’t, he said.
“We’re not in the mind-reading game. You need to call. We have always come and we always will.”
Knuckles said he was not aware of any agreement involving the two groups of demonstrators saying that they wouldn’t contact each other and that the police would need to step in if they did.
“We can’t recall any agreement,” he said. “I told them, if you feel harassed or threatened, call us.”
Lavey told KSJD that he generally goes to the weekly protests to monitor the situation. On Jan. 2, he said, the patriots stayed in the area after their freedom ride because they had gotten wind that the flash mob would take place at noon. He drove along Main Street about 20 minutes before noon and noticed some patriots standing on the corners, so he made people at St. Barnabas aware of that.
Then he saw that “the patriots started marching toward the peace marchers and surrounded them,” he said.
Lavey said he called police twice and was told there were officers patrolling, but none of them got out of their vehicles and made contact with the people on the sidewalk. After the peace marchers walked back to the church, he said he spoke to them and some were shaking with nervous reaction.
He said the patriots saw him standing in the church’s courtyard and some yelled that he was a socialist or a communist and should resign.
City attorney Mike Green showed up and stood on a corner across the street, Lavey said, because Green had heard the commotion and came to see what was happening. There were posts on Facebook accusing Lavey of calling Green, but he actually didn’t, he said.
Facebook has exploded with furious comments supporting and criticizing both sides. There are people saying the police have been bought off, while others say the entire city council should be thrown out. There is criticism of Lavey for not being “neutral” and sitting in the St. Barnabas churchyard talking to the BLM protesters. One post said the peace marchers were going inside the church to “get their checks,” which Marmorstein called ludicrous.
A number of people have expressed concern on social media about whether all the furor on Saturdays is harming businesses in Cortez, as well damaging the city’s reputation.
“People have right to stand there [on Main Street],” Lavey said, “but when they start threatening, cursing and intimidating, it’s wrong. They shouldn’t be doing that.”