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The battle for our rights


In February 2003, as an invasion of Iraq loomed ever-imminent, citizens of 800 cities worldwide mounted the largest peace rally in history. Here in Colorado Springs, at least 3,000 people assembled in Palmer Park and urged President Bush to choose diplomacy instead of war.

The participants were peaceful, but the police incited frustrations by diverting traffic from Academy Boulevard. That prevented drivers from seeing the anti-war banners. Police eventually used tear gas to prompt the crowd to disperse.

Colorado Springs was one of only two peace rallies in the world where police used tear gas that day. Many Springs families with small children were caught with no way to escape the gas. After a subsequent review, the Colorado Springs Police Department admitted it had overreacted.

As part of a legal settlement with the people they had arrested, the department agreed to host a public meeting to discuss matters of police conduct with respect to the citizens' right to assemble peacefully. The meeting would involve a panel discussion on the issues and would be videotaped for public broadcast and for purposes of training new police officers.

After four years of legal wrangling, the meeting is finally scheduled to happen at 2 p.m., Friday, May 4, at the Senior Center on 1514 N. Hancock Ave.

What an unfortunate coincidence that the arrests on St. Patrick's Day happened before Friday's citizens-police meeting. As we all now know, at the annual parade on March 17, 45 permit-holding participants were prevented from carrying peace banners. Ten of the marchers were brutally removed, and seven of those were arrested; I was among them. The police and parade organizers still admit no wrongdoing, but bystanders' videos and photographs captured the police's display of excessive force.

In the aftermath of the arrests, the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission has asked Colorado Springs City Council to hold a public meeting to address police department policy with regard to what happened that day. As yet they've only agreed to meet in private, to acquaint themselves better with peace activists.

While we welcome a better acquaintance, the PPJPC is not interested in obtaining a permission slip to exercise our right to self-expression. We are interested in every American's natural rights and civil liberties. We hope to establish an understanding that our city's police department will implement a policy to honor and respect those rights.

For that purpose, we are requesting another public meeting where Colorado Springs residents who were alarmed by the heavy-handed law enforcement can voice concerns and give input. (The meeting Friday will only address the police misconduct of 2003.)

The St. Paddy's Day Seven, as we are being called, currently face charges in municipal court for obstructing a public event. The American Civil Liberties Union has agreed to represent us because violations of multiple amendment rights are in play. The police use of illegal chokeholds, menacing with a Taser and reckless brutality causing physical injury all fall under the categories of illegal search and seizure, and cruel and unusual punishment.

We are called the Seven, but in reality we are the St, Patrick's Day 45, because 45 of us were deprived our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The parade is described as a private event, but it takes place on public property and is underwritten with public resources.

Consider: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

We are called the St. Patrick's Day Seven, but we are in reality the St. Patrick's Day 30,000, all of whom that day saw the attempted abridgment of a fundamental American right a right that Americans aspire to extend to all people of all nations. Many of us that day had no idea we would have to fight for that right here.

Eric Verlo is president of the Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission.

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