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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution contains what our founders believed to be our most important personal freedoms. There are five, among them freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble — which makes the Salida student-led protest a week ago Friday afternoon in support of “Black Lives Matter” a constitutionally-protected activity. Which makes what happened next all the more concerning.

Students and their teachers from the Salida Montessori Charter School march down F Street chanting “No more gun violence”, in support of the 2018 nation-wide student protest against gun violence (photo by Jan Wondra).

The students followed a familiar path down F Street from around Alpine Park, down to East Sackett Avenue by Riverside Park and back up F Street. Nothing unusual there: over the years many student protests and celebrations have followed this path. What was unusual on Sept. 18 was the harassment of those students by a group of adults identified as members of the newly-formed Chaffee Patriot group, including Trump rally supporters in trucks and on foot.

The students, together with a few of their parent chaperones, and a local pastor had passed by Alpine Park where dozens of community leaders were gathered for what has become a rare Salida Chamber event during the pandemic. Shortly after, some large (and noisy) trucks flying Trump banners began to circle the park. While annoyingly loud, this certainly is not without precedent. When the trucks disappeared for several minutes, then reappeared multiple times, none of the Alpine Park event attendees knew where they had gone.

Ahead of the student event Ark Valley Voice has learned that the Chair of the Chaffee County Republicans, Dave Williams, placed a visual of the Salida student protest poster on the Chaffee Patriots page, questioning whether any taxpayer money was going to the protest and suggesting that members address the protest. “On the thread, all these people said thing like ‘I’m calling the school, and all these teachers are indoctrinating our children,” said a source familiar with the site. “Dave [Williams] was egging people on.”

Ark Valley Voice has obtained reliable confirmation of what happened next. The harassers, including one person identifying themselves as a pastor, approached the children, photographing them and calling them names. Other adults, not just the chaperones of the students, told those harassing the students to back off.

According to witnesses, before the children had arrived at F Street and Sackett Avenue, a Salida Police car positioned itself on the east side of the bridge by the caboose, watching what was happening. At one point, as the exchanges became more pointed, several witnesses to the event placed themselves between the students and those harassing them. At that point, say two sources, a Salida police car drove between the two groups.

One parent chaperone of the students described the situation further down F St. this way:

“The [Chaffee] patriots were waiting on the corner of Sackett and F Street at Alpine Park for the students to show up. I was in the back holding up the line with a few other adults that were there to make sure the students were safe. I’m not sure if the patriots said anything to the students, but you could tell things got tense when they had to walk by them.

When they continued back up F Street after holding their signs in the park for a while there was a brief confrontation between a patriot who said he was a local pastor, and one of the adults in the march. He was filming and taking photos of the students. One of the adults with the students cornered him and told him to delete them off his phone or she was going to get parents involved. She said she was also a local pastor and “this is no way for a pastor to be behaving.”
The patriot went on to spout a bunch of nonsense that ‘BLM is racist when you add a color to the phrase All lives matter and the students were being indoctrinated by ‘Marxists.’ He spouted off some other stupid stuff and then another woman there to protect the kids walked up and loudly said “no, you’re done. walk away. you’re done talking.”

This interaction happened in the middle of Sackett in front of the Vic, and a cop drove through the arguing group to break it up. The man turned around and went back to the corner.

The students then continued back up F Street and stood on the 4 corners of F and 1st for over an hour, and received lots of honks in support.

About halfway through the students standing on the four corners, I saw [Dept. Sheriff] Jesse Cortese pull up on his motorcycle and park in the small area across from the Monarch Ski ticket office. He was in plain clothes. He walked up the sidewalk and stood against a wall for a very long time, just watching the students. I thought this was strange behavior for an off-duty deputy.”

Here another witnesses’ account takes over:

“The students reached the park and stood in the park by the bridge, for about 30 minutes and held their signs. The adults were yelling some things to the kids I won’t repeat. I and my friends formed a line between the kids and the Chaffee Patriot adults to protect the students. I didn’t know the students or parents; I just thought — who does this to kids? What about constitutional rights?

There were these guys driving around with their trucks flying flags and these older people, some in their sixties — who were harassing the kids; maybe 10-15 of them. One was an older man who said he was a pastor  and he was calling the kids names. We heard a woman with the kids said she is a pastor too and the two pastors got into a confrontation. The older man pastor started taking pictures of the kids and we asked him to stop. When he didn’t I went over and said ‘you’re done. You need to leave these kids alone.’ Those kids faced them down — those kids were so brave. ”

A post in the Chaffee Patriots group by Jim Mundy, a  pastor of Crossroads Church in Poncha Springs, compares the number of students at their protest to the number of “patriots at their rallies.

Officials Respond

Asked to comment on the incident, Chaffee Sheriff John Spezze said it was a city issue. City of Salida Police Chief Russ Johnson did not respond to Ark Valley Voice, but City Administrator Drew Nelson said that his officers had received no reports of any sort of confrontation, that nothing had happened, and that the city had no further comment.

Asked about the Salida police presence, a witness said, ” That’s a lie that nothing happened and no police were there.  That’s not true. I don’t know who they were there for, but I do know that right on the Chaffee Patriots site they said they notified law enforcement. They are living in this world where they believe BLM and Antifa are going to come and burn down BV and Salida…that’s why they notified the police. It’s ridiculous.”

The county commissioners weighed in, with Commissioner Rusty Granzella saying he had no comment on the incident because he wasn’t there.

“The First Amendment is about protecting people’s rights to free speech and being able to express themselves, so it’s inappropriate to interfere with somebody trying to do that,” said Chaffee Commissioner Greg Felt. “If you have a message you want to share that contrasts with the message somebody else is sharing, create time and space for yourself to do that. But you don’t interfere or obstruct them from sharing their message.”

“Regarding the harassment of people, regardless of their age, peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on — there are certain social contracts that we have to conduct political discourse in this country. When those norms are broken down, when someone behaves inappropriately in public, then society starts breaking down,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “People [here] all seem to say they want to maintain our sense of community and our sense of civil society. I’ve said several times, one of our major jobs [as commissioners] is to instill citizen confidence in local government. We can’t control what is happening in the nation, but we can do what we can at the local level to instill confidence in local government.”

First Amendment protections

The fact that the harassment was directed at students is disturbing. The students were within their First Amendment rights, and adults harassing kids would appear to be — well — not adult.  The Chaffee Patriots should be aware that there is a caveat to free speech protections afforded by the First Amendment. It specifically excludes two things: hate speech and threat speech.