Some residents call on Lawrence officials to address ‘appropriate’ protocol for protests after ‘Defend the Flag’ event

Protesters carrying American flags and a hybrid Confederate flag, along with counter-protesters carrying rainbow flags, stand near the north entrance to South Park, south of the Douglas County Courthouse, Saturday afternoon, Feb. 3, 2018.

A downtown protest that included some marchers with Confederate flags has some residents raising questions at City Hall.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission heard about 30 minutes of public comment regarding a protest in downtown Lawrence Saturday. The protest by a “Defend the Flag” group was reportedly in response to a “Drag the Flag” protest that had allegedly been scheduled for Saturday but that did not occur.

East Lawrence resident Dave Loewenstein told the commission that the intimidating tactics of some of the protesters reflected the racist and xenophobic ideology that is trying to reassert itself throughout the country. He urged the commission to address and condemn the events.

“Ignoring them or hoping they were an aberration would serve to normalize this behavior and is not an option if we believe in the fundamental well being of our community,” Loewenstein said.

About a dozen people spoke to the commission about Saturday’s events. Some LGBTQ residents and residents of color told the commission they felt scared, unwelcome or threatened by the protesters. Several residents asked the city to make a statement against what they described as intimidating and hostile behavior, and they sought further discussion of what the city’s protocol or permitting process is for protests.

If the city were to enact any policy, it would have to be content-neutral, as governments by law cannot limit free speech.

Lawrence police reported Saturday that one arrest was made and one citation issued in what they described as a “largely non-violent” protest. Several of those who spoke also referred to a video circulating on social media, in which some of the protesters yelled at a resident with an anarchist flag and one protester broke the flag’s pole.

Bita Porubsky told the commission that preventive action is better than reaction, and she’d like to see the city, the police and the community discuss what the city does in such situations.

“I definitely think that everyone has the right to free speech, and that includes people who don’t hold the same ideals or positions as me,” said Porubsky, noting that some people likely didn’t agree with the recent women’s march in Lawrence.

“But I do think the Confederate flag, the intimidation, the violence, even though it wasn’t physical, was still very present,” she added. “So I just want the community leaders to be able to address the community and let us know that that type of behavior is not appropriate here in Lawrence, and if you do want to protest here, this is how you do it.”

As is protocol, the commission did not discuss the topic, but Mayor Stuart Boley did thank all those who spoke for their comments. The commission referred the issue to city staff for review and asked that the topic be brought back for discussion at a future meeting.

Porter Arneill, the city’s director of communications and creative resources, told the Journal-World Wednesday that marches generally do not require any official city oversight. Specifically, Arneill said the city does not require any permits for marches but that an event may involve a reservation for a city park shelter or traffic-related request. He said public areas such as parks and sidewalks are open to anyone and that the city’s only involvement with Saturday’s march was the police presence.

A date is not set for when the City Commission will discuss the topic, but City Manager Tom Markus told commissioners it could be added to an agenda in the next few weeks.