‘Defend the Flag’ rally fizzles, but counterprotesters turn out in force
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Fewer than 10 people showed up for a “Defend the Flag” rally planned for Saturday afternoon in downtown Lawrence, but hundreds of counterprotesters flocked to Massachusetts Street in opposition to the event.
Organizer Clay Mead said the Defend the Flag rally was a response to a controversial art piece featuring an altered American flag that was displayed at the University of Kansas. The event’s Facebook page invited participants to meet at South Park and then march north on Massachusetts Street. At about 12:30 p.m., several Defend the Flag participants did show up at South Park.
However, by that time, about 600 counterprotesters — who dubbed their demonstration “Art is the Voice of Freedom” — had lined both sides of Massachusetts Street from Seventh to 11th streets, ready to greet the Defend the Flag marchers.
There were a few brief verbal exchanges between the two groups, but no physical confrontations. There was a large law enforcement presence downtown throughout the morning, in part because Lawrence’s first Community Safety Fair was taking place at South Park at the time.
Art is the Voice of Freedom organizer Courtney Shipley said her group wasn’t just there to spread an anti-censorship message. She said the timing of the Defend the Flag rally — on the anniversary weekend of 2017’s Unite the Right rally that brought neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups to Charlottesville, Va., and the same weekend as a planned Unite the Right rally in Washington, D.C. — suggested the event had connections to the alt-right.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Shipley said. “We showed we could mobilize, and we proved we could show our support for freedom of expression and for all the people in our community.”
Fellow organizer Elise Higgins said the counterprotest was a team effort, one that activists had been planning for several weeks.
“It really was a grassroots effort of many different groups and individuals,” she said.
But Mead, of Ozawkie, said the counterprotest organizers misunderstood his intentions. The fact that the event took place on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally was a coincidence, he said. It was scheduled Saturday so those attending the rally could thank first responders attending the Community Safety Fair, he said.
Moreover, Mead said the Defend the Flag protest wasn’t a call for censorship, but merely an opportunity to celebrate the flag as a symbol of unity.
“We’re not here to protest anything,” he said Saturday morning before the march was canceled. “We’re here as a show of unity. We’re not alt-right, alt-left or anything. Any social group is invited to join us.”
— Journal-World digital editor Nick Gerik contributed to this story