CORTEZ, Colorado â It was midway through Mike Lavey’s first term as mayor when he wrote down a resignation letter and put it in a leather-bound file. He said he could no longer stand the divisions that were tearing this rural southwestern Colorado town apart.
Over the past year, Mr. Lavey had observed this community of 8,700 people rocked by political, racial and Covid-19 tensions. The clash in Cortez reflected similar conflicts across the country, other small towns in Washington, DC
A group called the Montezuma County Patriots led what they called Freedom Rides on Main Street to support law enforcement, former President Donald Trump and an end to pandemic restrictions. Meanwhile, a separate and smaller contingent, Walk for Justice and Peace, held placards downtown protesting the murder of George Floyd and supporting Black Lives Matter.
Every weekend, trucks decorated with American flags, Trump flags, a few Confederate flags and emblems associated with the Three Percent Militia movement rolled down Main Street in front of justice protesters. Some townspeople have complained to Mr Lavey that shoppers and tourists are avoiding downtown businesses.
Desperate to quell the conflict and worried about extremist elements within the Patriots, the mayor contacted a group of University of Denver mental health specialists focusing on violence prevention. The objective: to find a way to arbitrate peace between the two factions.
The Denver team had never worked with an entire community before. Using their experience in trying to thwart the spread of extremist ideology and violence in schools, they devised a plan for what was, in effect, a community-wide intervention. It would all start by persuading a small group of people from different factions to sit down and talk, with the help of a facilitator. Larger and more ambitious community projects would follow.
But bringing the two sides together requires a level of trust that has proven increasingly difficult to acquire during a year of contention over everything from vaccines to police to school curricula.
âIt was a great idea, but so many things didn’t work out,â the mayor said recently. “There just isn’t a rally in the country – or Cortez.”
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The problems began after Mr. Lavey – a retired postman and rare Democrat in a county who twice voted for Republican Mr. Trump – was elected mayor by fellow city councilors in April 2020, shortly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While Colorado Democratic Governor Jared Polis has issued various restrictions on businesses and non-essential places of worship, the Patriots have started holding Freedom Ride trailers on Main Street every Saturday in protest.
A few weeks later, following Mr. Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, protesters began to stand silently on Main Street holding “Black Lives Matter” and “Native Lives Matter” signs. The Patriots would storm past with signs supporting the police and Mr. Trump.
In Cortez, which is roughly 63 percent white with sizable Native American and Hispanic populations, both sides were largely white.
âThe split we have in our community never happened until Black Lives Matter showed up,â said Tiffany Ghere, who runs a popular restaurant in Cortez and helped organize the Freedom Ride trailers.
Dawn Robertson, one of less than 100 people in Cortez who are black or partially black, according to census figures, and an organizer of the Justice Walkers, said she was shocked by the vitriolic she heard Patriots caravans.
âIt was really nasty. Obscene language. People are “rolling coal” at us in their trucks with their middle fingers raised, “said Robertson, describing how some vehicles were throwing plumes of smoke. âIt was difficult to stand out there. “
Ms. Ghere said some participants in the Patriots ‘caravans carried three percent flags because they represented the settlers’ resistance to tyranny. The Confederate flag, she added, is part of American history. “I am not racist. I am not homophobic. I am not a national terrorist,” she said.
Odis Sikes, a supporter of the Montezuma County Patriots, feeds his cattle in Lewis, Colorado.
Sylvia Clahchischilli attends the Sunday service at Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church in Cortez.
The sun sets in the rural town of Cortez in southwest Colorado.
At a rally on Jan. 2 to protest President Biden’s victory over Mr Trump in the November election, Mr Lavey said he saw the Patriots harass justice protesters before facing him as well , calling him a communist and a traitor.
Ms Ghere and several others have been charged with misdemeanor harassment for following and insulting the Justice group, according to a police report. She pleaded guilty but denied committing any wrongdoing.
Concerned for his own safety, the mayor, a Navy veteran, said he started sleeping with a loaded gun near his bed.
In late January, he noticed a Denver Post article that mentioned a University of Denver mental health team specializing in interventions for people whose authorities fear may be at risk of violence. He called Rachel Nielsen, a clinical psychologist who ran the program, the Colorado Resilience Collaborative.
Dr Nielsen had counseled a teenage girl from Denver who was trying to join the Islamic State, and she helped schools deal with students who expressed violent and extremist beliefs. Even though Mr Lavey’s request for help was beyond his usual scope, she said he looked desperate and agreed to help.
Dr Nielsen recommended Mr Lavey organize a forum of six or seven people from disparate corners of Cortez: representatives of the Patriots, minority communities, the police and a religious leader.
The discussion should focus on a shared vision for Cortez, not ideologies, she said. If the group has taken this step, they should work together on community-wide projects like a building renovation or a city festival.
“People are so divided that if we only talk about the protests in the city, they are going to be even more pissed off,” Dr Nielsen told the mayor. “How about we talk about the basic common denominator for people who love Cortez?” “
Dr Nielsen suggested that a local person who both sides trusted could facilitate the discussion.
Mr Lavey asked his predecessor as mayor, Karen Sheek, who heads the League of Women Voters of Colorado, if his group would be moderated. She refused. Mr Lavey turned to his former pastor, David Ramsey, who heads a local non-denominational church. He said he was trying to keep his congregation away from politics. He also refused.
The mayor thought he had made a breakthrough when a teacher from a local community college who hosted a city council retreat expressed interest. But it also failed when he found out the teacher had criticized both the Justice group and Ms Ghere for their tactics.
Competitive downtown rallies continued every weekend.
On Main Street, at the Loungin ‘Lizard restaurant, a sign said masks were mandatory. In the nearby Conservative Grounds cafe, where the marquee featured a coffee mug with a three percent emblem, a Dr Seuss-style poem about refusing to wear masks was taped to the window.
Dr Nielsen told Mr Lavey to try again after the summer, when the tensions subsided.
But the tensions have not subsided. The local Rotary club first refused to sponsor the annual Ute Mountain Roundup Rodeo in June because its members feared the Patriots and their trailers would disrupt the event, the group president said.
In response, Ms. Ghere helped the local chamber of commerce sponsor the parade, saying everyone was welcome. Among the pageantry was a chariot with a three percent flag.
A woman told the mayor that she was so upset by the flag that she skipped the rodeo, Mr Lavey said.
A few nights after the parade, Ms Ghere said someone had vandalized her car, scribbling a picture of a penis and the word “bitch”. She filed a police report.
The Walk for Justice group ended its marches in June after a year and plans to support other local events, such as an October rally for abortion rights in Cortez.
The Patriots continued their walks through downtown Cortez on Saturday, including a large rally on September 11. Ms Ghere said the event, advertised as non-political, was intended to support first responders. A handful of Trump flags were hoisted.
In recent weeks, the group has also turned its attention to school board meetings, where Ms.Ghere and her supporters have opposed mask and vaccine mandates and teaching critical race theory in the schools. schools. The Montezuma-Cortez school board has decided not to require masks in schools and does not require teachers to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The board also recently passed a resolution opposing Critical Race Theory, which argues that America is historically and structurally biased toward whites.
Ms Robertson said she was still open to a meeting with the Patriots, but not without a mediator. But she also doesn’t see Cortez’s deeper chasm being bridged. Instead, she said she focused on working with local officials who she felt comfortable working with on specific issues, such as a proposal to send mental health professionals instead. police to respond to mental health calls.
After weighing whether to hand over the resignation letter he had been hiding all summer, Mr Lavey said he began to distance himself from the city’s divisions and plunged back into the Small town mayor’s business: hire a public works manager, promote hot air balloon rides, and attend ribbon cuts for new businesses. Instead of monitoring the Patriot trailers, he spent summer weekends camping in the mountains with his wife.
He ultimately decided to abandon response plans, even with rising tensions over vaccinations and masks in schools. The letter of resignation remains in his file. For now, the mayor said, coexistence will have to be enough.
âI just want Cortez to go back to where we were before,â Mr. Lavey said.
Write to Dan Frosch at [email protected]
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