LAWRENCE —A group of about a dozen protesters who were going to march down Massachusetts Street abandoned that plan Saturday as an estimated 600 counter-protesters lined Lawrence’s main drag in support of social equality and freedom of expression.
The protest was catalyzed by an artist’s depiction of the American flag displayed on a pole outside a University of Kansas campus building last month which sparked a firestorm of controversy. Criticism from Gov. Jeff Colyer, who said the display of the “desecrated American flag” was “beyond disrespectful,” and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, prompted university officials to relocate the flag to the Spencer Museum of Art.
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said Saturday that he disagreed with the flag’s removal.
“I didn’t particularly like it as a piece of art, but it’s clearly protected speech,” he said Saturday.
Dozens of people wore shirts reading “Art is the voice of freedom,” a message that was also displayed in the windows of several businesses along Mass Street and prominently on The Granada’s marquee.
Sitting on a bench in South Park, Clay Mead, an organizer of the “Defend the Flag” protest, said he agreed with that message, but stood by KU’s decision to remove the flag to the museum. He denied being affiliated with the alt-right or white supremacist groups, and said the group was there to show support for the American flag.
Tina Montgomery, of Eudora, said she came because she wanted to “show respect for the flag.” She said her son is a military veteran who fought for the flag and the freedom of Americans.
Mead, of Lake Perry, said they had planned the event for Saturday because of a community safety fair going on across the street. It was a chance to show our appreciation to first responders, Mead said, and not to coincide with the “Unite the Right Rally 2” in Washington D.C. The first rally, held a year ago in Charlottesville, Va., claimed the life of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Mead said he was also an organizer of the February rally in Lawrence in which some participants were carrying Confederate flags.
Counter-protester organizer Courtney Shipley said after that protest, local community groups began mobilizing.
“It’s our responsibility to show this is our community and we won’t tolerate hate speech,” Shipley said.
Rev. Eleanor McCormick said as an ordained clergy, it was her calling and duty to show up on the side of love and to put love into action.
Dozens of people gathered in clusters for more than two hours along both sides of Mass Street. Some held signs, a few came prepared with lawn chairs and others brought bubbles for their kids.
Marty Hillard, of Topeka, said he showed up because it was important to have a conversation about freedom.
Freedom doesn’t look the same for everyone in this country, he said. Participating Saturday was a way to live out what freedom is, should and can be, he said.
“There’s still so much room for us as a community to grow and for us as a country to grow,” Hillard said.
Shortly after noon, Mead’s group, some of whom were armed, walked to the other side of South Park where they thanked members of the Lawrence Fire Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Several counter-protesters also came to the park.
Lawrence police chief Gregory Burns said the community safety fair was an opportunity to engage with the community in a positive way. He said the protests overshadowed that objective.
Tension between the protesters and counter-protesters grew as their interaction devolved into a screaming match. A woman with Mead’s group began yelling about the Islamic caliphate and Barack Obama while others yelled back at her to leave Lawrence.
Eventually the woman got into a truck with a Johnson County license tag and left.
Counter-protester organizer Darren Canady didn’t witness the scuffle in the park but said he wasn’t personally interested in yelling.
“I think that was a really good example of what happens on either side -- it just turns into screaming,” Canady said. “Half the people who were there said, ‘I couldn’t even tell what was being said.’ What I can say is that everyone knows that on these shirts, ‘Art is the voice of freedom.’ That actually can be heard.”
The screaming match was “not nearly as compelling as a thought-through, clearly argued, pointed display of a core belief,” he said.
Organizers counted more than 600 people which showed “a real sense of community togetherness for equity and for a belief that this should be a town that rejects intimidation and supports the importance of art in the public sphere,” Canady said.