Juneteenth marchers met by counter-protesters, motorcyclists in Rifle
Both Black Lives Matter and Back the Blue supporters were joined by a few other groups as they marched through Rifle marking the anniversary of Juneteenth
On Friday evening, peaceful Black Lives Matter chants were shadowed by the deafening roar of motorcycle engines as counter-protestors — including some who were open-carrying firearms — followed the marchers on their route down Railroad Avenue to the Rifle Police Department.
The march was organized on Juneteenth, the oldest celebration in the U.S. commemorating the end of slavery.
It was the second time this month that several hundred protesters gathered in Rifle at city hall. But unlike the June 2 vigil, Friday’s event was met by a significant counter-protest.
As BLM supporters gathered in the plaza near city hall, several hundred more supporters from Back the Blue and other conservative groups lined Railroad Avenue.
“Most importantly first and foremost it is about getting the message out, there are so many problems across the country that may not be happening here, we may not see here, but it doesn’t mean we can’t stand with our brothers and sisters across the country,” BLM supporter Omar Hernandez said.
“We are not here to cause trouble, we just want to bring awareness, especially the importance of Juneteenth, that was the liberation of slaves 155 years ago. To this day, there are still some injustices that pull into question how free they are.”
Juneteenth began in Texas, and celebrates the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy.
Hoisting picket signs, BLM supporters were met by a counter-protest of people waving American flags, signs in support of the police, and Trump flags as they made their way through the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Third Street.
As the march moved north on Railroad making the 16-block trek to the police department they were met by a group of bikers predominantly riding Harley Davidsons who followed them, revving their engines in an attempt to drown out the BLM chants of the march.
“We did have some complaints about some motorcycles that were being very loud along the roadway. We had some complaints about some language being used, not necessarily limited to one side,” Rifle Police Chief Tommy Klein said in an interview Monday. “We did ask them to stop revving their engines once we got to the police department, and they complied.”
Klein said the Rifle Police Department doesn’t typically enforce noise ordinances for loud motorcycles or vehicles.
Klein said the majority of BLM marchers and counter-protesters were polite and complied when contacted.
“It has been my policy to do so especially at political protests, giving a wide leeway to people in terms of cussing, shouting, and things of that nature which may not be civil or generally accepted,” Klein said. “In retrospect, I would have talked to them sooner, there is a speech issue there (regarding the motorcycles) and I know people think it doesn’t apply there.”
Many of the counter-protesters said they were there to support local law enforcement, including Peter and Dawn Hayes.
“We came out to support our police department, because we think their lives and everyone’s life matters,” Dawn Hayes said. “They have to make tough decisions, they have to go in where other people run away from. They’re good people, a few might be bad, but here in our valley we have good police officers.”
Klein said overall it was a peaceful rally, but that he would do things differently if the same circumstances arose again. Klein met with each side separately before the march.
“I think I should have sat down with both sides at the table at the same time to discuss the message each group was promoting. It is something I have never done before,” Klein said. “Had we done this, I think the groups would have seen they agreed on major points.”
With help from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, New Castle Police Department, Glenwood Springs Police Department, Carbondale Police Department, the Rifle Police Department were able to mostly keep the counter-protesters separated from the BLM protesters.
“We did have people show up that we did not anticipate, but that is fairly common. Misinformation, rumors, and assumptions unfortunately took hold and caused some unnecessary friction. It was my impression that both sides were supportive of our agency — This message was lost,” Klein said. “I made decisions that I thought were right at the time. Would I change things? I think so. All in all, it was peaceful and both sides were able to exercise their First Amendment rights. I feel like we made concessions to both sides.”
After marching for well over a mile the BLM protesters gathered for more chants, a moment of silence, and to listen to speakers in the Rifle police parking lot. Counter-protesters were asked to stay back in a parking lot to the north of the police department.
“We just want to bring awareness, especially to a small town like this,” Hernandez said. “It was definitely a lot more hectic than we expected, we did what we came here to do, and we are still here doing what we need to do.”
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Five candidates are running for three seats on the Garfield Re-2 school board this year.