All seats were filled at the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday night as members of the community called for the city to take action after a protest on Massachusetts Street led to one arrest Saturday.
The protest included over 100 counter-protesters whose goal was to protest the flag-dragging march that was originally scheduled to take place at the same time.
To protest against a flag-dragging event that was already cancelled, a group rallied on Massachusetts Street for the Defend Our Flag Protest on Saturday, carrying U.S. and Confederate flags, among others.
Multiple Lawrence citizens who live around the area spoke at the meeting, saying they felt unsafe and threatened during the protest.
Members of the LGBTQ community also voiced their concerns over the gay slur that a protestor had used to address a pedestrian during the march.
Cam Cameron, a Lawrence resident who lives on Kentucky Street and is a member of the LGBTQ community, said it was chilling to be a white person and watch what was happening on Saturday.
“It was completely disheartening to see,” Cameron said. “Displaying an American flag is something, but displaying a Confederate flag is something else, and I want to be a part of moving forward, making sure these things don’t happen again.”
Other residents complained that they felt unsafe for people of color in Lawrence.
Christina Davis said the protest was unavoidable, and she didn’t feel safe letting her kids go outside.
“I spoke to one of my neighbors of color, and she expressed how terrified she was and she had to keep her kids inside,” Davis said. “Given our rich, wonderful history, action needs to be taken. We do not welcome this sort of thing in Lawrence.”
Other residents, like local farmers' market vendor Natalya Lowther, voiced concerns about how protests like this could interfere with business.
“This is our livelihood and if people are afraid to come to downtown events on Saturday mornings, farmers lose our livelihoods,” Lowther said. “I need to know what the community is going to do to protect me and my fellow farmers and customers on Saturday mornings at the downtown farmers' market.”
Trevor Stevens, who also lives on Kentucky Street, said he thought the protest did not seem like a peaceful one after he and his roommate went out to see what was going on.
“We passed by one of these groups, and without engaging we were paraded, yelled at and even as a white male it felt very dangerous, and I can’t imagine what persons of color might feel like,” Stevens said. “I don’t want that in my community and I hope we can move forward and make a conscious decision that we will do things differently.”
The city announced goals to improve public safety four months ago following a deadly downtown shooting. Now those measures are starting to be introduced.
Lawrence City Commissioners listened to comments from the public about the protest for over 40 minutes until regular agenda items were able to be addressed.
City Commissioner Matthew Herbert said, while the commission recognizes the issue and doesn’t want to make downtown an unsafe place for people and their families, the city still has to be open to free speech, even if it’s speech that others don’t appreciate or like.
“Obviously this hit a real deep note with a lot of members of our community,” Herbert said. “It’s an incredibly difficult issue, because ultimately we have a statutory obligation to protect freedom of speech whether or not we agree with that speech or not. But I do believe there are some things we could look out to make sure that free speech is carried out in a way that is not in any way violent, or promoting violence or creating chaos in the community.”