For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
— The Bible Matthew 5:46-47
Even as a new effort is being launched to promote unity and respect in the local area, Montezuma County has garnered new publicity as a divisive and negative place.
A group called Cortez Unity of Community began holding monthly meetings this fall focusing on topics such as “What Brings Us Together?”
“Cortez Unity of Community is a group of concerned individuals whose mission is to foster unity, caring, respect, and dialogue in the Cortez community,” reads a statement on the group’s Facebook page (which this reporter has followed).
The statement also calls for “a concerted effort to promote traits of kindness, empathy, friendship, courage, gratitude, honesty/integrity, and service by individuals, schools, the police department, churches, the city council, and families.”
But an article posted Oct. 23 in the Colorado Times Recorder, an online newspaper, raises new questions about attitudes in the community.
Titled, “Far Right Candidates Running Unopposed for Seats on Montezuma Cortez School Board,” the article has drawn particular attention to one candidate who was just elected to that school board, Rafe O’Brien of Cortez.
The article, written by investigative reporter James O’Rourke, included some Facebook memes that O’Brien posted in August that seem extremely opposed to diversity or tolerance.
One meme mocks the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose breathing was cut off when he was held under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for more than 9 minutes in May 2020. The tragedy prompted demonstrations around the country, including in Cortez, where Peace and Justice marchers walked along Main Street every Saturday for months.
In the meme O’Brien shared, Floyd’s face is put onto the body of a crab to reflect a scene from the film The Little Mermaid where the song “Under the Sea” is sung. The meme is titled “Under Da Knee.”
Above it O’Brien wrote, “A guy in NASCAR got banned for liking this image. . . I figured I’d share it cause it’s HILARIOUS!!! I would have liked reshared, and re posted this one FOR SURE. The generation who grew up watching shit like South Park or the Simpsons, turned out to be a bunch of [images meaning “cocksuckers”].”
Another meme seems to encourage people to harass and mock anyone wearing a face mask. That sort of harassment happened frequently in Montezuma County during the height of the pandemic, with people yelling, “Baa! Baa!’ at mask-wearers, apparently to indicate they were sheep.
A dark image
The Colorado Times Recorder article is not the first in recent years to paint Cortez and Montezuma County with a dark image.
In January 2020, before the COVID pandemic hit, Cortez made the national news because of controversy over what was being sold at a local retail outlet.
CNN, and later the New York Post and New York Daily News, reported on a local woman who was disturbed by replicas of old racist signs such as “Public Swimming Pool – White Only” being sold at a shop just outside the city. The owner said they were popular items.
In September 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Political Divisions in Cortez, Colorado Got So Bitter the Mayor Needed a Mediator.”
“. . . this community of 8,700 became racked by tensions over politics, race and Covid-19,” the WSJ stated.
Then, in November 2021, the Washington Post Magazine published an article by Austin Cope, a writer who had lived in Cortez, about the February 2021 recall of a member of the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school board, Lance McDaniel, over progressive posts he made on Facebook while a member of the board.
The political divisions reflected in those articles are part of what prompted the creation of Cortez Unity for Community.
A bitter aftertaste
“We all see that we need this unity and to be more accepting of diversity,” Kay Bayburt, who organizes CUC, told the Four Corners Free Press in a phone interview. “it’s OK to have different views on things, but not to be a bully or force your opinions on someone else.
“Diversity is good. We need diversity of thought, diversity of everything. One brain isn’t as good as ten brains. That’s when you’re going to strike a good conclusion.”
But a number of obstacles lie in the way of the local community coming together. The disputes that raged during 2020 and 2021 have left a bitter aftertaste for many local residents.
During those years, on the same days that Peace and Justice marchers walked silently along Main Street carrying signs, a right-wing group calling itself the Montezuma County Patriots drove up and down Main in vehicles bearing a plethora of images. including American, “thin blue line,” Gadsden, Trump, and even Confederate flags.
There were incidents in which some right-wing demonstrators got out of their vehicles and began following and harassing the Peace and Justice marchers, One incident on Jan. 2, 2021, led to the arrest of six of the counter-demonstrators on harassment charges.
Five of the alleged perpetrators accepted deferments, meaning they paid fees and wrote letters of apology without actually pleading guilty. A sixth defendant took her case to trial and was very rapidly acquitted. Bad feelings over those conflicts affect how people interact with the community even now.
‘It breaks my heart’
One Cortez resident said she will no longer go to the Ute Café at the west end of Cortez because that was where the Patriots met to start their parades.
The woman (“Stephanie,” not her real name) asked not to be identified because she did not want her friends and relatives to be identified through her interview. She has progressive-leaning views but did not take part in any demonstrations and is not active politically.
Stephanie said the rifts led her to end a longtime friendship with a woman who is a passionate Trump supporter.
“I’ve known her my whole life practically. I worked for her out of high school and we stayed friends always, but when she started being in those parades and waving those big signs. . . She claims to be very religious, but do those people condone Trump’s behavior, cheating on his different wives?
“I’ve broken off any contact with her. I did it nicely, just wrote a letter saying I wasn’t going to be with her any more.”
Likewise, political divisions led to the end of Stephanie’s relationship with a close relative.
“I’ve lost her because of Donald Trump, and she was my relative that I couldn’t have loved any more than if she had been my very own child. She won’t have anything to do with me because I don’t like Trump and it breaks my heart, but I’m not going to tolerate her any more. I’m done saying I’m sorry.”
Stephanie said she likewise won’t go to a local retail store because while shopping there once she overheard the owner’s husband making a derogatory comment about a woman who had a Black child, which he referred to with the N word.
“It’s not worth it to me to walk in there and do business with people that are that prejudiced,” she said, adding, “The owner did not contradict him.”
“I am not tolerant of people who think that races other than the white race are sub-human and don’t matter.”
Stephanie added, “ If I truly practiced the grace of forgiveness, I could get over it, because these things that make me angry only hurt me. I don’t look at forgiveness as condoning what they did, I look at it as a way to heal myself and a way to get that anger out of me. “
Stephanie said the Patriot parades had a harmful impact on local businesses that weren’t even involved in the political fracas.
“I accidentally got caught in one of those parades, and after that I didn’t go downtown to any businesses when those parades were going on, so people – good people – lost business because of that. I know there’s other people that felt the same way.”
Staying in silos
Despite the bitter memories, there is a feeling that things are slowly becoming more normal in the local area, even if they haven’t returned to what they were before the pandemic – which, of course, was never a state of perfect harmony.
“I do think they are better,” Cortez Mayor Rachel Medina told the Four Corners Free Press in a phone interview. “There’s not clear fighting on the weekends between groups, and I think on an elected-officials level, a lot of us are getting along.
“The council has a good relationship with the county commissioners and a good relationship with the [Ute Mountain Ute]Tribe. I see us on council working to mend a lot of these relationships.”
But there is a lingering rift between many in the community, Medina said, and she does hear about people refusing to support businesses whose owners’ political views don’t align with their own.
“I still hear remnants of that. It’s tough because, recognizing where we are, it is a more conservative area, but it does hurt our community when people only want to spend their money in Durango.
“Any time you try to silo yourself, it’s just not a good idea.
“In general I would love to see our community not segregate themselves and only be surrounded by like-minded people. It’s healthy to be challenged and to see different perspectives.
“We need to remember the majority of the things we want to see in our community. We can agree on things like prosperity, wanting our youth to thrive and be healthy. We just get caught up in the political identities or the anger and I think we need to remember to really learn respect and kind of push through that and get in uncomfortable situations and talk to people we normally wouldn’t.
“Our community is so divided and angry and hateful – not just here, but across the country, and this is not a good example for the next generation.”
People picking sides
Valerie Maez agreed that divisions are bad. A self-described Constitutionalist who is active in the Republican Party, she lives in Lewis north of Cortez and writes a conservative column for the Four Corners Free Press. She did not take part in the Patriot parades but is well-acquainted with many who did.
Maez spoke to the Free Press in November at an interview at Conservative Grounds, a location where people are invited to come in for coffee and conversation. Conservative Grounds was downtown but is now at 11 N. Broadway (Broadway and North Street).
“I think the schisms that are driving our culture, our community, our country, are now at the point that people want to believe what they believe,” she said. “People say, ‘that side’s crazy.’ To break down that barrier between what people want to believe and what is factual is incredibly difficult. People have to get beyond themselves. But how do you do that? it’s hard.”
Maez said she doesn’t think conflicts are worse here than anywhere else, “but it may be more detrimental in an area like ours, because we’re such a small population, than someplace like Denver, where you don’t know your neighbors and can go someplace where you don’t recognize anyone.”
The disagreements are indeed affecting businesses, she said. “I see people picking sides and I think that always has an economic effect in a small town like ours.
“I would love to see the community come together and have a serious discussion about how they feel what they think they know and what is factual. If we have facts we make better decisions. There is a lot of dysfunction in our society and I would love to see it get better. People have to get over being petty and I don’t know how to do that. I do think this is a special place.”
Maez said she might consider going to a CUC discussion in the future.
“Would I go to the Cultural Center and hang out with people? I might. I hope people that go to the Cultural Center think about coming here too. Any time you can promote civil conversation about things that matter that aren’t quite in your niche, it’s usually is positive.”
She said Conservative Grounds is “a place to have coffee and talk. It’s all volunteers and donations. If you don’t like us, come and tell us, but I hope you will be civil. Most people are. In the three years we have been open we have only had to throw out two people because of verbally abusive language.”
‘A tough goal’
Art Neskahi said he isn’t sure whether he would find it worthwhile to go to the Cortez Unity of Community discussions. Neskahi, who is Diné (Navajo), lives in the Cortez area and has been active in a number of efforts, including promoting civil rights. He said he doesn’t know whether the CUC talks would be relevant to Native people.
“I hardly see any unity in the community,” Neskahi told the Free Press in a phone interview. “Native kids participating in high school sports and stuff, parents being united behind their teams, but as far as civic issues I hardly see anything. Unity is a tough goal.”
Neskahi said he graduated from Shiprock High School in New Mexico and later moved to Montezuma County. One of his brothers was killed in Cortez in 1979 by a car of white teenagers, who rolled their vehicle over him, he said.
Then on Thanksgiving in 2006, two men and one woman, all Native, were beaten in the Cortez city park, according to a 2014 article by Sonja Horoshko in the Four Corners Free Press. That led Neskahi to start a series of community dialogues that resulted in the Colorado Civil Rights Commission coming to Cortez to hear from people.
The dialogues also led to a public demonstration in 2007. “We went down Main Street. There were probably 300 walkers, half Native, half white, and I think that really sent a strong message out to the community.”
Neskahi said there are still problems that need to be addressed if the community is to approach unity. “There have been other deaths, beatings, harassment and humiliation [of Natives],” he said. “A lot of cold cases around here, people found dead around the county, have never been solved. I’m in a wait-and-see mode now.
“I thought things were getting better, but I’m not sure. Hopefully there is more tolerance, but every once in a while I will see and hear things people say and it’s like things are getting ready to explode.”
Neskahi added that more Native people should be employed in the county.
“I still don’t see Native people in positions in the city and county, state and federal offices. It should be the most inclusive employment area because we have civil-rights programs and there are Native families who lived here for generations.
“At Walmart they hire Native people but I’m really disappointed in the city and county and state offices. They say the Native people don’t apply for jobs but there’s recruitment. You can recruit people. Places like Farmington and San Juan County, they put out job announcements in the Navajo Times.
“That’s the first thing that pops up in my mind when you talk about unity.”
Neskahi is currently working on getting out the Native vote. “The politicians don’t seem to recognize what the Native vote could do. If they would get that vote it would make an impact in our politics around here.”
The fact that a member of the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School Board – whose members “do not represent special interest or partisan politics,” their website says –posted offensive memes on Facebook is the sort of thing some people are finding it difficult to get past in seeking unity.
Stephanie said she is disturbed by what is happening with the Re-1 school board.
“I’m not all that involved in the local things that go on around here, especially regarding the school board, but there seem to be some pretty strange people on the board that want to eliminate history from the minds of kids,” she said.
“They don’t want them to learn about it because it doesn’t fit with their view of the ideal world. They don’t want kids to know that there were slavery and massacres and how Native Americans were treated. I’m losing real tolerance with people that can’t be honest about what’s true. They want their beliefs to be pushed on to other people.”
Neskahi spoke about the issue of mask-wearing, which one of O’Brien’s posts mocked.
“The pandemic seemed to hit the Native population harder than the others, so on the reservations there was a real strong effort in the communities to wear masks and wash and be real careful,” Neskahi said. “There was a lot of use of the sanitizers and things like that. But if you came back over here, things seemed to be more relaxed and people were defiant of using masks. Even in the stores for a long time it seemed Native people masked up and others were not wearing masks.
“ I think for the conservative thinkers mask-wearing was kind of derided as obtrusive government interference in people’s lives. It became another divisive thing between people who were following government recommendations and those who didn’t want to do that. That’s crazy, that wearing a mask could separate a community like that.”
But Maez – who does not participate in Facebook or social media in general – pointed out that O’Brien’s posts were put up before he was elected to the board.
The memes in question show they were posted in August 2023, when candidates were gathering signatures to run for the school board. O’Brien has since apparently taken down his Facebook page and could not be reached for comment. Contacted by email, reporter O’Rourke said, “during the early research phase of this story, I searched for all of the candidates on Facebook in hopes of gleaning more information about them. I found an account for Rafe O’Brien, and confirmed it was the same person as the school board candidate when I found a post he made talking about how he had collected signatures to get his name on the ballot for the school board election.” He then took screenshots of the posts.
“You’re complaining about somebody who did something before they ran for office,” Maez said. “People have a right to have a personal life.”
She noted that O’Brien received the most votes in the November board election. Four seats were vacant. O’Brien ran unopposed in his district and received 12 more votes than the next candidate (also unopposed).
The Re-1 School District is much broader than the City of Cortez and encompasses a population that is generally more conservative than that in the municipalities. O’Brien ran for the Cortez City Council in April 2022 but came in ninth of 10 candidates.
Maez said she’s heard rumors there may be an effort to try to recall O’Brien. “That too will divide the community some more.”
In regard to his post about George Floyd, she said, “I believe in free speech. I’ve been called a lot of things. I say, you have a right to speak your mind. I don’t want those people’s rights taken away because it may or may not hurt my feelings.”
Floyd’s death, however, has been criticized even by conservatives. In a July 2021 interview with the Free Press, Cortez Police Chief Vernon Knuckles said it was wrong.
“As soon as I saw that (video), I knew that the amount of force they were using was completely unjustified,” Knuckles said. “I thought, ‘There’s enough police standing around there that they would not need to be kneeling on him. They could have restrained him sitting up or even standing’.”
Maez said she doesn’t know O’Brien well enough to know why he shared those memes. “I don’t know if it was his attempt at humor. Some people have a strange sense of humor.”
She added, “I see so many things I think are inappropriate. Just another nail in our de-evolution as a culture.
“As the Grateful Dead said, it’s been a long, strange trip and the ride isn’t over yet.”
Medina said it’s often difficult to get a diverse group represented on a board such as the Re-1 school board because of the current push for boards to be run according to a particular agenda.
“There’s a faction of the community that is taking the tactic that ‘we’re under attack and we have to push for our beliefs’ and takes that extremist route and derails the whole purpose of the organization they’re volunteering for.
“That board is a good example of dissuading people from stepping up and giving their time. We have a lot of nonprofits and elected positions where you need volunteers who are there to do a good job and focus on the needs of that organization but people are hijacking it for their own agenda. It is scary.”
Medina, who spoke at the first meeting of Community Unity for Community, said the group is a good idea, but the problem remains of how to draw new people into the discussion.
“The CUC is a great idea and has a good purpose, but the people that were there were mostly the same people, the ones willing to do it. The ones who needed to be there were not there. How do you get them? How do we get different demographics involved? This was largely the older generation. That’s the struggle of our community in general.”
However, Medina remains hopeful about the future.
“I think we’re heading in a good direction, but we need to get more people on board, maybe even meet people where they are and figure out how we get past some of that hate and build respect for each other. Maybe part is just listening and putting yourself outside of your comfort zone.
“We have to take baby steps. We want leaps and bounds but it takes time and patience, but you can’t give up, either.”
‘A wonderful place’
Bayburt agreed that the effort to unify people has to be put forth.
“We’ve got to change the way we’re thinking – flip over from the ‘me me me’ materialistic kind of things. It’s going to reach the point pretty soon where people are going to be united or we’re not going to live. We have to start caring about each other.”
She said she was encouraged because there were some 35 people who came to the first CUC meeting, including some Natives. “We are going to reach out more to the Native American and Hispanic communities,” Bayburt said.
She hopes people will seek to find “a sense of shared commonality or connectedness that is stronger than our differences.”
For example, she said, “We are all under the umbrella of believing in God or a higher power. That’s a commonality that people need to start looking at rather than the difference between one church or another.
“We need to learn how to talk with one another and listen to one another. I think the climate is right but how we do it is still kind of murky.”
But, Bayburt added, “Cortez is a wonderful place.”
The next meeting of Cortez Unity of Community will take place Thursday, Dec. 14, at 6 p.m.. at the Cortez Cultural Center, 25 N. Market St. in Cortez. People are invited to bring a friend and talk about what makes them feel appreciated, welcomed, or included. There will not be a speaker at this meeting.