FRONT ROYAL – The weekly political protests and counter-protests that have been held at the gazebo off East Main Street for about a year-and-a-half may be forcibly relocated by the town.
The Town Council at its Monday work session initiated discussions about moving the opposing sides at the request of business owners who claim the demonstrations hurt their profits.
Len Sherp organized the Vigil for Democracy in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, fearing that America’s democratic institutions were threatened. The vigil members have expressed their concerns with a new round of signs every week at the gazebo.
Meanwhile, a contingency of Trump supporters established a presence across the road on the corner of Main and Chester streets. The protests recently took place from 5 to 6 p.m.
Town Manager Joe Waltz noted that the protesters have permits, which are granted every six weeks. Recently, the Trump supporters obtained a permit for both the gazebo and across the road from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and the vigil group obtained a permit for noon to 1.
Ann Arena, owner of Gourmet Delights Gifts & Framing, 204 E. Main St., said the protests scare off “frightened” pedestrians and there has been a noticeable decline in customers. She added that there are other places to protest and downtown is “where we make our living.”
Jean Plauger, the owner of Jean’s Jewelers, 407 E. Main St., said her shop loses about 20 percent of its normal profit during the protests.
Kelly Walker, the owner of The Studio-A Place for Learning, 105 E. Main St., said it does not matter how much money is being lost. She said protests negatively impact Front Royal’s image by garnering negative social media attention.
Walker, Arena and Plauger said their feelings are strictly business-related and not driven by political beliefs.
“They can vote for Mickey Mouse; it don’t matter,” Arena said.
Ralph Waller, the owner of Main Street Pawn and a pro-Trump demonstrator, said it is “crazy” that business owners claim to lose customers during protests.
He said foot traffic in his pawn shop increases during protests. He added that a monthly car show in the gazebo parking lot forces him to shut down, which does result in lost money.
If the protests are relocated, Waller said: “We will sue them.”
“How can you stop free speech? You can’t tell people where to go,” he said.
Jay Narron, co-owner of A and J Antiques, 301 E. Main St., agreed that protests do not affect his profits and they should not be relocated unless they are rowdy.
“I don’t think anybody is scared away,” he said.
Narron blamed high temperatures and heavy rains for lost business. He said the only annoyance from the protests is when drivers comply with the “honk for Trump” picket.
Town Attorney Doug Napier said public streets, parks and sidewalks can be legally used for assembly. For “content-based” activities, such as political demonstrations, he said that the government may enforce the time and place they are held.
He said a public forum such as the gazebo normally cannot be regulated but “it may be possible” if the protests demonstrably cause businesses to lose money. Moving the protests, he said, would have to protect the town’s tax base and shop owners.
Napier noted that a U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a town’s decision to prohibit picketing in the interest of well being and tranquility. He added that the town would have to provide the protesters another venue in public view if they are relocated.
Steve Foreman, a participant in Wednesday’s Vigil for Democracy, said the vigil has always been respectful of businesses. The distractions, he said, come from the pro-Trump protesters who have a megaphone and urge passersby to honk.
He said it would not necessarily be a violation of the First Amendment if the protest were forced to move, but it would be a “shame” if they were relocated because other people are being disrespectful.
Thomas Straight, who has participated in the pro-Trump demonstrations, noted that there has been some yelling back and forth but it was never violent.
Corey Stewart, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, was in Front Royal on Wednesday for the opening of the Warren County Republican Committee’s new headquarters.
Stewart said he would be concerned if business owners are being hurt, but that political demonstrations being held in a town square are reminiscent of traditional America. If they grow a bit rowdy, as long as they are not violent, he said: “this is what it’s all about.”
Jorge Ameselle, another Vigil for Democracy participant, said he does not see how the town can legally move protests. He said the vigil would comply with relocation but may have to consult with the American Civil Liberties Union and file a potential lawsuit.
“We’re not completely innocent because us being here causes other people to be here,” he said.
Ameselle added now that Republicans have secured both sides of the street for their demonstrations, it may quiet down as they grow lonely with no one to trade shouts.
Joel Simmons, a participant in the Republican demonstrations, said now that the vigil has been eliminated in the evening, the demonstrations will focus on rallying for candidates.
For example, on Wednesday there were large signs for Republican candidates on either side of the street.
Two councilmen – William Sealock and Jacob Meza – were not present at the work session and Councilman John Connolly said he would prefer waiting for their return for further discussion. He added that he is “very, very hesitant” to get involved in a decision involving the First Amendment.
Councilman Christopher Morrison said the town must be careful not to infringe upon the First Amendment, adding that business owners have the right to make a living.
Councilman Gary Gillispie said relocating the protests would be a “slippery slope.” He noted that churches use the gazebo for demonstrations and asked: “What if people get offended by that?”
Mayor Hollis Tharpe said the council must be careful and he does not want the town to be sued.
Vice Mayor Eugene Tewalt said he would not mind exploring whether there is another suitable location for the protests, such as the Happy Creek Arboretum’s gazebo at the Corner of Commerce Avenue and Short Street.
He offered to discuss the matter with protesters and will reveal his findings at a future work session.