After a spike in hate crimes over the winter, Rockville officials came up with what they thought would be the ideal way to affirm the city’s commitment to diversity and inclusion: fly the flags of all 193 member countries of the United Nations from downtown light poles.
“Did you know that more than a third of Rockville’s residents were born outside of the United States? It’s true!” enthused the YouTube video posted by the suburban Maryland city to promote the flags when they went up — each one next to an American flag — in time for Memorial Day. Residents were encouraged to find their country of origin’s flag, take a selfie and send it to the city’s Twitter feed.
Within weeks, officials of this diligently progressive Montgomery County seat discovered that celebrating diversity is not a simple business and that good intentions can be derailed by unintended consequences.
Some U.S. military veterans protested the presence of the Iraqi flag at Hometown Holidays, the city’s annual three-day street festival celebrating Memorial Day, where Gold Star mothers and the wounded would be in attendance. “If it was 10 years after World War II, would we fly the Japanese flag or the German flag in downtown Rockville?” asked Darrin Jones, an Army veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.
At least a couple of flags were stolen. An Ethiopian resident complained that his country’s flag was upside down. It turned out he was looking at the Bolivian flag, which has the same stripes of red, yellow and green but ordered in reverse.
The loudest protest came from Montgomery’s large Vietnamese community. Trinh Nguyen was furious when he learned that the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — the communist regime that defeated his homeland of South Vietnam in 1975 — was flying outside Rockville Memorial Library.
“That red flag is painted by the blood of 3 million Vietnamese plus more than 58 thousand American GIs,” the 75-year-old former captain in the South Vietnamese army wrote in a June 8 email to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Now a retired pharmacist, he said the flag that should be flying is the one that belonged to his vanquished country, South Vietnam, with three red stripes against a field of yellow.
Leggett, whose office had nothing to do with the flag program, forwarded the message — and scores like it — to Rockville city officials.
A day later, the city removed the Vietnamese flag from its site in Rockville Town Center. But instead of retiring the banner, officials placed it in a less conspicuous location along West Montgomery Avenue. A Vietnamese resident spotted it, triggering a new round of protests and a second removal.
Diane Vu, Montgomery’s liaison for Asian communities, said that for many Vietnamese Americans, the communist flag evokes memories of the war’s brutal aftermath, when as many as 2.5 million South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps and tens of thousands perished.
Others, like Vu’s mother, fled by sea with other “boat people,” who drowned by the thousands. She was nine months pregnant with Vu when the inhabitants of her boat were rescued after 10 days in open water.
“For them seeing the flag incites a lot of anger and sadness and brings back horrible, terrible memories,” Vu said.
Hoan Dang is a member of the board of the Association of Vietnamese Americans, a Silver Spring nonprofit group that advocates and provides direct services for Maryland’s 24,000 Vietnamese, about 9,000 of whom live in Montgomery.
“I think the city of Rockville had good intentions, but there is a lack of understanding,” he said. In a letter sent Friday to Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, the group recommended that Rockville display the South Vietnamese flag.
Newton said the city initially took down the Vietnam communist regime’s flag — a yellow star against a field of red — but only to verify that it was actually recognized by the United Nations. Once that was confirmed, it went up again.
The flag program, which originated during a discussion at a “diversity town hall” in February, was not intended to endorse any specific government or political system, Newton said, but to show respect for the city’s diverse population. She acknowledged that the effort may need a few tweaks.
“Suffice it to say, we are reevaluating whether we will show both [Vietnamese] flags or only the flag that is recognized by the community,” she said.
Other U.S. cities and counties have worked through the same issue, sometimes through the leadership of Vietnamese American elected officials. Earlier this year, San Jose City Council member Tam Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam as a teenager, led passage of a bill to ban the communist flag from city flagpoles and to recognize the old South Vietnamese banner. Seattle did the same in 2015. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted in 2004 to recognize the South Vietnamese flag.
Tim Chestnutt, director of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, which oversaw the flag placement, said the whole episode has been a crash course in a subject he never realized was so complex.
“We’ve learned more about flags in the last month than we ever knew,” he said.