Brown University in Providence, R.I. (Getty Images)

American flags set up for a Veterans Day ceremony at Brown University were snapped in half, torn up and thrown away, according to a veteran who watched it happen and another student who videotaped what he saw happening and posted it online.

That prompted other students to counterprotest, according to the campus newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, with a senior upset by the actions organizing a group to sit on the school’s green to protect the remaining flags. And it opened an intense debate about the meaning of patriotism and sacrifice on the Ivy League campus in the days after a divisive election, with some students saying in online debates that it’s hard to love a country that has committed atrocities and oppressed minorities.

At American University last week, some students set American flags on fire to protest Donald Trump’s election as president and “white America,” saying the country was “going down in flames,” and American flags were destroyed at protests elsewhere in the country in recent days.

Nicholas Strada, a neuroscience major who’s in an eight-year undergraduate and medical school program at Brown, was in a constitutional law class Thursday when he saw people putting up flags for the ceremony, all along the walkways that crisscross the school’s main green.

When he left class, the first flag he saw was snapped in half, just dangling, he said. So he went and bought a roll of tape. While he was fixing it, he noticed a pile of flags lying on the ground, and then another. So he started putting those flags back into the ground, he said.

Then he saw someone grabbing flags out of the ground and throwing them against a tree. He put those back. Then he saw the same person taking a pile of them and walking off with them. “That wasn’t the only person,” he said. “Someone was walking down the path and stomping on them one by one. I went over and nicely asked, ‘Could you not do that? People just put them up.’ . . . I explained they were for Veterans Day. She said, ‘I don’t care about that right now’ and walked off.”

“I was out there for a while,” he said. “A few people stopped to help.”

Tristan Hood, who’s studying economics at Brown after four years in the U.S. Air Force, including two tours in Iraq, was one of the people helping to set up the flags. When they noticed later that half the flags were missing, he and two other veterans went looking for them. They found some in a trash can. And they saw a handful of students ripping more flags out of the ground, tearing them up and stomping on them.

He said the university administration is very supportive of veterans, but that some students are hostile to the military or confused about what it does. The rhetoric got venomous, he said. “They call us babykillers … they say all we do is hide behind a veil of integrity and honor and go around the world enslaving people,” Hood said. Some students seem to assume all veterans are white men, he said, but “we have everybody. It’s a melting pot.”

During the Iraq War, Hood said, he remembered people who were frustrated with the conflict, which he thought was reasonable. “But people were careful not to attack the actual service members. It seems like the dialogue has changed, with direct comments against the vets,” he said.

Their service isn’t political, he said, and nor was the ceremony.

Cass Cliatt, a spokesman for the university, responded to questions with an email:

We are investigating the accounts of vandalism to American flags set out on Brown’s College Green to celebrate Veterans Day. Every year members of our campus community come together to honor our veterans and their commitment to serving our country. The flags were planted a day in advance as part of an event held on Veterans Day, where student veterans and ROTC undergraduates joined students, faculty and staff from across campus for a Veterans Day procession and ceremony. According to some accounts we have received, members of our community diligently worked to restore the removed flags, some of which had been removed and left nearby. Other flags were removed by the organizers of the event and replaced the morning of the Veterans Day ceremony. We do not condone the activities that led to the flags being removed, and destruction of property is subject to disciplinary review.

“With all the divisions going on, I don’t want to bring more divisions and back-and-forth,” Strada said. But debate flared on social media over the weekend, including on a site that is full of anonymous comments for students.

Another student wrote, in part: “Are you kidding me? If you despise this country so much then leave it if it makes you that sick and almost makes you puke. The United States is amazing. It is filled with opportunity and amazing people. I love this country and I’m sick of others in the Ivy League not feeling the same way. . . .

“I do not care how the hyper sensitive community reacts to my pro-American statements. I am sick of the near censorship present on our campus. And I stand by our nation. I stand by our veterans which include my parents and my grandparents and many before them for generations back. I do not care for those with anti-American sentiments who reside among us. I am an American, and God bless our country.”

A student responded: “It is hard to love a country that does not love you back. It is hard to love a country that has destroyed the homes and families of those you love. It is hard to love a country that does not hold itself accountable for the atrocities it has committed. I love this country too, but I am here out of necessity. I am here because my family had no where else to go, due to actions committed by the US and others.”

And another wrote, in part: “The idea that ‘if you despise a country so much just leave’ is one that is steeped in hubris, classism, and a complete lack of understanding of the state of the world that we live in. For many Black Americans, there is no ‘home’ for them to return to, because their countries of origin were not documented. For many immigrants/asylum seekers/refugees, they cannot go back to their home because their countries are literally getting bombed daily due to the actions (or inactions) of powerful Western entities. Many do not have the financial resources to go back to their homes, and even if they did, they would exist under fear of death because of wars, dictatorships, and regimes that the US and other powers have sponsored or produced.”

And a veteran responded: “As a student veteran, I just want to say I get it and I support you. It hurts a lot though. My community has seen, done, and endured unimaginable things and sometimes the only time it feels like all those terrible sacrifices aren’t forgotten is when we see a couple $2 flags on the main green once a year. We were taught to see the flag as a representation of the ideas of freedom and unity we fought for, even though it is rarely achieved. You have assigned the flag a different set of values. Your feelings are so valid, but please be conscious of us and be our friend. Hopefully somehow we can find a way to support each other.”

The university honored veterans with a formal ceremony Friday, with members of the campus community following an American flag and color guard presented by the Patriot Battalion Army ROTC and listening to remarks by a student veteran and others. Hood was appreciative of all the students who came to help protect the flags — and to the many who came to the ceremony in support.

“For me the reason the flag is very important is because I’ve seen a lot of people come home under that flag,” he said. “They don’t get to go back to their families.”

Strada was thanked by someone whose best friend died fighting for the United States in Afghanistan but said that’s not the point. “Thank a veteran,” he said.

This post has been updated. Brown’s president Christina Paxson later issued a statement about the vandalism of the flags:  

A week ago, on the eve of Veterans Day, Brown University’s Office of Student Veterans and Commissioning Programs prepared for our annual ceremony honoring veterans by lining the walkways on the College Green with American flags.

I was appalled to learn the next day that these flags had been vandalized, apparently by a group of Brown students. In a communication to the campus earlier this week, I shared my sadness with the Brown campus community about the vandalism of these flags, among other elements of recent divisiveness that are not true to Brown’s values. Initially, it was unclear exactly what had happened to the flags and how many people were involved in the incident. I have since learned that a large number of flags were removed and left lying on the ground next to where they had been planted, and some had been torn from their stakes or had their stakes broken.

The investigation of this incident indicates that the vandalism was the work of a small number of Brown students acting individually. Although Brown’s policy is to keep the results of disciplinary matters confidential, I want to be very clear that these acts of vandalism are a violation of Brown’s Code of Student Conduct, and students found responsible for code violations are subject to sanctions.

I was so proud to learn that a group of Brown students quickly came together to replant and guard the flags and summon Brown’s Department of Public Safety. The flags were removed for the evening, to prevent further harm, but by the beginning of the Veterans Day ceremony they were restored to their proper places, still with a group of student volunteers keeping watch over them.

Brown University is home to a growing number of student veterans and ROTC students. They are valued members of our community, and I am saddened that this incident made them feel disrespected by some of their classmates. I am confident that the actions of a small number of students do not represent the views of more than 9,000 students who study at Brown.

I value my participation in the Veterans Day ceremony each year and am happy to have seen the numbers of attendees from across campus who come together to honor our veterans grow over time. At the ceremony this year, I noted Brown’s pride in having re-established Naval and Air Force ROTC, so that we can educate a greater number of future military leaders. And of those who have already served, I said and find it important to repeat here, that whether to protect the values and way of life we cherish, defend those unable to defend themselves, or advance peace and justice in the world, Brown veterans have truly distinguished themselves and made our University proud.

Christina Paxson, President
Brown University