When the president of Hampshire College decided to remove the American flag from the center of campus days after Donald Trump’s election, the move triggered fiery reactions.
For the members of the campus community who consider the flag a symbol of fear, the flag’s descent was celebrated as a moral necessity.
For others, like David Soucy, a veteran who considers the flag a symbol of sacrifice, it felt like a deeply personal insult.
“I was in Iraq 18 months,” Soucy told NBC affiliate WWLP. “I got hurt, spent time at Walter Reed. I came home, and there’s no way I’ll let anyone take down the flag, no way.”
“It means a lot to me and my brothers,” he added.
Soucy was joined Sunday by hundreds of flag-waving veterans from across New England who descended upon the liberal arts college’s campus in Amherst, Mass., to deliver a forceful rebuke to opponents of the U.S. flag. The demonstrators called upon Hampshire officials to reverse their most recent decision to stop flying all flags — including the stars and stripes — on the main flagpole on campus, according to masslive.com.
Demonstrators, the outlet reported, sang “God Bless America” and held signs with slogans including “No flag = no taxpayer (money).”
Domenic Sarno, the mayor of the nearby city of Springfield, told the gathering that the American flag is a “beacon of hope, freedom and democracy.”
“I would just hope that Hampshire College and its leadership would rethink this and show the proper respect for the opportunities that you have here — not somewhere else, but here in the United States,” Sarno said.
“For the students here and the president and board of trustees have risen from what the veterans sacrificed, this flag, and not to fly the flag on this campus if you were in some other countries around the world it would be handled very, very differently,” he added.
Micah Welintokonis, a veteran from Coventry, Conn., told masslive.com that the school was ignoring its educational role by banning the flag.
“Coddling young men and women old enough to serve our country has zero educational value,” Welintokonis said. “I am frustrated by the things going on in this country. Let us pray for our nation to move forward together.”
“They took down my flag, they have a right to that. I’m here to defend their right to do that, but I want them to understand how bad that hurts me,” veteran Jerry Maguire told WWLP.
The only reported incident occurred when a man who refused to identify himself interrupted a group photo by sitting among demonstrators and “making obscene gestures,” WWLP reported.
Video published by masslive.com appears to show the same man sitting silently among frustrated protesters. “Campus police surrounded the young man as flag-waving demonstrators jeered or tried to talk to him,” masslive.com reported. “The young man said nothing. He eventually lowered his hands and stared straight ahead, ignoring the crowd. He walked away after several minutes.”
Gamalier Rosa, an Army veteran and protest organizer who served in Iraq, told the Globe that taking down the flag showed a lack of respect for veterans and their relatives.
“Our flag is a symbol of our country,” she said. “Our clearest message is that we ask others to respect the flag as we do.”
Hampshire’s American flag was initially lowered by someone on the day after Trump’s election as president. Then, sometime before dawn on Veterans Day, someone burned the flag, according to The Washington Post’s Susan Svrluga.
Hampshire officials said the flag-burning incident is being investigated by campus police.
When the burned flag was replaced, the Hampshire board announced that the new flag would be flown at half-staff, “both to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many and to enable the full complexity of voices and experiences to be heard,” Svrluga reported.
But Jonathan Lash, the president of the small college in Western Massachusetts, said the decision to keep the flag at half-staff only served to complicate the issue. The problem, he explained, was that it upset veterans and military families who saw the measure as a sign of disrespect for the tradition of national mourning.
So it was removed entirely.
Lash said the flag’s removal was not intended as a sign of disrespect, but to accommodate the diverse range of reactions to the symbol. For some people, he noted, “the flag is a very powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up as people of color, never feeling safe — and people for whom it’s a symbol of their highest aspiration for the country.”
In an email to the campus community Friday, Lash wrote that college leaders hoped that removing the flag “will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.”
He also wrote, “Some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election — this, unequivocally, was not our intent.”