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Does America’s first flag symbolize ‘exclusion and hate,’ as this Mich. school superintendent said?

Students at Forest Hills, Mich. high School. (Courtesy Matthew Patulski)

A Michigan school superintendent’s apology has set off another debate about a flag.

This time it’s not the Confederate flag, though, but the original “Betsy Ross” flag. Forget for the moment the near certainty that Betsy Ross did not make it. People still call it that.

And you know it when you see it, the one with 13 stars on a blue background and 13 red and white stripes.

It was approved by the Continental Congress in 1777: “Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Its origin is not so much the issue in Michigan, however.

The issue, in part, is whether, because it’s been adopted by some white supremacist groups or because it was flown during the era of slavery, it is so offensive “to some” as Forest Hills School District School Superintendent Dan Behm put it, as to be a symbol of “exclusion and hate” that has no place at a high school football game.

The controversy got rolling last weekend when predominantly white Forest Hills High School played a game on the home field of predominantly black Ottawa High School in Grand Rapids.

Some Forest Hills students were parading around not only with the first flag but with a Trump banner, in addition to chanting “Go green” and “Go white,” which are the school colors.

The combination offended, among others, Matthew Patulski, a white parent of two students enrolled in Grand Rapids public schools — the Trump banner because Donald Trump is “a candidate known for his tacit support of racist ideologies,” as Patulski wrote in an open letter on his Facebook page, and the “Betsy Ross flag” because it’s “a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal.”

Patulski, whose photo of the students has been widely circulated, wrote:

After the game, a … mother who is an immigrant from Chile, whose son attends school with my older son, asked me to do ‘something’ with my photo so I am contacting you to share these concerns from our parent community. I was compelled to honor her request by the expression on her face — the look in her eyes — it was startling to me, a white man in his early 50s. In that moment I witnessed the fear and anxiety of what a person of color must feel every time in the presence of such behavior.

At first, Forest Hills’s Behm told MLive that the Forest Hills students were participating in a “red, white and blue” theme night. “The theme for each game changes, but students have generally had the ‘red, white and blue’ theme each year around the Sept. 11 anniversary,” MLive reported.

By Tuesday, however, Behm was apologizing in an open letter:

Injecting partisan politics into a community football game and into a commemoration of the events of September 11th is inappropriate. Parading our current United States flag in a manner that is inconsistent with proper etiquette is disrespectful to all who have served our nation. And, to wave a historical version of our flag, that to some symbolizes exclusion and hate, injects hostility and confusion to an event where no one intended to do so. To our gracious hosts — the students, families, staff, and community of Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills High School and Grand Rapids Public Schools — and to the student-athletes, coaches, officials, and supporters of both teams, we are truly sorry.

Nobody, he said, is being punished for the incident.

Behm’s apology has elicited praise in some quarters but been slammed in others, as the comments section at MLive illustrates:

“This whole PC thing has gotten way out of hand,” said one commenter. “Why is it acceptable to proudly wear a Black Lives Matter T shirt, and not our country’s flag?”

“Nothing is wrong,” said another. “These boys are patriots. The picture, which has gone viral nationally, shows them grinning with immense pride while they display widely respected symbols of historical significance in our great country.”

“The Forest Hills Superintendent should simply retract his apology and stand up for the students and community he represents,” said one. “All students across the country have the right to free speech. Kids aren’t allowed to hold a flag? … whats next will the school band not be allowed the play the national anthem? Can’t hold a Trump sign?…. whats next.”

Others suggested that if they had been holding a Hillary Clinton banner, everything would have been different.

On the other side, Grand Rapids school superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal “thanked Behm for his leadership, his letter and apology,” MLive reported.

“I cannot deny the hurt, disrespect, and outrage that I and so many others in this community felt about these actions that took place in our backyard, in our home at Houseman Field. … This type of behavior should not and will not be tolerated in our stadium or schools — nor should it in any across our state and nation.”

Briana Urena-Ravelo, a Grand Rapids resident and Black Lives Matter activist, explained to TV 8 in Michigan, why she thought the flag was offensive: “What were the conditions for people of color when that flag was created? I was property. Other people were getting their land stolen,” she said. “It’s all very obvious,” she said.

The incident in Michigan appears to be a complicated matter of context, the combination of the flag, the predominantly white school, the Trump sign, all at a predominantly black school at a time of broader racial tension.

But symbols are often all about context. An American flag flown next to a swastika conveys one thing; the same flag on the grave of a veteran another; and on the Fourth of July, with the fireworks and family, yet something else.

Symbols are a language and it is the combination of symbols that conveys the message.

Beyond that, it raises the question of whether America’s first flag, along with the Confederate flag, is destined to become another point of controversy in the country, increasing the divisions that already exist.

For the general public, that would be a change.

The Betsy Ross flag is depicted on the Department of Veterans Affairs official shield.

It’s routinely hauled out for Flag Day.

And for other occasions.

And yes, it’s also been deployed from time to time by supporters of Donald Trump and by the Patriot movement which contains some factions who espouse white nationalist and white supremacist views.

Forest Hills Schools parent Patricia Gerondale, whose son brought the Trump flag to the game, said the visiting students never intended any harm or intimidation. MLive reported. “It wasn’t done to put anyone down or cause any negative feeling,” she said, and carried “no message behind it.”

But it’s apparent that for some, that’s not the case — which, in turn, raises the question as to whether a white supremacist group, or any extremist group, by adopting a historic symbol or icon, renders it guilty by association and effectively unusable by everyone else.

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