It was supposed to be an expression of solidarity. And it was — for some.
As protests over the fatal police shootings of black men raged in Charlotte and elsewhere last week, students at the University of Vermont hoisted a Black Lives Matter flag at the center of campus, right next to, and at the same height, as the state flag and the American flag. The university and the Student Government Association sanctioned the display, saying it was designed to show support for those “struggling with the violence and search for justice in this country.”
Sophomore Akilah Ho-Young could hardly contain her excitement.
“I wanted to cry when I saw this,” Ho-Young said in a Sept. 22 Facebook post that included a picture of the Black Lives Matter flag flying outside the student center, alongside the American and state flags.
“My body filled with lots of joy to know that my predominantly white university is paying tribute to the deaths in the black community,” she said. “It’s the littlest thing that just means so much to me!”
The post went viral. The popular social justice writer Shaun King shared it, along with more than 14,000 others. Comments and tweets poured in from supporters who called it a brave display.
The #BlackLivesMatter flag that was casted on UVM's campus yesterday makes me proud to be a Catamount.
— Cassidy Derda (@m1ss5cass) September 23, 2016
— Matthew Cressler (@mjcressler) September 23, 2016
Critics accused the public university of endorsing a “racist” group and taking a side in a culture war.
This is just about as un-American as it gets in my book. The uber liberal University of Vermont has a flag po… https://t.co/Rsh6Xigl1D
— Democracy In Motion (@DemocracyMotion) September 25, 2016
Imagine the outrage if they had put up the Rebel Flag or a White Lives Matter flag. https://t.co/xJJMln8X4X
— Deplorable Vin (@Vinnie4T) September 24, 2016
Then, over the weekend, as debate roiled on social media, the flag went missing. Student leaders say it was stolen, and the university is investigating it as a theft.
The episode underscored the extent to which a movement and a symbol have come to stand for radically different things to different people.
And it illustrates how the debate over race relations and policing in America has penetrated the land, after a summer punctuated by several high-profile officer-involved shootings of black men, the assassination of six police officers by a black gunman in Dallas, and the mass demonstrations that have followed in cities around the country.
The flag controversy in Vermont played out against a backdrop of protests, some of them violent, over the fatal police shootings of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa.
When news about the flag spread, some critics immediately cited the demonstrations in Charlotte — where a civilian reportedly shot and killed a protester and some demonstrators destroyed property — as evidence that Black Lives Matter promoted violence and was itself a racist movement, although no connection between that shooting and the BLM movement has been alleged.
“This is why I’m ashamed to have gone to this school. This organization has proved time and time again they are a racist hate group,” said Chris Dietze,whose Facebook page indicates he graduated from UVM in 2013. “If they really cared about police brutality they’d be mad when someone of any color gets shot and killed by police who were unarmed.”
Some students appeared to share that view.
“Not at all surprised that UVM would condone this racist organization which promotes the murder of white people and police officers,” read a comment on the UVM Instagram account from Chris Kaufman, whose profile says he is a student from the class of 2018. “If only people were as outraged at the number of blacks killing other blacks each and every day.”
Other commenters said the university should never have stepped into the fray.
“Schools and universities should remain politically free,” David Proemsy wrote on Facebook. “Universities should nurture all political views and expression. This appears to be oppressive to students with other viewpoints.”
The flagpole at the student center has historically flown flags that represent different groups on campus and allows university organizations to sponsor similar displays, university officials told NBC 5.
Helen Driesen, a 19-year-old political science major at the university, said she was coming home from a party early Sunday morning when she noticed the bare pole in front of the student center. She said she’d seen posts on social media from people in town, but not necessarily students, calling for the flag to be taken down.
“I was angry but I’m honestly not surprised,” Driesen told The Washington Post. “People have all kinds of misconceptions about this movement. They don’t understand the gravity of it and how extremely overdue it is.”
Student Government Association President Jason Maulucci said he never expected such an intense backlash. In an interview with The Post, Maulucci said university administrators had approved the proposal to raise the Black Lives Matter flag without issue. At first, Maulucci said, the response was “overwhelmingly positive.”
But as the display gained national attention, Maulucci said he started getting hate mail and threats from strangers online.
Then, at some point late Saturday or early Sunday, someone took the flag down. A picture of the crank on the flagpole suggested someone had pried it open, lowered the flag and stolen it, Maulucci said.
— Chris Campbell (@ChrisCampbel_) September 25, 2016
By Sunday afternoon, however, a new flag had been hoisted in its place, sewn together by Pat Brown, the university’s director of student life, according to Maulucci.
“It was upsetting that someone stole it, but I think it underscored the necessity for raising in the first place,” Maulucci said. “We’re proud of the fact that we’re contributing to that conversation. You can’t make progress unless you acknowledge that there’s a problem.”
It was not the first, and will not be the last, conflict of its kind.
In July, a police officer in Detroit was demoted for a post critical of Black Lives Matter. The same month, an Ohio judge ordered an attorney jailed for five hours for wearing a Black Lives Matter pin to court. And in May, a controversy erupted at Dartmouth University after a group of students removed a “Blue Lives Matter” display and replaced it with Black Lives Matter posters.
In May, conservative commentators joined a chorus of critics demanding a hate group designation for Black Lives Matter from the Southern Poverty Law Center, claiming that in the wake of the shootings of police officers in Dallas, its rhetoric was inflammatory.
The SPLC, which tracks hate groups, refused, explaining itself in a long post by SPLC president Richard Cohen:
There’s no doubt that some protesters who claim the mantle of Black Lives Matter have said offensive things, like the chant ‘pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon’ that was heard at one rally. But before we condemn the entire movement for the words of a few, we should ask ourselves whether we would also condemn the entire Republican Party for the racist words of its presumptive nominee — or for the racist rhetoric of many other politicians in the party over the course of years.
Student activists are set to host a rally Monday at 4:30 outside the student center, where they plan to dress entirely in black and gather for a picture around the new flag, according to a Facebook event. The event had more than 500 guests as of Monday morning. Organizers — among them Ho-Young, whose Facebook post went viral — stressed that the event was not a protest but a peaceful demonstration to “celebrate the black community and their alliances.”
“The flags being placed on the same level represents what this nation and institution was built on,” the event’s organizers said. “Equality for all people.”