The crowd stood up, but Melissa Schlag didn’t. Scattered boos drowned out the Pledge of Allegiance, and as they reached the last phrase of the oath, “with liberty and justice for all,” they raised their voices, nearly screaming the words as they looked down at the silent protester kneeling in front of them.
Schlag has been both vilified and admired in the small Connecticut town of Haddam since she began kneeling during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance last month. The Democratic town official said she’s kneeling to protest President Trump, and for as long as he is in office, she will keep kneeling. It was the kind of silent protest that has both angered and inspired people nationally as NFL players took a knee during the singing of the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
In Haddam, where 51 percent voted for Trump and 43 percent for Hillary Clinton, the issue seemed just as polarizing, as evidenced by events of the past two weeks.
Many saw Schlag’s protest as disrespecting U.S. soldiers, and they showed their disapproval by laying 1,000 little American flags near a veterans’ memorial. Connecticut state Sen. Art Linares, a Republican, called for Schlag’s resignation and demanded that she apologize. Schlag’s supporters, meanwhile, also rallied, holding signs defending freedom of speech. And the Hartford Courant published an editorial calling Schlag’s silent protest an act of bravery.
But at a town meeting Monday, after the Pledge of Allegiance was recited, Schlag received an earful, one Haddam resident to another.
“I wholeheartedly respect your right to protest, to take a knee, to lay down, to burn the flag, to do whatever it is . . . but if that’s what you would like to do, do that on your own time,” Haddam resident Pablo Arroyo said, looking and gesturing at Schlag as he held a small American flag.
The crowd cheered for several seconds as a stone-faced Schlag sat next to her fellow town officials at a table in front.
Schlag, a member of the board of selectmen, or the town’s executive body, did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. In a Facebook post, she called Monday’s town meeting “a verbal stoning.”
“The intolerance and hate was palpable in the room. The room booed throughout their own pledge as they belted the pledge at me like [a] weapon. I was told I urinated on the graves of dead soldiers. I was told I hate my country,” she wrote in the Facebook post Wednesday.
More controversy seems to have erupted after a video taken during the town meeting captured Schlag saying, “This town is fascist and racist.” Schlag apologized, saying in her Facebook post that she does not think the entire town breeds racism and fascism. But, she said, “strong veins of fascism (forced patriotism) and racism” run deep in Haddam.
Schlag began kneeling July 16, when Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Trump stood next to Putin during a news conference and did not support the collective finding of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He also appeared to equate the credibility of his intelligence agencies with that of Putin.
During a town meeting that day, Schlag knelt for the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time in her life, she said in a lengthy letter posted on Facebook last month.
“I knelt out of extreme sorrow for our country, that the leader of our great nation, rejected the advice and findings of all American intelligence agencies and would rather support the lies of a murderous dictator,” she wrote, adding that she’s also protesting the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy that has resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families.
She further wrote: “Therefore, as long as Donald J. Trump is the president of the United States, I will kneel. I will kneel for all the people, regardless of party affiliation, and continue to fight for their rights. This is not the America I grew up in, or the country we should be, but I will work every day to get us back to that place.”
The bitter disagreement in Haddam comes amid a controversy that is, again, brewing nationally as the NFL and the NFL Players Association try to work out a mutually agreeable national anthem policy before the football season begins in September.