HADDAM — A town meeting with a routine agenda was overtaken Monday night by a theater of passionate arguments for and against a selectman’s controversial actions over the last two weeks.
The town’s former Democratic first selectman Melissa Schlag is under fire by Republicans, residents and those around the country following her decision to kneel when the Pledge of Allegiance is recited at the July 16 Board of Selectmen meeting. The act is a silent protest she intends to practice until the tenets of the oath are held true across the country, including for undocumented immigrants.
Monday night, she kneeled on both knees during the pledge.
Haddam, CT. held a Rally for the Flag.
Schlag has said she was motivated primarily by President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that same day in Helsinki, Finland, during which he denied Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Many have denounced her position on Facebook, in news stories, letters to the editor and in comments of articles about the issue.
One elderly man, a veteran, was among the first to address Schlag during the hour-long public comment session. Thousands of veterans never came home, he said, referring to those interred in the Arlington National Cemetery.
“Their voices are silent, their footsteps are no longer in the sand. I wonder what their thoughts would be if they sat in this room tonight. They went, they served, with the exact same right that young lady has.
“What were you thinking when you kneeled down during the sacred Pledge of Allegiance, the sacred flag, what those people died for?” he said, questioning her right to disrespect veterans as the crowd responded with whoops and loud clapping.
“We can make our flags cakes for the Fourth of July with the little blueberries, little strawberries and whipped cream, but what is behind that? I help my fellow citizens every day. Every day. I don’t hate my country, I love my country,” Schlag said later in the meeting.
After a couple of housekeeping issues — the appointment of a land use coordinator and the awarding of a lawn care bid — First Selectman Melissa Milardo moved the public comment portion of the meeting ahead of a discussion about the town closing Haddam Elementary School as part of its redistricting plan.
“The flag does not represent a president or issue you take exception to, it represents our nation and freedom that others have defended for the rest of us,” Milardo said last week.
The first selectman set the tone as she opened the meeting to comments, asking speakers to limit their remarks to three minutes. She told those in line they could address her but not one another. They observed her direction at first, but by the last half of the session, many individuals in the audience shouted out their opinions to speakers and over their words.
A Weiss Albert Road resident spoke first, addressing Schlag, saying her “shameful” act disrespected servicemen and women, done while she was being paid by the town.
“You wouldn’t like it if I walked up and down the street with Trump signs doing nothing,” he said. Schlag sat silently listening, her face pale.
Each speaker vociferously defended his or her position.
“When you were first selectman, you took the flag, you threw it in the garbage — Trump wasn’t around. I think you went to college. I think you should get your refund, because you didn’t learn nothing,” the man said.
In 1968 at 20, another man said, he was sent to Vietnam, “willing to give my life for my country. I died in Vietnam. I died in Vietnam. You know who killed me? It wasn’t the (Vietcong), it wasn’t the (North Vietnamese Army), it was our government,” he said, adding he’s 100 percent disabled from Agent Orange exposure.
“I have 11 grandchildren, nine I will never see graduate. I’ll be dead by then. Be upset that the words ‘homeless veteran’ go together. Two veterans every day commit suicide,” he said.
Resident and veteran Middletown police Capt. Sean Moriarty pointed out the two Republican Board of Education members who have been kneeling at meetings for a year.
“The Republican Party knew about it, but it wasn’t until another (official) did it that they started losing their mind,” he said, adding he was there to support the Constitution and First Amendment.
“Whether or not I think what Melissa did is right or wrong, that’s my opinion,” he said to applause.
He accused Republicans of being hostile toward Schlag, “someone you don’t like and don’t want to work with.”
Milardo interrupted Moriarty to say, “This is not about party. Unfortunately, you want to twist and turn, and try to make this about parties.”
“I don’t have to stop my free speech when I walk through the door of a selectmen’s meeting. We have to worry about the injustices in this world, and, once we figure that out, we will then have liberties,” Schlag told at least 250 people seated and standing in the firehouse bay.
“This is truly town government at its best. If we don’t continue the conversation, the hate will continue to fester. We need to rip the bandage off and deal with it. We can’t wrap our sins in a flag and expect it to be OK,” she added.
Schlag was interrupted by one person yelling, “Three minutes!” and others shouting over her as she tried to continue, but the din made her remarks almost impossible to understand. Their exclamations were followed by boos which spread around the room.
Schlag then said she estimated she’s “costing” residents 8 cents for each 10-second kneel. “I’d be happy to give the taxpayers back 8 cents.”
As one woman filed out of the room, she told the man next to her, “It costs a lot more than 8 cents.”
In comparison, Schlag then referred to Vice President Mike Pence who flew on a government airplane to a protest this week in Philadelphia — at a cost of $250,000, Schlag said.
A man in the front asked in a loud voice, “What did Obama give Iran? Don’t talk about politics,” questions not met with a response as comments were closed, the meeting resumed, and a good number of people filed out of the firehouse.
Managing Editor Cassandra Day
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