AMHERST – After the removal of the U.S. flag from its central location on the campus of Hampshire College prompted a visceral reaction by many here and around the country, the flag was reinstalled Friday morning — with college officials offering an apology to those offended by their original decision.
“This morning we raised the United States flag to full staff at Hampshire College after a two-week discussion period about what the flag means to members of the Hampshire community,” Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash said in a statement early Friday. “College leadership, including the board of trustees, had decided on November 18 to lower the flag for a time to encourage uninhibited expression of deeply held viewpoints.”
A group of Hampshire College students demanded the flag be lowered on Nov. 9, the day after Donald Trump’s election win, a reaction, the college said, to a “toxic” campaign season and vitriol against minorities.
The flag was initially lowered half-staff to “to honor the students’ expression,” according to the college. The following day, students demanded the school’s flag be removed altogether. On Veterans Day, the flag was found burned and on Nov. 18, Hampshire College removed the flag from the center of campus, which college officials said was temporary.
The decision to take down the flag was met by protests organized by veterans, which drew a crowd of hundreds, last Sunday at the college campus and attended by some local and state officials. Another demonstration planned for this Sunday will carry on as planned, organizers said. The demonstration is scheduled for noon.
Protest leader speaks
Victor Nuñez Ortiz, vice president of Veterans Advocacy Services in Groton and Amherst’s VFW Post 754 commander, who helped organize the protest, was on campus Friday as the flag was returned to the pole.
Later that afternoon, with an American flag directly behind him, Ortiz led a press conference in front of the the post in Amherst.
“We are pleased with Hampshire College’s decision to raise the flag,” Ortiz said. “We’ll continue as planned on Sunday to conduct a peaceful, passionate display of freedom and patriotism.”
Standing alongside Ortiz outside the VFW post was Colleen Chesmore, who also helped organize the demonstration last Sunday.
“We are thrilled President Lash has responded to our cry to raise the flag, and it’s actually a great day for the American people, for our veterans, for our veterans’ families and for anybody who has sacrificed their lives to fight for the flag of this great country,” she said. “The flag isn’t racist, it’s not biased, it welcomes everybody, and that’s just the nice thing about the American flag — it’s a welcoming sign to our country, and we’re thrilled it will be flying over the college again.”
Ortiz also said that, while he was pleased with Lash’s decision, he’s hopeful that a dialogue about what the flag means to different groups of people will continue on the Hampshire campus and beyond.
“We are more than willing to move forward with the school in educating their students,” Ortiz said. “Raising our flag was our first step. We are open to discussion about any concerns Mr. Lash had in his original letter.”
During the press conference with reporters, Ortiz and Chesmore also addressed comments made by President-elect Donald Trump earlier in the week in which he called for those who burn the flag to be imprisoned or have their citizenship revoked.
“I think President-elect Trump has a great love for this country,” Chesmore said. “And I can’t imagine that burning the flag … would (land you in) jail or something else. That’s the great thing about this country is our freedom to protest, express our feelings. I can’t really see that happening.”
Ortiz said those who burn the flag are well within their right to do so, though he doesn’t condone the act himself.
“I just hope that President-elect Trump isn’t too serious about that, because in reality, that’s not a good way to unite people,” Ortiz said.
In his statement Friday, Lash said the college community is “alarmed by the overt hate and threats, especially toward people in marginalized communities, which have escalated in recent weeks.”
“We did not lower the flag to make a political statement,” he stated. “Nor did we intend to cause offense to veterans, military families, or others for whom the flag represents service and sacrifice. We acted solely to facilitate much-needed dialogue on our campus about how to dismantle the bigotry that is prevalent in our society. We understand that many who hold the flag as a powerful symbol of national ideals and their highest aspirations for the country — including members of our own community — felt hurt by our decisions, and that we deeply regret.” Move not a surprise
Xavier Torres de Janon, who graduated from Hampshire in May, said in a phone interview Friday that the decision to put the flag back on the pole was not a surprise after observing the on-campus protests and national commentary.
“I think the response was brutal, surreal even,” Torres said. “There were threats on students, there were threats on administrators, and Jonathan Lash had his home almost raided by Fox News.”
“It’s scary when some very conservative, very aggressive people are on campus. That’s terrifying,” Torres added. “It makes sense the school would give in, but it’s also disappointing to me as an alum.”
Eduardo Samaniego, a second-year student at Hampshire, said he was disappointed that “right-wing media” in recent days coopted the legitimate protest of veterans and created a toxic atmosphere for dialogue.
“Our freedom of speech is being taken away by legitimate threats,” Samaniego said.
Even though he has two American flags displayed in his dorm room, Samaniego said he supported the temporary removal of the flag.
“I think that I personally stand with the president of Hampshire College to lower the flag, with respect, and to have a series of conversations at Hampshire College every day that are very heartfelt and deep into detail,” Samaniego said.
Even with the flag back over the campus, these conversations will continue, he said. “I think our students are having robust and nuanced conversations about what it means to be in this society and what (the flag) means to different people, and different backgrounds,” Samaniego said.
Other than allowing media members onto campus at about 8 a.m. Friday to photograph the flag being raised at the flagpole in front of Cole Science Center, college officials kept a media ban in place Friday and escorted all media off campus by 8:15 a.m. The media ban will remain in effect throughout the weekend “as the college is focused on allowing students and employees to attend their semester of academic work, and ensuring campus safety and security,” according to a media advisory from the college.
Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, who participated in last weekend’s rally, wrote a letter to Lash Friday thanking the president “for restoring our sacred symbol to its hallowed place,” but also to request a meeting to understand the dialogue about what the American flag means and the concerns its presence raises.
“The gross injustices that persist in our country are the fault of a tumultuous and flawed history, but its arc towards justice has only ever been the product of people like yourselves who have stood up for the ideologies embodied by Old Glory,” Velis wrote.
Meanwhile, the Smith College Bipartisan Coalition, a group of 150 Smith students working to unify and create understanding between students of differing political backgrounds, is holding a Five College Consortium discussion on the topic of the flag at Hampshire College.
That discussion, which will focus on the burning of the flag and whether the college was right to remove it, takes place at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Room 102 in the Smith College Campus Center. More than 50 students from Smith College, Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke College and Hampshire College are expected to attend.
“We are looking for input from protesters on both sides of the issue,” said Molly Eldevik, the coalition’s press coordinator, in an email. “We seek to create a space in which they can freely argue their beliefs respectfully and engage with students who may not agree with them.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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