AMHERST — Hundreds of people, American flags in hand, flooded a Hampshire College lawn Sunday to protest the school’s decision to hold off on hoisting the flag in the center of campus.
Students demanded the flag be lowered on Nov. 9, the day after the presidential election. The next day, after the flag was hoisted at half-staff to “honor the students’ expression,” the college said, it was burned by someone who has yet to be identified by campus police. Since Nov. 18, the school has done away with flying the flag altogether.
At Sunday’s rally, those in attendance — including state Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — said the decision was an affront to people who fought in wars for the students’ right to protest.
“I really hope that the president and the Hampshire College student body are listening,” Velis, who served in Afghanistan, told the crowd. “Everything we take for granted … everything we do is because of the blood, sweat and tears of our veterans.”
The protest was peaceful save for a few tense moments. Veterans waved flags and some told war stories to the crowd from a podium. The event was organized on Facebook by Amherst VFW Post 754, and though 390 people RSVP’d, it appeared many more showed.
“We all have the right to freedom of speech, but there’s one thing that’s sacred and that’s the flag,” said Fred Bruni, 69, of Palmer, who said he served in Vietnam in 1968. “Our forefathers would probably be flipping in their graves.”
Bob Beavlien, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran from Ludlow, was concerned that children aren’t raised to revere national symbols.
“It all starts at the home,” he said. “I just can’t understand what they’re doing. The president of the college should be fired.”
School administrators say their decision to keep the flag down is temporary. Before it is flown again, College President Jonathan Lash said Sunday, the school will moderate campus-wide discussions on how the flag sparks different emotions for different people. He said the episode is also drawing attention to grievances carried by historically marginalized groups.
Lash emphasized people on all sides of the debate should work to understand differing viewpoints.
“There are people for whom it is a powerful symbol of the highest ideals,” he said.
He added that the feeling among some is that the flag is not “a symbol of freedom. It’s a symbol of oppression, and it’s important we understand both of those viewpoints.”Hostile turn
Toward the end of the rally, a speaker tried to move the crowd from in front of the Hampshire College sign so that it could be visible in a picture.
At that point, witnesses said, a student sat in front of the sign.
From then on, things became heated. The counterprotester sat silently but was taunted by the crowd. Police formed a human shield around him.
“Buy him a train ticket out of the country,” said Ryan Howe, a 24-year-old Army veteran from Ludlow.
Others said the man was a “snowflake.”
“You know some day you’re gonna grow up,” one woman said to the counterprotester. “You’re gonna be so ashamed of yourself.”
As the crowd became more impatient, some protesters draped their flags in front of cameras, hoping to prevent people from documenting the episode and giving the counterprotester attention.
“F--- his press!” one man shouted. “He’s a f---ing liberal piece of s---!”
A Gazette photographer reported that someone shouted at her, “Grab her by the pussy!” in an apparent reference to Donald Trump’s 2005 remarks in a video that was leaked during the campaign.
Besides this drawn-out episode — someone eventually took the picture with the counterprotester blocked from view — there were few other tense moments. One middle-aged man heckled a speaker but was steered off by people in the crowd.
Several students hung near the perimeter of the protest, some accepting literature and engaging with protesters. Several declined to be interviewed, though one student, who declined to give her name, said: “I respect Hampshire’s right to take the flag down, and I respect their right to protest that.”
Freshman Randy Edward Yearby Jr. was one of the students who spearheaded the flag’s initial removal on Nov. 9. After the rally, when reached by phone, he said his ultimate goal is for “happiness and unity” among all people.
To get there, he said, hard discussions are necessary. The flag’s removal has drawn attention to the cause it otherwise wouldn’t have received.
“That was symbolic and it got people’s attention,” Yearby said.
He said he could support the American flag being flown again “under certain conditions.”
“One of them being the creation of a flag that represents people of color, Muslims, Latinos, LGBTQ — everybody that’s marginalized and oppressed in America,” Yearby said.
Would the flag be flown at the same height as the American flag?
“Yes, if not above it.”