Hampshire College reels in wake of flag ordeal 


Gazette Staff

Published: 12-01-2016 2:21 PM

AMHERST — Nearly three weeks after a flag burning at Hampshire College and three days after the first in a possible series of protests against the college’s decision to remove the flag, students are leery.

Most declined to talk to the Gazette in visits to campus this week, but those who did said students at the private college are wary right now of nationalism, online harassment and unwanted guests.

Between fielding the 400-strong veteran-led protest on Sunday, inboxes full of angry messages and obscenity-infused drive-bys, students appeared hardened by the ordeal.

“It’s been kind of wild to see the outpouring of crazy right-wing nationalism, just condemning all of us,” said junior Raina Mendel, calling the college’s action “an important political statement, and it’s the start of a conversation.”

Student pushback over the flag was not intended to be an attack on veterans, students said.

“It is possible to be in support of veterans and also have critiques of America’s war policies,” Mendel said. “I think primarily a lot of students are critical of the national attention that this has caused, and feeling afraid, especially for students of color and visibly queer students, like knowing that people are seeking out and coming to this campus to protest.”

At least one student, undocumented Mexican immigrant Eduardo Samaniego, was sad to see the flag go. At least, he said, he retains four American flags in his dorm.

Still, he respects the will of his peers and of college leadership, asserting that a serious conversation surrounding what the flag means to everyone must play out. “Ultimately the student body should — democratically — make the final decision,” he said.

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For Samaniego, a student trustee studying constitutional law on a Fulbright scholarship, the flag means opportunity. He said he came legally to the U.S. at 16 but lost his visa after he became homeless. For four nights, he said, he slept at North Cobb High School in Georgia until his teachers discovered him and a pastor took him in.

Thanks to American kindness, he said, he was able to leave his farming community of Zacatecas and pursue his studies. He graduated top of his class as student body president.

“For me, the flag means a lot,” he said, although the University of Georgia denied him due to his immigration status. “Massachusetts and Hampshire College gave me the opportunity to be here.”

To Samaniego, being American means working hard in service of others — it’s about the people, he said, more than the flag. By that definition, he said, Hampshire College students are very patriotic. Community service is a graduation requirement, he said, referencing all the work they do for Habitat for Humanity and for social justice.

“I strongly believe that the flag should be up and should never have come down,” he said, but still “this is a personal choice.”

Samaniego said the public should be more concerned with President-elect Donald Trump’s threat to the First Amendment and by abuse of the same right by white nationalist sites, which are sharing personal information about students in a threatening way.

“There is an active and deliberate attempt to suppress people’s voices through false information,” he said.

One concerned parent from California said patriotism runs deep in her family — the first thing her mother did when she arrived in the country was enlist in the Army — and it’s maddening to see protesters questioning that and disrupting campus life for decisions made by a private community.

“We’re Americans. We’re proud to be Americans,” said Cindy Ross, whose son is a senior at the college. “To have a group of veterans tell us that we’re not — there’s something really, really wrong with that.”

And to dismiss her family as so-called spoiled, rich “snowflakes,” she said, would not be appropriate.

“We don’t in any way fall into that category — I’m a single parent who divorced an abuser,” Ross said. “It was only because of financial aid that my son could even afford to go to college.’

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.