Demonstrators gather on Green to discuss flag burning

by Peter Charalambous | 1/24/17 2:15am

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On Friday afternoon, student demonstrators, counter-demonstrators and onlookers gathered on the Green.

by Peter Charalambous / The Dartmouth

Around noon on Friday, Donald Trump placed his hand on a Lincoln Bible, repeated an oath and became the 45th President of the United States. About four hours later, Timothy Messen ’18 traveled to the Green to protest the new president’s administration by beginning a dialogue about flag burning and discussing the rights threatened by the president.

However, when Messen arrived on the Green that Friday afternoon, he encountered more than the 50 or so people he originally expected, he said in an interview several days later. More than 25 counter-demonstrators arrived, including members of Rolling Thunder New Hampshire Chapter 2, a Claremont branch of an advocacy group that helps local veterans and raises awareness for missing American prisoners of war. The crowd consisted of a mixture of protestors, counter-protestors and onlookers. In total, over a hundred students and community members stationed themselves on the Green in anticipation of the event.

Messen first expressed his views in a guest opinion column in The Dartmouth, entitled “A Call to Protest.” His column criticized the plans of the Trump administration and directly mentioned Trump’s Nov. 29, 2016 tweet regarding flag burning.

“In this moment, we need neither unity nor healing but an active and engaged citizenry unafraid to exercise its rights,” Messen wrote. “I invite Dartmouth’s community to join me on the Green this Friday for a discussion on what rights are threatened by the incoming administration, what steps we can take to ensure that they are not simply taken away and what burning an American flag might achieve. And then, if we so wish, we will burn the flag, for we are free to do so.”

Following the column’s publication, Sandor Farkas ’17, the editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review, began to plan a counter-demonstration.

“Immediately after I saw the opinion piece on Thursday afternoon, I sent an email out to a conservative listserv [the Review’s listserv] making people aware of the piece and suggesting appropriate ways to demonstrate and warning about inappropriate ways to demonstrate,” Farkas said.

Farkas also reached out to Keith Hanson, the host of WNTK-FM’s “Live and Local in the Morning.” Hanson disseminated the news of the possible flag burning during his morning program the day of the protest.

Meanwhile, on campus, Messen consulted with associate dean for student life Eric Ramsey as to how to secure the permits necessary to start a fire in a public location, although the College took no official stance on the action, Messen said. The College’s statement on freedom of expression and dissent notes that “Dartmouth College prizes and defends the right of free speech and the freedom of the individual to make his or her own disclosures, while at the same time recognizing that such freedom exists in the context of the law and in responsibility for one’s own actions.”

By Friday afternoon, the actors had gathered on the Green, waiting to see Messen’s actions.

“We had heard a rumor from somewhere that someone was going to be up here protesting, burning flags,” Rolling Thunder member Jim Campbell said. “So we put some emails out, some texts, and got a bunch of guys to come up and brought up our flags to show our support for not burning the flag.”

Shortly after the arrival of the counter-demonstrators, an ambulance and members of both the Hanover Police Department and Safety and Security arrived to supervise the discussion and prevent the possibility of conflict.

“Our presence is the first step to keeping things peaceful and calm,” said Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis regarding the police department’s role in the event.

While the counter-demonstrators waited near the center of the Green, Messen met with Ramsey and officials from Safety and Security as well as the Hanover Police Department in Collis Center. They discussed safety concerns and the possible risks of the protest, Messen said. After the meeting, Messen and other supporters walked onto the Green to begin their demonstration.

As Messen began his speech, he and other demonstrators were confronted by counter-demonstrators who attempted to disrupt him. He clarified that he did not intend to burn the flag at that time but rather intended to start a dialogue.

“I’ll make the argument today that burning the flag is an act of respect, rather than sacrilege, that the values this flag represents are protected by burning it,” said Messen, according to his speech transcript.

However, counter-demonstrators attempted to overpower Messen’s speech by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison.

“Today, Donald Trump became the president of the United States, and with him he brings an astounding number of dangerous policies and dangerous people, both new and old to this government,” said Messen, in his speech, over the crowd.

He spoke out against what he called Trump’s “racism, ableism, sexism [and] classism,” as well as what he sees at Trump’s lack of concern for the first amendment.

Yelling into a megaphone, Messen ignored the interjections and questions posed by the counter-demonstrators. His approach received mix opinions from the crowd.

Hanson, who was in attendance, and others asked the crowd to let Messen speak.

“I wish that he had allowed dialogue when he had the [megaphone],” said Mali-Agat Obomsawin ’18, a demonstrator who stood alongside Messen, in a later interview.

At one point in the speech, a counter-demonstrator directly confronted Messen, who continued to speak into the megaphone with two officers by his side. At another point, counter-demonstrators with flags stood in front of Messen and created a circle around him. Throughout the afternoon, officers and fellow demonstrators protected Messen from any potential hostile action.

“We stand here, because we care deeply about America’s fate and because we will not lamely step aside and watch you turn back the clock to your ‘Great America’ of the early 1800s,” Messen wrote in his speech. “You will have to wrench our rights from us. This nation won’t come together if you threaten us. We will dissent as boldly as we can.”

After Messen finished reading, Hanson addressed the crowd about Messen’s right to burn the flag. He said that while Messen has a right to burn the flag, he must approach that right with responsibility. Furthermore, that right was secured by the efforts of America’s armed services, he said.

Messen then thanked the crowd and asked the protestors to reach out to him via email with questions about his beliefs. He was then escorted by officers off the Green. Meanwhile, demonstrators who stood with Messen remained on the Green to continue the discussion with the community members, veterans and other students.

After leaving the Green, Messen met with Skip Rollins, a member of Rolling Thunder and a New Hampshire House of Representatives state representative, in a Collis conference room. Rollins, a “gold-star” parent — a parent who has had a child die in the military ­— spoke about his son, U.S. Army Specialist Justin Rollins, who lost his life fighting in Iraq, Messen said. The two discussed the respect associated with the flag and the right to burn it. After concluding their discussion, they exchanged emails and mentioned the possibility of working together to help veterans in the future, Messen said.

Messen left the demonstration still undecided on whether he made the right decision not to burn the flag.

“I recognize that they have a different relationship to the flag, but the fact alone that I would burn it does not mean that I disregard their concerns or that I don’t respect what the flag means to them,” Messen said in an interview. “To me, the flag ought to represent the values of a liberal democratic republic devoid of any ethnic or religious affiliation, which divide more than unite.”

Ultimately though, Messen saw his demonstration as a success due to the resulting dialogue.

“I think [the discussion was] a success because it sparked a kind of political engagement that’s more than just writing something on Facebook or watching a TV show,” Messen said. “It’s people taking responsibility for their beliefs. Because everyone felt so passionately about this, people went out and voiced their opinion.”