Retrospective on the Flag Burning

American flags fly by the light of a Dartmouth sunset.

American flags fly by the light of a Dartmouth sunset.

Just after midnight on Thursday January 19, The Dartmouth published an editorial written by Timothy Messen ’18 calling for action in response to the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.  Messen suggested that “We need more than a dialogue in the pages of our newspapers and on our television screens,” calling for “so much more” to be done by those people who are dissatisfied with the outcome of November’s presidential election. Messen’s piece expressed fears about “regressive” policies, “sexual and racial violence,” and “politics [which] implicitly and explicitly threaten Americans and citizens of the world,” attributing these to Trump’s presidency.

In particular, Messen wrote about the perceived threat to the First Amendment and to civil liberties posed by President Trump’s November 29, 2016 tweet calling for jail time or worse for those who burn the American flag. His op-ed then quoted Polish-German dissident Rosa Luxemburg on the importance of freedom for dissenters and belittled the flag, describing it as merely “a piece of striped cloth with 50 stars on it.”

To close his article, Messen invited the Dartmouth community to join him on the Green in the afternoon of January 20 to have a conversation about “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.” Messen finally hinted that those in attendance would exercise their First Amendment right to burn the flag.

Messen reached out to the administration of Dartmouth College, as well as the town of Hanover, for permission to burn an American flag on the Green.  A joint meeting was held, with representatives of Dartmouth administration, safety and security, and the Hanover Police Department in attendance.  Since the Green is private property, the town was required to grant a fire permit for the flag burning.  All relevant arms of the College’s administration also granted formal permission to the student to incinerate the American flag on the Green.

Just as Messen has the First Amendment right to burn the flag (with necessary fire permits) on the green, members of the community have the right to go and counter protest an action with such serious implications. Those counter-protestors showed up in droves. By four o’clock, a diverse crowd of counter protesters had gathered in the center of the green, many of them sporting patriotic apparel. Members of Rolling Thunder New Hampshire Chapter 2, a veterans’ and prisoner of war advocacy group, arrived in force, circling the center of the green with a number of American flags and one United States Marine Corps flag.

Other counter-protesters included members of The Dartmouth Review, other students of all ideological leanings, and members of the larger community.

Some counter-protesters had even driven from over an hour away to make their feelings known. The Dartmouth Review contacted Keith Hanson, a local radio host and self-described “America-loving Patriot who is not afraid to stand up and speak out for the causes of Liberty [and] Freedom.” Hanson, who also attended the counter protest, spoke about the planned flag burning on his radio show “Live and Local in the Morning” on WNTK-FM. Quite a few of the counter protesters on the Green that day had tuned into Hanson’s show and been inspired to come defend the stars and stripes. In the end, the number of counter-protestors dwarfed those who wanted to see the flag burn.

Also on the green at that time were throngs of uninvolved onlookers and the authorities. Safety and Security was there, as was a small detachment of the Hanover Police Department. One other notable attendee held a homemade sign proclaiming “free the napkins” and was protesting Dartmouth Dining Services’ recent decision to remove napkin dispensers from tables in the Hop, Collis, and FoCo. No word on the success of his protest, but The Dartmouth Review supports his endeavors.

A few minutes after four thirty, Messen and a handful of protestors arrived on the Green. Messen’s friends carried signs with slogans like “WELCOME REFUGEES,” “RESPECT LAWS,” “MUSLIM RIGHTS = HUMAN RIGHTS,” and “LIBERTY before UNITY.” Messen carried a megaphone and a speech he had prepared in advance.

Messen first assured those on the green that he had decided not to burn the flag. Allegedly, a conversation with the Chief of the Hanover Police and the Director of Safety and Security about the potential dangers of provoking the veterans and others in attendance prompted his decision.  A member of the crowd shouted “good move,” expressing the sentiments of many who were assembled there.

Messen then began to read his statement. For eight minutes, he spoke about his views and the importance of Constitutional rights. Messen first argued that burning the flag would be “an act of respect” because it protects “the values this flag represents.” Throughout the rest of his statement, he continued to discuss the importance of free speech and dissent, declaring that “rights, like muscles, need to be used or they will atrophy.”

The bulk of Mr. Messen’s remarks, however, were aimed at the recently-inaugurated President Donald J. Trump. Messen began with an exhaustive list the failures of a president who had been in office for a total of four and a half hours. According to Messen, those failings included “the Mexican border wall, banning Muslims, denying climate change, nuclear disarmament, and defunding public education, Medicaid and Medicare.” Messen also denigrated Trump’s cabinet picks, and his failure to propose a “coherent plan to help Americans fighting racial inequality,” “economic inequality,” and “sexual inequality,” and alleged commitments to “racism, ableism, sexism, and classism.”

Throughout Messen’s remarks, he was interrupted by his supporters and detractors alike. When the college junior described Trump’s campaign as being fueled by “rich, white, American nationalism,” one crowd member responded “I’m not rich and I voted for him!” Counter-protestors also began to chant the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem at various points.

It was clear, as time went on, that those in attendance were getting tired of listening to Messen talk. One bystander exclaimed “Tim, let the dialogue begin. It’s not a dialogue if only you yell at people.” Members of Messen’s camp began to chant “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go” in the middle of his speech, only to be shushed by his sign-holding faithful. At one point, another member of the crowd shouted “God bless America,” to which Messen replied, “God bless America” and continued speaking.

Over the course of Messen’s speech, the crowd condensed itself closer and closer around him. Part of this was due to the fact that he seemed to have trouble consistently speaking into his megaphone, and those at the edges had trouble hearing him. The Rolling Thunder flag bearers, also circled Messen in the middle of his speech, prompting Safety and Security officers to flank the protest leader for the rest of the time he was there.

Messen finally finished his remarks with the words “I pledge allegiance to the flag and a better United States of America with liberty and justice for all,” and opened the event up to other voices. Keith Hanson, the radio host, then took the floor. He spoke about the difference between freedom and liberty, explaining that liberty is “the responsible exercise of freedom.” Speaking directly to Messen, Mr. Hanson reminded him that he has “the right to burn the flag,” but also “the responsibility to think about the lives and the sacrifices that have gone into that.” Hanson then reminded Messen that he is only “able to stand on this green and not get shot in the head or hauled off to prison is because of the sacrifices Americans have made, the blood and the lives that have been shed.” For many of the people who made those sacrifices and for their families, the flag is a sacred symbol of those efforts, Hanson continued. His commentary was met with resounding applause.

Finally, after almost an hour of tension on the Green, it was over. Messen wished everyone in attendance a safe and fun weekend and offered to speak about burning the flag or Donald Trump with anyone who was interested, joking that “I think everyone has my email at this point.” With that, people began to leave the green. No protester burned a flag that day.