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Amherst's bad timing
By Isabel Lyman
"Do you really want to be remembered as the politicians who voted against the flag?" asked Larry Kelley, a fifth generation Amherst, Massachusetts resident.
The short answer: yes.
In keeping with its image as a cutting-edge, politically-correct college town (home to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, and Hampshire College), the Amherst Select Board voted 4-1 to prevent twenty-nine American flags from flying in the downtown for an extended period of 4 to 5 months.
Instead, the Select Board agreed that the flags could be flown on six holidays - Patriots' Day, from college graduation day to Memorial Day, Flag Day to Bunker Hill Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Veterans' Day. American flags also fly continuously on the town common and outside the police station.
"I don't support extended flag displays," explained Carl Seppala, the chair of the Select Board and a Naval veteran. Select Board member Anne Awad cast the dissenting vote. She said she was opposed to "excessive" displays because it "fades the significance of the flag." Awad added that having such an opinion did not make her "anti-veteran." Town Manager Barry L. Del Castilho was troubled that the "flags went up without authorization," since the Select Board has jurisdiction over the public ways.
Rod Raubeson, Amherst's veteran agent and a former Marine, hung the flags in August, with volunteer help, on utility poles owned by Western Massachusetts Electric Company, after company officials and the Town's Design Review Board give him permission to do so. In an effort to boost civic pride, Raubeson hoped that the flags could fly from Labor Day to Veterans' Day in November and from Patriots' Day in April to Independence Day. The flags, which cost about thirty dollars apiece, were bought with taxpayer monies from the Town's commemoration budget.
When Raubeson did not remove the flags after Labor Day, Del Castilho asked public works employees to bring them down. The Town Manager's action set off a firestorm of controversy and criticism that was even reported in the Washington Times. Before the flags were removed, residents and non-residents bombarded the Select Board with e-mails and phone calls offering their opinions about the festive-looking commemoration. In a letter to the Amherst Bulletin, Phyllis Daley echoed the sentiments of many when she wrote: "There should never be a limitation where, when, or how long our United States of America flag can fly."
On Monday night, when the Select Board convened to set policy about how long the flags could hang on Main and North Pleasant streets, the meeting inadvertently turned into a two-hour referendum on patriotism. Addressing the Select Board, Raubeson acknowledged that some residents in this liberal community did not like the flags because it made the Town "look too American."
"We are not going to apologize for that," said Raubeson.
Michael Lombard, a local veterans agent who handed out small American flags before the meeting, scolded Del Castilho for removing the flags without holding a public debate. "You might as well have burned the flags," said Lombard. He also chided the Select Board for their lack of community spirit, since they have never assisted Raubeson with the Town's annual Memorial Day parade.
Comments during the packed, often emotional meeting ran the gamut from one woman who said she viewed Old Glory as a symbol of terrorism to those who saw the stars and stripes as personifying freedom.
Ed Cutting, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, said the row of flags sent the message that "Amherst is friendly to those who don't hate our country."
Amherst resident Emily Lewis said she was uncomfortable seeing the streets lined with flags. "It's a militaristic symbol," she stated while Jennie Traschen, a University of Massachusetts physics professor, said, "The flag is a symbol of tyranny and fear and destruction and terrorism."
Former U.S. Marine Jim Bancroft, who said he drove two hours from Bristol, Connecticut to attend the meeting, questioned why elected officials would allow the flag of the United Nations to fly outside the Amherst town hall year-round. "Why are you flying the U.N. flag at the seat of your government? This is an American city," said Bancroft.
Charlie Meadows, a radio talk show host from the Oklahoma City area, who was visiting western Massachusetts, told the Select Board that the flag controversy, as well as Amherst Town Meeting's proposal to allow permanent alien residents the right to vote in local elections, was making the Town infamous. "Amherst is gaining quite a reputation," said Meadows, injecting a note of levity into an otherwise serious discussion.
When it became apparent that the Select Board was going to allow the twenty-nine flags to fly only on designated holidays, several townspeople stormed out of the meeting room.
The flag controversy hardly ended that night. The following morning - September 11, 2001 - Amherst resident David Keenan, a former member of the Select Board, called Raubeson to request that the flags immediately be hung back up. "If you capture the flags," Raubeson told Keenan, "my whole office staff will head to downtown to help you put them up."
"We needed the flags put up at half-mast as a way of showing appropriate consideration for the dead," said Keenan of his reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Along with Mr. Meadows, the Oklahoma visitor, Keenan headed for the Amherst Department of Public Works (where the flags were stored) to "steal the flags," as he put it.
With the clandestine help of department of public works employees, Keenan and Meadows located the flags, took them downtown, and began to re-attach the flags to the light stanchions. Several veterans helped lower the flags, including Bancroft, the Marine.
Also on hand to hang the flags was another citizen who was deeply impacted by Tuesday's catastrophe - Amherst Select Board Chair Carl Seppala.
Rod Raubeson told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, "It's strange how one day can make a difference."
For now, the American flags will fly indefinitely in Amherst.
Izzy Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution, can be reached at email@example.com.
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