Billed as an “appreciation walk and ride” for the American flag, hundreds converged on New Paltz yesterday bedecked with Old Glory. They were met by perhaps two score of protesters, resulting in a thunderous shouting match across Main Street for several minutes. The arrival of a prearranged convoy of military vehicles and motorcycles drowned out even that cacophony, and also served as a signal to flag supporters that it was time to head back uptown for free snacks.
The event was instigated by reactions on social media to a fundraising campaign to paint a mural of the flag on a brick wall at La Bella Pizza Bistro, which is a frequent target for graffiti. Regardless of what the flag is or was intended to represent, it evokes different feelings in different people, and many of the responses were negative.
Maria Lisanti owns La Bella Pizza Bistro, and it was her idea to paint a mural of the flag, because she felt it would be a “beautiful” image which would be “perfect for the wall” across from the middle school. She initially thought a mural would deter graffiti, but admitted after Sunday’s event that she was less certain in light of the strong reaction against the flag itself.
To Lisanti, the flag is a symbol representing ideals, not necessarily the present state of national affairs. She ties it to sacrifice for ideals such as liberty and justice, especially the sacrifice of soldiers. Another version of that same concept was represented on a protest sign which framed it as “myths about our ancestors.”
Work on the mural has already begun, but Lisanti won’t release the artist’s name “for a few days.” Completing the project will take about 16 working days, which are dependent on the weather.
The anonymous artist, had she arrived Sunday ready for work, might have had difficulty finding parking. The lot quickly filled up, and walk organizer Joey Garcia arranged overflow at Joe’s East-West. Inside the pizzeria, patriotic colors were on display more than an hour before the official noon start, and a brisk business was being done in late-morning slices. As the event machinery geared up, tables outside were set up for selling shirts commemorating the event and volunteers moved through the crowd, pressing flags into any empty hand. Others brought in freebies: baked goods and other treats to bolster the spread Lisanti would offer after the walk, boxes of flags, prizes donated to raffle off to fund the mural, enamel pins that look a lot like the flag but upon closer inspection reveal a nonstandard arrangement of the 50 stars.
Flags of many sizes were carried by people of many ages, from tiny toddlers to people who have been waving the star-spangled banner since the Vietnam war. Little girls with pigtails wore them as hair sticks, and at least three adults violated the U.S. Flag Code by wearing hoodies made of the flag itself. One of them, Kristin Pinkham, said, “I think today we can make an exception. I love my flag.” The flag code, which carries no penalties, includes other rules such as never leaving a displayed flag in darkness or allowing it to become neglected and fall into disrepair, as one might observe with flags hung from freeway overpasses.
During the lead-up and throughout the day, Garcia continually repeated the message that this was to be a peaceful event, free of politics. It did not appear any violence occurred, but numerous heated exchanges were reported; asking for politics to be set aside in New Paltz was probably asking too much. Nevertheless, he told attendees that the intent was to express appreciation “in a peaceful, positive way,” and while there were unconfirmed reports about verbal exchanges including elements of hate speech, it appears that no actual violence occurred.
Garcia, who ran unsuccessfully for school board earlier this year, is a six-year military veteran and connects military service to the flag very strongly. In the flag he sees “all that’s good in the world;” the United States is not perhaps a perfect union, but he feels it’s a “force for good in the world.” When “vocal opposition” was raised to Lisanti’s mural, he says he took “personal issue with that,” and decided, “Let’s all take a walk together” to express flag appreciation.
Like many who came out in support, Garcia expressed ignorance over the controversy, saying, “I don’t get it, and I don’t agree with it.”
Protester Zoe Supina said that her concern is about how the flag is used. “A lot of times it’s used for white nationalism,” she said while holding a banner before the big walk. She was present to “advocate for peace” and promote coexistence, rather than uphold use of military force overseas.
Flag supporter Scott Pinkham said that the banner “should have no political affiliation. It’s for all sides.” Like others, he expressed no clear understanding of the purpose of protest. “I didn’t protest Obama,” he said.
Pinkham’s teenage son Clay, who said his parents didn’t make him attend, said, “Anyone against the flag is against the country.” He wasn’t the only representative of his generation; several boys from the local high school were also there, waving three-foot-by-five-foot flags confidently.
The walk was kicked off with a recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and as participants headed off downtown along the southern sidewalk, a now larger group of protesters kicked off their own march directly in front. Their chants in opposition to racism, police brutality, imperialism and oppression like, “no justice, no peace” were met quickly with a refrain of “U.S.A.!” from those waving the red, white and blue in counterpoint to the protesters’ black flags, which represent anarchy. Town police officers, out in force and tacitly backed up by sheriff’s deputies and state troopers who drove by even more frequently than usual, kept the walkers mostly on the sidewalks as they made their way down to the corner of Chestnut Street. At that point the crowd began to congregate and tensions seemed to mount, until finally protesters crossed the street to cheers from the flag supporters.
No parade permit was sought for this walk, because they are only required when traffic must be stopped for the event. While officers did stop car traffic temporarily to allow the “rolling thunder brigade” of military transport vehicles and motorcycles to get through the Chestnut intersection quickly, there was no concerted effort to clear the road as is done, for example, for the Halloween parade. The cost of a parade permit includes paying for police overtime. Chief Joseph Snyder agreed to determine how much, if any, police overtime was used during the flag walk, but could not promise to have it by press time.
All along the route, men and women in clerical collars moved among the participants on both sides of the street. Pastor Tobias Anderson of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in New Paltz explained that this was ministry to prevent violence, by interposing themselves if necessary; according to Anderson, Rev. Mark Mast had to do just that to stop a fight at one point. Anderson observed what he felt was hateful language being used by people on both sides of the issue, and attempts to draw opponents into a physical altercation. This reporter observed one protester blocking a flag supporter two to three times his size from passing on the sidewalk, despite police orders not to block passage; numerous individuals attested to seeing flag supporters being similarly provocative, but did not offer specifics to be corroborated. Heard on the street were some strong comments, such as a supporting observing that protesters are “failed abortions” and a protester proclaiming, “You’re all old and going to die.” A chant of “all lives matter” from the flag side did nothing to quell the unrest.
Age distribution was notable; while protesters appeared to be largely in their 20s, the flag supporters were mostly older adults with some children in tow.
Once the protesters were facing flag supporters across the state highway, the dueling chants and verbal jibes grew louder and louder as passersby watched, astounded by the spectacle. Some of the protesters, who later identified themselves only as members of the Hudson Valley Antifascist Network, kept their faces covered, eliciting a chant of “Show your face!” One member explained that there are “plenty of reasons” to prefer anonymity when expressing such views in this political climate.
“The flag means lot of different things to a lot of people,” said protester Bennett Sippel, “including the ability to oppress.”
One masked supporter observed that, while white supremacists draw strength and identify the like-minded at these events, he would characterize these attendees as largely working-class people who do not benefit from the systems he was opposing through his presence. “They don’t seem to understand,” he said.
Garcia was overall pleased with the event, its turnout and the apparent avoidance of conflict. Despite the screaming during its culmination, he characterized it as peaceful. Moving through a crowd where everyone seemed to recognize him, he said he was not planning on running for office again. “They hate me!” he said with a smile. “Maybe now, they hate me more.”