The Controversy Over the American Flag in Amherst Continues.
AMHERST, MA – On Sunday a Fox News report on the controversy in Amherst over whether memorial flags should be flown downtown on Sept. 11 prompted a slew of angry emails to town officials.
“You’re a disgrace to our country,” wrote a man named Andy to Town Manager John Musante. “What are you folks thinking regarding the flag should only be raised several times a year,” continue Andy’s email to Musante. “Why don’t all you folks leave this country and live with the Muslims.”
He wrote the email after watching a Fox News segment where Amherst blogger Larry Kelley described via satellite how the town had denied his request to display 25 American flags on downtown utility poles every Sept. 11, not just every five years, as is the rule now.
Kelley was asked to appear on Fox News following newspaper reports of his comments to the Select Board on Aug. 27, in which he chastised the board for its decision, a compromise in a long-simmering dispute that began in 2001.
Clayton Morris, the news anchor for the segment on Fox News, opened the segment by saying, “At times when our country has needed it most, our flag has given us hope.” He then introduced Kelley by saying, “On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, his Massachusetts town is refusing to raise that flag.”
Musante said he and O’Keeffe got about 30 emails from people responding to what they consider a misleading interview. Musante called the Fox News segment “unfortunate … an incomplete picture of how the town is marking that day of infamy.”
A solemn ceremony is planned Sept. 11 at the fire station, he pointed out, along with a prayer, a moment of silence and a raising and then lowering of the flag there to half-mast.
“On a personal level, this hurts a lot,” said Stephanie O’Keeffe, chairwoman of the Select Board. “I’m an extremely patriotic person. To have to be deflecting criticisms like this when I feel I’m trying to serve the whole of Amherst and its conflicting opinions, it’s very difficult.”
John Musante & Stephanie O’Keeffe
She said she responded to Andy’s email, describing the official ceremony and pointing out that the American flag flies every day in front of eight public buildings in Amherst. She explained that Kelley was referring to commemorative flags that are placed on utility poles downtown on six holidays.
“The real issue here is grief, and how best to mark it,” she wrote. “We all feel the grief of Sept. 11 deeply, and many have very strong feelings about how to honor that grief. Those who feel that having the commemorative flags lining downtown sets a festive tone are upset by this, while others consider it the natural option.”
Her note prompted a response from Andy: “I apologize for my ignorance on this issue. What the media showed on TV did not mention the whole details as usual.”
Carl Fontana, a California resident, had a similar exchange with O’Keeffe. On Sunday, after watching the Fox News segment, he wrote, “Do you not live in America? What opinions would prevent you from showing your allegiance to our country?” After hearing from O’Keeffe he too sent back a contrite note, writing, “With your explanation on how and why the flags are flown, my view has changed.”
The 25 flags in question were purchased in 2001 by the town veteran’s agent, who placed them on utility poles downtown. The town manager, however, ordered them taken down because the Select Board has sole authority over the public way. The board held a hearing on Sept. 10, 2001 in which many people defended the flag display and one dissenter, University of Massachusetts professor Jennie Traschen, said the flag is to her a symbol of “terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression.”
The board voted to put up the flags only on six holidays. Less than 12 hours later came the Sept. 11 attacks, and a group of citizens put the flags back up, and they stayed up until Thanksgiving. Traschen’s comment then received national attention.
Kelley brought to Town Meeting a motion to put up the flags up every Sept. 11 but it failed by a 2-1 margin. In a compromise, the Select Board later voted to display the flags on Sept. 11 every fifth year.
Back in 2001, several national news outlets erroneously reported that Amherst had banned flags, and O’Keeffe said the same type of misinformation is circulating again.
She criticized Kelley for bringing up Traschen’s 2001 remark on the Fox News show. “I think Larry has conflated completely unrelated issues in this and hence people are missing what the real situation is,” she said in an interview. “It makes it seem like this is an element of Select Board consideration in this policy and that is absolutely not true.” She called Traschen’s remark in 2001 “ancient history.”
“This has created such a hurtful and poisonous environment that to have this discussion I think we need to let this wound heal,” she said. “(Kelley) has exploited people’s misunderstanding and oversimplification of this issue,” she said.
O’Keeffe said she voted for Kelley’s motion at Town Meeting to display the flags every Sept. 11, but as a Select Board member she has to represent the entire town.
Kelley said in an interview that he did not seek an interview with Fox News. The network hired a chauffeur to drive him to Newton for the live broadcast. And, he said, he had no control over how the anchors framed the issue. He said he regretted that his TV appearance resulted in hate mail.
But he said that if the flag display goes up every Memorial Day, it should go up on Sept. 11 as well. He said he brought up Traschen’s comments from 2001 because “that’s one of the reasons the town got into so much trouble in the first place.” He added, “The town should be more attentive to this because we’ve had such a negative history with this, whether rightful or not.”
Kelley has received support from the Amherst Firefighters Union in his campaign to get the flag display put up on Sept. 11. “I’m not giving up,” he said.
“A flag display on Sept. 11 would prompt everyone to remember the people who died that day in 2001. That if the display is up only every five years, students could go through four years of college and never see it. That’s when we’ll start to forget.” –Larry Kelley
On Tuesday morning, a statement from O’Keeffe went up on the town’s website, including many of the same things she wrote to people who sent emails. Not all of them were convinced by her explanation but many wrote back that they appreciated it.
Credit: NICK GRABBE | Gazettenet.com