AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – The American flag returned to full staff on the main flagpole at Hampshire College in Amherst Friday, following a controversy that has drawn nationwide attention.
Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash told 22News that the flag was removed weeks ago while a campus-wide discussion was held on the use of the flag as a symbol. He said that the presence of the flag was disruptive to that discussion.
“The American flag is a disruption for some of the people on campus, for whom it represents the experiences they’ve had with racism and injustice, it’s a very frightening symbol,” Lash said.
Victor Nunez Ortiz, commander of the Amherst VFW, however, says that he sees the American flag very differently. Nunez Ortiz was an organizer of a weekend protest of the flag’s removal, which drew about 1,000 attendees. He said that the flag is a symbol of peace, which represents freedom, unity, humanity, and all that veterans have fought for.
Lash said that ultimately, the negative reaction to the decision to take the flag down became even more distracting. He said that he has been involved in more than 15 discussions with staff and students, and the decision was made to raise the flag back up again.
The controversy began following the presidential election, when some students lowered the flag to half-staff. Less than two days later, the flag was burned. The college raised a new flag on the pole for Veterans Day before they made the decision to take it down during the dialogue.
Hampshire’s decision to keep the flag down received condemnation from public officials, including Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Westfield State Representative John Velis, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. Members of the national media descended upon Amherst, raising the profile of the story.
Lash had a confrontation earlier this week with Fox News personality Jesse Watters, who came to his home and questioned him as he came out of his car and at the door to his home. Speaking to 22News reporter Kait Walsh Friday morning, he described the incident as a “little home invasion.”
Nunez Ortiz said that although the flag is back up, there will still be a rally in support of the Stars and Stripes this coming Sunday. He said that in addition to celebrating the flag, the rally will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which is next Wednesday.
While the controversy was going on, Lash stressed that the removal of the flag was temporarily, though he did not say whether its absence would become permanent. An American flag remained flying at the Hampshire College Police station, even while the flag on the main pole was down.
Lash released the following statement Friday morning:
This morning we raised the United States flag to full staff at Hampshire College after a two-week discussion period about what the flag means to members of the Hampshire community. College leadership, including the board of trustees, had decided on November 18 to lower the flag for a time to encourage uninhibited expression of deeply held viewpoints.
We are alarmed by the overt hate and threats, especially toward people in marginalized communities, which have escalated in recent weeks. We did not lower the flag to make a political statement. Nor did we intend to cause offense to veterans, military families, or others for whom the flag represents service and sacrifice. We acted solely to facilitate much-needed dialogue on our campus about how to dismantle the bigotry that is prevalent in our society. We understand that many who hold the flag as a powerful symbol of national ideals and their highest aspirations for the country—including members of our own community—felt hurt by our decisions, and that we deeply regret.
The dialogue we have experienced so far is the first step of a process. Hampshire staff and faculty have led facilitated discussions, I have held multiple focus group sessions, and all of our students, faculty, and staff have been invited to contribute their opinions, questions, and perspectives about the U.S. flag. This is what free speech looks like. We believe in it, we will continue this work on campus, and we will look for ways to engage with our neighbors in the wider community. We raise the flag now as a symbol of that freedom, and in hopes for justice and fairness for all.
At Hampshire, we are committed to living up to these principles:
- To insist on diversity, inclusion, and equity from our leaders and in our communities, and the right to think critically and to speak openly about the historical tensions that exist throughout the country
- To constructively and peacefully resist those who are opposing these values
- To actively and passionately work toward justice and positive change on our campus and in the world.
No less should be expected of any institution of higher learning.