Take Down the Flag and/or Perish as an Institution

Treat Shepardson

Trump won the election. This we know well by now; it has already transformed our lives. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, we passed through phases of grief and incomprehension. President Lash sent out an email meant to console; there were, suddenly, chalk drawings everywhere on campus, alternately comforting and galvanizing. In the dorms, many students heard the news for the first time after being awakened by fire alarms around 3:00 A.M. Portentously, hateful graffiti had been found in Dakin again, just as news of freshly emboldened hate speech and hate crimes started coming in from around the country. The student workers of Spiritual Life went forward with the already scheduled “Day of Compassion,” holding many spaces for collective processing and grieving and offering resources for Hampshire students to cope and regroup. The feeling on campus was gloomy and tense, about as bad as many of us had ever witnessed at Hampshire. Individually, we felt spurred to action; or we felt tired, and helpless; or we felt scared, and struggled with our daily routines; or we felt wired, and could not sleep. Here at the Howler, we have had to take our time to get a handle on recent events, and how they should be addressed. As a result, we allowed local news media to get in ahead of us. Sorry.

On Wednesday night, some hundred Hampshire students gathered around the flagpole on the library lawn for a semi-impromptu meeting. This was really the work of a single student—who had gone first to a lunch meeting with President Jonathan Lash, demanding that flag be taken or down, and then called for this show of solidarity, which Hampshire eagerly took up—but the theme of the night, for all the interventions and disruptions that took place, was a collective one, not singular. Jonathan Lash arrived, he and the student hugged, and the question was ultimately deferred to the Board of Trustees, though not before all in attendance had committed (on the spot, at least) to continuing protesting until the flag be taken down.

The flag, well below half-staff and already tattered, loomed over all of us, mostly sitting limp but occasionally billowing over our heads. When I had first arrived on the scene, with only about two dozen people in attendance, someone told me from across the circle that current damage to the flag was the result of some students trying to burn it the night before, unrelated to the current scene. Later, a student showed up and vowed that no one would burn it. The Earth flag that had always accompanied the national one lay in the dirt, largely unnoticed.

The following night, someone burned it for real, leaving Hampshire without a flag on Veterans Day. A few hours later, Hampshire had apparently procured a new one and flew it high. Later that day, the Board of Trustees came to a decision: ambiguously declaring that for “the flag to be experienced as inclusively as possible by all members of our community,” they resolved to fly it at half-mast for the foreseeable future. The symbol was no longer to be valorized but not yet vanquished.

Something else was happening, though. By Saturday, stories about the flag burning had appeared in MassLive and the Hampshire Gazette. This was the original reporting, and we would continue to see cameras and news vans over the weekend; but the story is now spreading to second and third-hand outlets, far beyond our community.

In 2015, students in a group called the “Associated Students at the University of California, Irvine,” or ASUCI, voted 6-4 to ban flags of all nations from the lobby of student government buildings at UC Irvine. A very small group of students did this, without the authority or intention to truly direct policy at the school or even ban the flag from the campus at large; and they did so very thoughtfully and articulately. At times, the language of their resolution even echoed the language of the statement from our trustees: they reflect that the “symbolism” of the flag is “interpreted differently by different groups or persons based on individual unique experiences,” and enumerate some of these interpretations: patriotic, military, colonial, imperial. Ultimately, they stated that they were committed to administering an inclusive space, and that removing the flag was simply more inclusive than keeping it up. As far as political writing against the flag goes, this was eminently equivocal and circumspect, just like the response of Hampshire’s board.

And yet, this resolution attracted massive controversy. UC Irvine was very soon inundated with hate mail and threats, and the six students who voted “against” the flag soon had their images and personal information circulated online, alongside the caption “Make Them Famous.” Meetings of the ASUCI had to be put on hold; ultimately, the resolution was vetoed anyway. More distressingly, perhaps, to those inured to the vitriol and hatred of online, was the response of a Republican state senator by the name of Janet Nyugen, who attempted to amend the state constitution to prohibit any state-funded college or university from doing the same. The rumor sometimes circulates at Hampshire that we could lose federal funding for interfering with the flag, and that is false. But very recently, in a liberal state, among a group of schools known for promulgating left thought, it seemed like it might come true.

Nguyen, ultimately, did not succeed. But the right more powerful now than before. Don’t think it can’t happen here.

Let there be no doubt that there is a real power and utility in contesting our national symbols. Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem is the model to bear in mind: not only how much he was able to say by so small an act, but the depth of outrage he was subjected to as a result. We stand to make a worthy statement by taking down the flag, but we must be ready for the counterpunch, however well we make our case.

Last year also, several Hampshire students were targeted by a certain Worcester gossip website after attending a protest at UMass. Their pictures and full names were posted, along with private correspondences and whatever other information the site could dig up on them. Along with several celebrities of the internet right and a Mount Holyoke student, the website carried out a harassment campaign of several weeks, one that all of those people still remember fondly. If you don’t know of this already, I ask that you don’t seek it out: it is still vile, still has the power to do harm (and increase the site’s ad revenue.) Just know that these people have their eyes on us again, and they are bolder today than they were six months ago. The person who runs the website was on WAQY Rock 102 this morning.

We should take the flag down. Now is the time, and we are the ones to do it. If we don’t, it will be hard to feel that we stand for anything. Why have a school like this, why the slogan about not only knowing things if we can’t make the smallest, most symbolic of steps? But once we do, our work is not over. As an institution, we are going to have to keep struggling to exist and to ensure that we are supporting one another in a country that we will soon find ourselves at odds with. This is not only about the flag, this struggle. But the flag symbolizes it.

At the time of writing, it’s still flying, still at half-mast. I don’t know what happened to the Earth flag.


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