The day after the election, some people at Hampshire College reacted to news of Donald Trump’s victory by calling for removal of the American flag at the center of campus, saying it was a symbol of racism and hatred. That night, it was lowered. And the following night – sometime before dawn on Veterans Day – people burned it.
The flag was quickly replaced, but the college board announced it would be flown at half-staff, “both to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many and to enable the full complexity of voices and experiences to be heard.”
That didn’t work, Jonathan Lash, the president of the small liberal-arts college in western Massachusetts said Monday.
Lowering the flag to half-staff offended many, and the backlash was immediate, especially from veterans and military families who saw it as disrespectful of the tradition of national mourning.
On Friday, Lash told the campus community that its efforts to convey respect and sorrow had had the opposite effect, and announced that the college would remove the flag entirely.
He said there is a tremendous range of views on campus, “people for whom the flag is a very powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up as people of color, never feeling safe – and people for whom it’s a symbol of their highest aspiration for the country.”
Dissent over the flag’s meaning has intensified nationally in recent months, with some seeing it as a symbol of unity and pride, and others as one of oppression. Lash said he was trying to find a way to allow the community to have a direct, open, respectful conversation about those contradictory ideas. He hopes removing the symbol will free people up to talk.
Similar debates are playing out on other campuses, where protests and demonstrations followed the election results, some of them with anger directed at the national symbol.
At Brown University, some students tore up and stomped on flags from an event honoring veterans last week, while others hurried to replace and protect the flags.
And at many campuses, minority students have been targeted and harassed in the days after the election, with swastikas scrawled on doors, women’s hijabs yanked off, black students being called racial slurs and racist posters glued to campus walls.
In a message to the Hampshire community earlier this month, board leaders wrote that the divisions and conflicts of the presidential campaign that erupted after the election were felt acutely and personally. “On campus we have seen numerous expressions of pain, fear, anger, and vulnerability – understandable given news reports from across the country about acts of hostility and violence against people of color, immigrants, international citizens, and Muslims,” it said.
In an email to the campus community Friday, Lash wrote that college leaders hoped that removing the flag “will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic…rhetoric and behaviors.”
He also wrote, “Some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election – this, unequivocally, was not our intent.”
The decision was met with anger, outrage and derision from many on social media.
Lash said in an interview that he is hopeful the college community will find a way to listen to one another’s concerns in the next month or two while the flag is down, but acknowledged that may be difficult. “I don’t think the country did it very well,” he said. “I’m hoping we can as a campus.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Susan Svrluga