A group of activists with the group Disarm NYPD, which announced a highly publicized plan to set fire to American and Confederate flags as part of a demonstration in Brooklyn, faced off with counter-demonstrators on Wednesday night at Fort Greene Park.
The war of words turned physical when one counter-demonstrator knocked an opposing demonstrator onto the ground and forcibly extinguished one of the flags. A tense pursuit ended when a number of anti-NYPD protesters were chased from the park in an exchange that seemed on the verge of violence.
Disarm NYPD characterized the public burning of the flag as a statement against the actions of accused white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof, as well as what they called “America’s long history of institutionalized racism and murderous violence against black people.”
“We find it a sign of the times,” the group wrote in a Facebook post several days before the event, “that people can care so much about a piece of cloth, while at the same time be so quiet about black churches being burned all over the country.”
A man who gave his name as Jason and identified himself as a sympathizer with the flag-burning contingent said he had participated in a burning of the Confederate flag recently, and said the decision to burn the American flag was a logical outgrowth of that action.
“America has stood for oppression of a lot of the world’s people for hundreds of years,” Jason told the Voice. “And you know, the Confederacy only lasted a couple. So in comparison, people kind of felt it was important that if we’re gonna do one we should do the other. So here we are today.” He said he saw the act as a statement against racial profiling by the police and a more general statement about racial discrimination in America’s history and its continuance today.
About 30 apparent supporters of Disarm NYPD showed up, along with at least twice that number of counter-demonstrators bearing flags of their own. Brooklyn native and counter-demonstrator Hedy Aldina said she came out because she thought it was a “disgrace” that protesters would burn the American flag. “This is my country and I will fight like hell for my country.…God bless America and may God damn anyone who tries to harm her.
“What they’re doing is racism,” Aldina continued. “Black lives matter? All lives matter! Disarm the NYPD? Who are they gonna call, their crackhead friends if something happens? I don’t think so.”
Another counter-demonstrator interjected, saying “they have the freedom to stomp on our flag? We should have the freedom to stomp on them.”
For around 30 minutes, a scrum of reporters interviewed the counter-demonstrators on the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Washington Park, at the northeast end of the park, apparently unaware that the anti-NYPD group had already begun setting flags ablaze a short distance away, at the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument near the park’s center.
When counter-demonstrators realized what was happening, a contingent raced up a hill to the monument, and the confrontation began. At least one man, who declined to give his name, was ultimately placed in a police van — for what officers said was his own protection — after he was chased and surrounded by counter-demonstrators. He told reporters that he had not been participating in the protest.
About ten members of a Brooklyn motorcycle club showed up wearing jackets bearing the name “Hallowed Sons,” some with their faces covered by bandanas. Before the main confrontation, one apparent member, who declined to identify himself, told a reporter “we’re not here to talk.” Asked why they had shown up, the man replied, “You’ll find out.”
At least one counter-demonstrator was carrying what appeared to be a folding knife, and several people in the crowd said they had seen some counter-demonstrators carrying hammers. There did not appear to be any serious injuries in any of the conflicts, which flared periodically over the course of more than an hour.
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Disarm NYPD’s original plan, announced last week on social media, called for the burning only of Confederate flags, part of a spate of similar actions across the country. The original event, scheduled for this past Saturday, was postponed because of rain, and the group subsequently broadened the protest to include the burning of American flags. In a statement emailed to news media and posted on their Facebook page, the group explained their choice by saying that the U.S. flag is also a “lasting symbol of slavery, segregation, and the racist exploitation that still dominates our society.”
Some conservative media outlets picked up on the group’s Facebook announcement, which attracted hundreds of comments, angry responses, and threats. “PLEASE come try that in my town,” one commenter wrote. “I have a scope I haven’t sighted in yet.”
The protest also became a topic of discussion on Fox News on Wednesday afternoon. One of the network’s legal analysts, Peter Johnson Jr., compared the activists’ plans to those of Roof himself, seeming to conflate a multiple murder with the flag-burning.
These folks are, in my view, the cultural cousins, cultural brothers and sisters of that maniac murderer in Charleston who decided he was going to burn the flag and show it on social media. There’s little difference between what they do and what he did. They’re on different ends of the same continuum of behavior.
U.S. courts have repeatedly found that burning an American flag is a form of protected speech. The major decision addressing the issue, Texas v. Johnson, stemmed from a protest during the Republican National Convention in 1984, when activist Gregory Lee Johnson burned a flag outside Dallas City Hall to denounce the policies of the Reagan administration. He was arrested and convicted under a Texas state law that banned the destruction of “venerated objects,” including the U.S. flag; many states had similar laws on the books at the time. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Johnson’s conviction, saying that the burning and desecration of a U.S. flag is protected symbolic speech. The principle was reaffirmed in U.S. v. Eichman.
Since the decision, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — when they’re feeling grandstand-y — have attempted to put forward a constitutional amendment banning the practice, which has repeatedly failed.
Open fires are prohibited in city parks and most other places in New York State, but police officers on site said no arrests had been made on either side. Around 9 p.m., an NYPD spokesman told the Voice that they did not yet have official information about any arrests that may have occurred.
The Voice sent several emails to Disarm NYPD seeking comment. We’ll update when we hear back.
Here’s the full statement from the group’s Facebook page:
Voice video intern Ana M. Rodriguez also contributed reporting for this story.
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional