Competing student groups debate the US flag and appropriate memorial for 9/11

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The 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks has not been a moment for unity at Occidental College. On Saturday, the Occidental College Republican Club planted 2,997 small American flags to honor those killed in the terrorist attacks of 2001 (photo at right). In a Facebook posting, the Republican group said the memorial was intended to promote Sept. 11 as “a day of respect and remembrance for all the victims and heroes of 9/11.” The memorial was registered with the college, which granted permission for the flags to be placed on campus.

But by Sunday morning, many of the flags had been removed and placed in the trash, and others had their sticks broken.

Fliers (at right) were placed on campus offering another message of Sept. 11: “RIP the 2,996 Americans who died in 9/11. RIP the 1,455,590 innocent Iraqis who died during the U.S. invasion for something they didn’t do.”

Not surprisingly, differing interpretations are being offered of what happened.

The Occidental Republicans said on Facebook that they guarded the remaining flags after they discovered the vandalism and prevented some students — who arrived to snap the sticks with flags — from doing more.

The students are vowing to replant the flags. “We ask that all students respect the memorial for the remainder of its time in the quad. If you try to destroy it, we will rebuild it,” said a statement from the Republicans. The statement added that there was no reason to damage the memorial. “This is beyond politics, this is about those lives that were so tragically taken.”

But on the Facebook site of CODE, the Coalition for Diversity and Equity at Occidental, another view was offered.

“On a campus that proclaims itself time and again to be diverse, equitable and safe for all of its students, the display of American flags covering the entire academic quad disproved that proclamation,” the statement said. “When we became aware of the purpose of this display, to memorialize 9/11, we were concerned by the complete disregard for the various peoples affected by this history. As students of color, this symbol of the American flag is particularly triggering for many different reasons. For us, this flag is a symbol of institutionalized violence (genocide, rape, slavery, colonialism, etc.) against people of color, domestically as well as globally. Additionally, if the goal of the memorial is to commemorate the lives lost during 9/11, the singular nature of the American flag fails to account for the diversity of lives lost on that day.”

The statement noted that the group had added statements, poems and signs “to broaden the memorial,” but the statement did not comment directly on those who took down the flags.

CODE also stated that the American flag cannot be viewed as something that means the same to all people, and it noted the refusal of some athletes to stand for the national anthem at sporting events — something that is starting to happen at some college events.

“Historically, the American flag and subsequent American nationalist symbols have been polarizing and marginalizing to people of color living within the United States. This has been most recently exemplified in Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the American national anthem,” said the statement.

Occidental officials are vowing to investigate what happened to the flag memorial.

Erica O’Neal Howard, acting dean of students, sent an email to the campus in which she confirmed that many flags had been removed and thrown in the trash. “We don’t yet know who is responsible for this incident, but the college is investigating and will take appropriate disciplinary action,” she said.

Howard added, “Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. The right and freedom to debate complex, contentious issues and disagree with each other is fundamental to what we do at Oxy. At the same time, we may not express ourselves in ways that prevent others from engaging in protected speech. As the student handbook states, ‘Occidental College imposes on students, faculty members, administrators and trustees an obligation to respect the dignity of others, to acknowledge their right to express differing opinions and to foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and free expression both on and off campus.’ Vandalism or other acts that substantially interfere with the rights of others to engage in protected speech violate the college’s student code of conduct and the spirit of this institution.”

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