Town board not keen on request to denounce Confederate flag

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

Lane Stannard’s Confederate flag prompted his neighbor, April Roggio, to request the Rensselaerville Town Board consider a denunciation of what she views as a symbol of hate, but what Stannard sees as an emblem of freedom. 

RENSSELAERVILLE — Lane Stannard knew he would raise hackles when he hung a large Confederate flag on the garage of his Medusa home. 

In a way, it’s why he did it. 

“It’s mainly a symbol of me being able to do whatever I want,” Stannard, 20, told The Enterprise. “I’ve had problems with [neighbors] this whole time so I knew it was going to kind of make some statement that it’s my house.”

The flag is accompanied by a prisoners of war remembrance flag; a flag that depicts an automatic rifle and is captioned “Come and Take It”; and a “Trump 2020” flag. Each flag is as large as the last and, except for the POW flag, exhibits its own brand of rightwing attitude and would in any context be a likely eyesore to people who bend left. 

But it was the Confederate flag that prompted Lannard’s neighbor, April Roggio, whose backyard provides an ample view of the flags, to request that the Rensselaerville Town Board denounce what she — and an increasing number of people across the country — interprets as a symbol of hate.

“I think you should acknowledge that there is a fraying in our social fabric throughout this country and here,” Roggio told the town board at its Sept. 24 regular meeting, “and that we can start doing something to repair that.”

Roggio emphasized that she wasn’t asking the board to ban the Confederate flag from the town, only suggesting that it pass a resolution that calls attention to the flag’s representation of a civil war fought over the preservation of Black slavery. 

A resolution by the town would be a bureaucratically toothless action, but one that Roggio and a handful of supporters argued would be nevertheless meaningful as a way to frame the town’s own values. 

“I understand from conversations with neighbors that to many, locally, this is a complicated issue and may be an unpopular stance for elected officials to take,” wrote Rensselaerville resident Sarah Gordon in a letter submitted as correspondence to the board.

Gordon had been subjected to threats and misogynist slurs this summer when she launched a campaign that would allow local businesses to indicate if they support the Black Lives Matter movement. Subsequently, the Rensselaerville Democratic committee wrote a letter in support of her (“We pledge to stand with Sarah Gordon against hate and racism,” The Altamont Enterprise, Sept. 17, 2020).

“But,” Gordon’s letter went on, “if upon being asked, our Town cannot condemn the battle flag of an enemy state – a state that fought to protect the institution of slavery in the 19th century, and a flag that today waves as a proud symbol of the knee on the neck of Black people in the 21st century – the crickets chirping in the deafening silence would be that of our town’s inherent fragility and privilege, being a place populated 96% by White people as reported by the Census.”

Still, each of the four board members present countered that it would be inappropriate for the town to weigh in, even academically, on residents’ private symbols. Councilman Brian Wood, a Democrat, was absent.

“That’s not the only thing that it stands for,” Deputy Supervisor Jason Rauf, a Republican, said as the discussion focused on the flag’s representation of racism. “And, first of all, I’m not a racist, I would never hang a Confederate flag in my front yard … but I also know some very good people who do fly these flags. And maybe they’re undereducated and don’t know the full meaning of it, but it doesn’t make them a racist.”

Councilman Anthony Guadagno, an Independence Party member, said that, while he doesn’t agree with the sentiment of the flag, he acknowledges that it’s within a person’s constitutional rights to fly it, a stance that Supervisor John Dolce, a Democrat, took as well. Dolce did say he would draft a resolution to be voted on at the town’s Oct. 8 meeting. 

Guadagno further argued that a successful resolution would set a precedent that the board will back the grievances of any resident who shows up with concerns about a particular symbol.

“Let’s turn it on its head,” Guadagno said. “A lot of people in the neighborhood hang the gay pride flag, the rainbow flag. If somebody is, say, religious and objects to that, and they come before us and say ‘We demand that you issue a condemnation against gay pride flags.’”

“Indeed,” Roggio responded, “You have the opportunity to say you disagree [with that condemnation].”

“It’s nothing more than a political balloon we’re putting up,” Rauf chimed in.

Councilwoman Marion Cooke, a Conservative, appeared to disagree most vehemently with the idea, and chastised Roggio for implying in her speech that the Confederate flag and political affiliations were linked. The Rensselaerville Town Board currently has the greatest diversity of political representation among the four Hilltowns.

“You’re trying to drag politics into something that politics shouldn’t be involved in,” Cooke said. 

Roggio had only tangentially referenced political connections when she said, “I really think that, regardless of your political affiliation, you’re here to do more than sign checks and pay the bills; you’re here for a greater purpose.”

 

Background

A relic of the American Civil War, the Confederate flag is a split symbol for Southern identity and the slavery that the South fought unsuccessfully to keep. 

In 2015 — in the wake of Confederate-enthusiast Dylann Roof, 21, shooting nine Black churchgoers to death in Charleston, South Carolina — most Americans interpreted the flag as a symbol of pride, according to a poll conducted by Cable News Network and Opinion Research Corporation. Of the thousand-plus adult respondents, 57-percent said the flag stood for Southern pride compared to 33-percent who said it stood for racism. Seventy-two percent of Blacks said it stood for racism.

Two years later, in Charlottesville, Virginia, self-identified white supremacists and neo-Nazis waved Confederate flags as they protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general. One of these protestors killed a woman when he drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter-protestors.

This year, following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer, protests erupted under the banner slogan “Black Lives Matter,” and national attention was once again drawn to racism baked into America’s foundations. 

These events, and more, have culminated in widespread disapproval of the Confederate flag among voters, even in Southern states. 

A Quinnipiac poll released on July 15 reports that 56-percent of voters view the flag as a racist symbol; 54-percent support the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces; and 51-percent support the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals.

The CNN/ORC poll had asked about similar topics five years earlier with different results: Then, only 29 percent thought streets named for Confederates should be renamed and only 26 percent though tributes to Confederates in public places should be removed.

On July 17, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper tacitly banned Confederate flags from military installations, while the United States Marine Corps issued a more precise condemnation the month prior.

 “Our history as a nation, and events like the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, highlight the divisiveness the use of the Confederate battle flag has had on our society,” reads a June 5 statement from the Marine Corps announcing the ban. “This presents a threat to our core values, unit cohesion, security, and good order and discipline.”

Also in June, the legislature of Mississippi, which was the last remaining state to incorporate Confederate iconography in its official flag, voted to establish a commission that would redesign the flag without a Confederate emblem

“We are all responsible for the culture of our community,” Sarah Gordon wrote in her letter to the Rensselaerville town board, “and the culture our kids grow up in.  This is the correct first step and foundation upon which to build a local culture where racism is not part of our future, and to prevent our home from being understood as a bedroom community for fringe bigoted views.”

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