By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
The line between protesting and indiscriminate vandalism is blurring with every passing day. After bringing down only statues devoted to Confederate leaders, quickly the razor-sharp focus of statue topplers expanded to include the likes of Christopher Columbus, conquistadors, police chiefs they deemed racist, slave-holding Union generals, and in Portland Oregon, an elk.
Because of this confusing expansion of destruction, unless incidents were explicitly filmed, or graffiti was left behind declaring precisely why they did it, whenever something is destroyed, nobody around the country is sure if this was old-fashioned vandalism or protest-fueled vandalism. For example, a Frederick Douglass statue was torn down in Rochester, New York on July 5. Conservatives claimed it was proof left-wing protesters were out of control and had lost their message; liberals claimed right-wing protesters did it as retribution for the statues being torn down across the country; others claimed it was just someone who wanted to destroy something, politics be damned.
Needham has found itself in the same situation. Over Fourth of July weekend, about two dozen American flags were burned, and some were stolen, from Memorial Field. The flags were part of the Exchange Club’s "Field of Flags” display, meant to honor first responders, as well as those along the wall that Kate Robey places every year. Thomas Keating, chaplain of Needham VFW Post 2498, said that “there was no indication it was anything other than vandalism,” while also acknowledging that “we’ve never had a problem like this before.”
Whether it was a protest or not, it was definitely deliberate. Keating said that because they had stolen some flags and burned them in two different locations, the idea that a rogue sparkler or firework had caused a fire was quickly debunked.
The flags were quickly replaced, and Keating co-wrote a letter with Dana M Storrs, the commander of Needham VFW Post 2498. What was fascinating about the letter was its tone. Anyone who has seen a video on the internet of a military veteran seeing someone disrespect a public memorial knows how upset they get and what ramifications that might have. But Keating and Storrs’ letter to the flag burners, which appeared in last week's Needham Hometown Weekly, never took an aggressive tone - it took a disappointed one.
“These are not the times to be aggressive and say 'we’re going to get you,'” Keating explained. “We wanted to express our dismay and our disheartedness over this. We were not going to be vindictive and storm the castle with torches or anything. We didn’t want that kind of tone; we wanted a tone of 'we’re dismayed and disheartened.' Ms. Robey said it best when she said if the police find out who did this, I’d invite them to help me put out these flags again on August 8, which is Purple Heart Day. We’re a Purple Heart town. So, that’s kind of conciliatory. And we wanted our letter to be somewhat conciliatory. Even though we are upset and angry, we’re really more disheartened that this would happen in or town.”
In the letter, Keating noted that while it is one's constitutional right to burn an American flag, and that he and other veterans fought to protect American’s rights, you have no right to burn other people’s flags.
“We’re veterans of foreign wars. We fought in wars to protect people’s constitutional rights, so we understood that and we wanted in the letter to express that we’re not against people protesting, but we are against vandalism. In this case it was vandalism, because the flags were not owned by the person who burned them. They were town property.”
Keating said that going forward, they will not be looking to put up a barrier or fence to make sure their flags are not burned, noting that he is confident in the Needham Police Department and that the flags are supposed to be accessible to all.
Still, whether the burning of the flags is directly related to any larger movements or not, it is telling that in 2020, people are willing to burn publicly displayed American flags on Fourth of July weekend. But, while unfortunate, Keating believes there is a lessen that can be learned, a positive that can come from the incident.
“As veterans, we are upset this happened. We wish the person who did it would understand the flag is a symbol of the good of America, and if they can understand that from this incident, it would be something positive that was accomplished. We’re saddened that it happened in our town, and that the person who did it didn’t understand what the flag symbolized for America.”