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Facing Push For BLM Banner In City Park, Barre Decides To Fly 22 Different Flags

A woman wearing a face mask holds a black and white black lives matter flag with a hill dotted with homes in the background.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Barre City Councilor Ericka Reil stands for a portrait outside her home Thursday. Reil requested the city fly a Black Lives Matter flag, and after months of debate, the council voted to fly 22 flags, including the Thin Blue Line flag, over as many months.

The Black Lives Matter flag will fly in City Hall Park in Barre next month, but it isn’t the victory that supporters of the measure had been hoping for.
While city councilors approved a proposal Tuesday evening that authorizes the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag on city property for the month of the December, the resolution also calls for the flag to be lowered on New Year’s Day and replaced with the pro-police “Thin Blue Line” flag.

City Councilor John Steinman said Wednesday that the “compromise” resolution, which calls for 22 different flags to be flown over the next two years, was an attempt to quell outcry from opponents of the Black Lives Matter proposal.

“I was trying to diffuse a contentious, divisive council, and to be responsive to all the citizens of the City of Barre,” Steinman said.

More from Brave Little State: How To Support Vermonters Of Color: 'Listen To Us'

Teddy Waszazak, one of three city councilors who opposed Steinman’s resolution, said the modified proposal undercuts the message that Black Lives Matter advocates were hoping to advance.

“Quite frankly, I think it is ludicrous that somebody would propose the Thin Blue Line flag while also saying that they want unity and to end division," Waszazak said. "We have seen the Thin Blue Line flag fly in Vermont with Confederate flags, with the Don’t Tread on Me flag. And what happened [Tuesday] night shows that we can say, 'Black lives matter,’ as long as we say, ‘Everything else matters.’ And that completely misses the point.”

Supporters of President Donald Trump have been staging a rally at City Hall Park in Barre every Friday evening for the past month or so.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Supporters of President Donald Trump have been staging a rally at City Hall Park in Barre every Friday evening for the past month or so.

Virtual city council meetings aren’t the only venue to expose divisions in Washington County’s most populous city. Over the past month, visitors to Barre have encountered dueling political rallies every Friday night on downtown Main Street.

On one side of the street, mask-less Trump supporters wave giant blue flags and wave at honking cars.

On the other side, silent, mask-wearing counter-protestors hold simple cardboard signs with words such as, “Empathy,” “Compassion,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

For the past five weeks, Damien Renzello has joined fellow Trump supporters for the 4 p.m. honk and wave at City Hall Park.

They play music and wave Trump flags as night falls on central Vermont.

“And we all are patriots, and we love our country, and we love our president, and we just come out here to support our president every Friday night,” Renzello said on a recent Friday.

More from VPR: These Vermonters Voted For Trump In 2016. What About In 2020?

The weekly display of enthusiastic Trumpism hasn’t sat well with everyone in Barre. And a few weeks ago, silent counter-protestors, including Ellen Kaye, began staging their own event on the other side of the street.

“I came here because I did not want a Black person, an immigrant, a queer kid, to come through this square and see nothing but that and feel scared,” Kaye said.

To Kaye, overt support for Trump is in and of itself an attack on marginalized communities in Barre.

Barre residents stand silently with homemade signs as a counter-protest to a Trump rally going on across the street.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Barre residents stand silently with homemade signs as a counter-protest to a Trump rally going on across the street.

“I believe so, because of four years of dog whistles, and encouraging racism, encouraging violence,” she said.

As a member of the city’s newly formed Diversity and Equity Committee, Kaye said she’s trying to counter the effects of the president’s rhetoric.

“We’re excited, because we think that a city government can do an awful lot,” she said.

Barre’s city government has been mulling the Black Lives Matter flag request since late spring, when councilor Ericka Reil proposed raising the banner in City Hall Park, in response to the killing of George Floyd.

Towns and schools across Vermont have approved similar measures.

“It was just a symbolic thing trying to say, we acknowledge that there racism here in Vermont, there is racism here in Barre,” Reil said. “It’s not talked about enough, and hopefully this will start a conversation.”

More from Brave Little State: Why Do Some Vermonters Display The Confederate Flag?

That months-long debate culminated at the city council meeting Tuesday night.

“There is no racism that I see in this city,” Barre City resident Jeff Pladino told councilors. “But if you hang a Black Lives Matter flag, you’re dividing a community. You’re dividing a community that does not need to be divided.”

“What I’m seeing on Facebook when I put this out is, people are going to boycott Barre, alright?” Barre resident Bob Houle said.

"In a community that is mostly white, a Black Lives Matter flag to me is a welcome sign." — Marichel Vaught, Barre resident

Other residents meanwhile, including Marichel Vaught, urged councilors to adopt the resolution.

“In a community that is mostly white, a Black Lives Matter flag to me is a welcome sign,” Vaught said.

Bernadette Rose framed her support for the Black Lives Matter flag in the form of a question to councilors: “Why wouldn’t we want to make our community inclusive and welcoming? Why wouldn’t we want to make people know we care about them?"

Councilor John Steinman said that in the days leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, he received more emails on the flag request than he has on every other issue combined in his time on the council.

“They were literally split down the middle,” Steinman told VPR. “It was like tug of war.”

And he says that’s what compelled him to modify Reil’s request. Under Steinman’s proposal, the Black Lives Matter Flag will be flown in City Hall Park for the month of December.

An American flag and a Thin Blue Line flag, which is the same design as the American flag, except the flag is black and white with one stripe in blue.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The Thin Blue Line flag, which symbolizes support for police officers, seen here hanging from a garage in Barre.

But in January, it’ll be replaced by the Thin Blue Line flag, which represents police officers. February will belong to a flag for the Green Mountain Boys. March is the Irish heritage flag. And on and on.

All told, Steinman’s proposal calls for 22 different flags to be flown, a month at a time each, through October of 2022. His resolution passed Tuesday by a vote of 4-3.

“So what I tried to do was to address everyone’s concern, and that made everyone unhappy — I’m sorry,” Steinman said. “But I felt it was the right thing to do, because it represents everyone in the city equally.”

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Steinman’s resolution mystified some councilors, including Waszazak. Waszazak said the councilors have been debating the Black Lives Matter resolution for months, but that Steinman’s proposal didn’t arrive in their inboxes until three days prior to Tuesday’s vote.

Among the flags that will be flown in Barre over the next 22 months are the flags of England, Italy, France, U.S. Marines, Autism Acceptance and the Star of David.

“The flags that were approved last night include the Union Jack, the flag of Britain, which flabbergasted me — I don’t understand why that’s happening,” Waszazak said.

Waszazak said he doesn’t necessarily oppose flying the Star of David flag.

“But why are we only flying the flag of one religion?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

"So what I tried to do was to address everyone's concern, and that made everyone unhappy." — John Steinman, Barre City Councilor

Kaye said the sentiment that supporters had been hoping to express with the Black Lives Matter flag has been “diluted” by the addition of 21 other flags. She said the decision to fly the Thin Blue Line flag immediately after the Black Lives Matter flag could be perceived as a hostile gesture toward people of color in Barre.

“My goal is to help convey to people that there are people in Barre who care, and who see the suffering, and who stand with an effort to stop that suffering, and to confront it,” Kaye said. “And I think that this flag, this second flag, is going to diminish that, and take away from it and detract from it.”

Reil, who originally proposed the Black Lives Matter flag proposal, said Tuesday’s resolution isn’t the victory she had in mind. But she said it’s a victory nonetheless.

“So if this is the compromise I have to do, then this is the compromise I have to do to have a Black Lives Matter flag flown,” Reil said. “It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I got.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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