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After the Attack

Berkeley's Removal of U.S. Flags From Firetrucks Sparks Outrage

Free speech: The city manager orders the action, fearing protests at an antiwar rally. Irate calls come in from around the nation.

September 21, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The stars and stripes became a center of controversy in Berkeley on Thursday when city administrators removed American flags from all firetrucks.

Citing the banners as a possible irritant to some who live in this diverse and historically opinionated city, Berkeley City Manager Weldon Rucker ordered them removed from the department's seven fire trucks and two support vehicles before an antiwar rally Thursday at UC Berkeley.

Officials said they were trying to avoid a repeat of violence that occurred during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles at city firetrucks sporting American flags. This week, the flag atop the Berkeley post office was burned in an anonymous act of protest, they said.

Mayor Shirley Dean and many firefighters are outraged, saying the flag's image has been sullied by a move the mayor calls "flat-out wrong."

For 10 days, many firefighters decked their trucks with 4-foot by 6-foot American flags, the only size available at a time when many stores statewide are sold out of the banners.

"There are lots of protesters out there right now, and the situation has the potential of getting out of hand very quickly," said David Orth, a spokesman for the Berkeley Fire Department. "If we went to a fire there with these big flags atop our trucks, somebody would do something--take them off and wave it or take it off and burn it.

"We don't need to worry about protecting the flag, which the guys would do, if their first job is performing a rescue or fighting fires."

An irked Mayor Dean said the move stains the flag as a symbol of peace and insults New York City firefighters who died last week trying to save victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Berkeley Fire Capt. Wayne Dismuke said firefighters were angry, especially because the flags continued to fly atop police cars. He said firefighters had raised $50,000 in five days to send to New York and believe they should be allowed to express their grief and respect.

"Our brother and sister firefighters perished in that attack; this is an insult," he said. "Who could object to flying the American flag? We thought those flags would fly regardless of anything."

The mayor and the city manager have issued dueling press releases.

Rucker says the situation is overblown and that the department is looking for smaller flags to fly on its trucks. He said he would reconsider the ban on a day-to-day basis if the demonstrations do not take a violent turn.

Mayor Dean said her office has been flooded with irate calls from across the nation.

"I think this reflects badly on Berkeley," said Dean. "We have a diverse population here. And if we believe that diversity is good, we ought to be able to have a demonstration without repercussions. We know there is going to be disagreement. That doesn't mean our flags go down."

There were no arrests at the rally, called National Student Day of Action to "stop the war." About 2,500 to 3,000 protesters attended, university officials said.

Dean said she is miffed that neither she nor the City Council were alerted to the decision to remove the flags, which hung from the backs and sides of some trucks. She said that though she does not have the power to reverse the flag ban, she is urging the city manager to do so.

The rift came days after Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley and Oakland, drew mixed community reaction after she cast the lone vote against giving President Bush broad authority to combat terrorism. Lee argued that the power to declare war rests with Congress.

And on Wednesday, protesters occupied the offices of the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, demanding an apology for an editorial cartoon they said encouraged violence against Arab Americans.

City officials on Thursday said they have the support of the firefighters union, but Dean says she has heard from numerous angry firefighters.

"They can't understand this one bit," she said. "I don't think the American flag is inciteful and neither do they. It's certainly not a symbol of war, but of the freedoms we enjoy here. I'm proud of it."

Said Arrietta Chakos, a spokeswoman for the city manager: "This is uncharted territory in our community and our country. We've never felt a terrorist presence or fear like this. And we're being very careful."

Berkeley isn't the only city struggling with patriotism issues.

An insurance company in Boca Raton, Fla., which had removed flags from employees, has relented, handing out Old Glory banners to its workers.

And librarians at Florida Gulf Coast University have been told by school officials not to wear "I'm proud to be American" stickers because they might offend foreign students.

Despite the criticism, Berkeley Fire Department spokesman Orth said the city made the right move in removing the flags. "We all have to be aware that the stress of these days creates a lot of emotion," he said. "Let's not overreact to this."

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