BARRE — A Black Lives Matter flag is days away from being displayed in City Hall Park, and will be replaced by a banner intended to salute police on New Year’s Day. That’s the state of play following another turbulent Tuesday night meeting during which a divided City Council was again bombarded with dueling views about what it should and shouldn’t run up a city-owned flagpole.
The sensitive subject led to another split decision – this one amending a resolution that also passed on the strength of tie-breaking vote cast by Mayor Lucas Herring just last week.
Councilors narrowly abandoned an equally narrowly approved plan to display 22 different flags over the next two years in favor of flying just two – one right after the other – between Dec. 1 and the end of January.
Councilor Michael Boutin volunteered to make the substantive change even as members of the city’s Diversity and Equity Committee began questioning some of the flags on the longer list that was approved as part of the resolution he supported last week.
“I just want to move on from this,” Boutin said, long after his attempt to shorten the discussion by focusing on two flags, instead of 22, didn’t have its intended effect.
People who attended the virtual session to voice opinions did, though they endured nearly two hours of other business to weigh in.
Committee member Danielle Owczarski kicked off the hour-long discussion by offering the panel’s assistance in vetting each of the previously approved flags against a policy it crafted on a monthly basis before they are displayed.
The committee’s chairwoman, Joelen Mulvaney, went further, suggesting a compulsory review of all proposed flags that wasn’t contemplated in the “special flags” policy it proposed and the council recently adopted.
Mulvaney went on to note that the proposed display of the Abenaki flag was potentially problematic, and possibly one that honoring the Green Mountain Boys.
Mulvaney described the latter group as “Indian killers,” even as Boutin volunteered to edit the list to include only the December display of the Black Lives Matter flag, followed by a January display of the “Thin Blue Line” flag.
Committee member Ellen Kaye said even if the latter flag didn’t violate the U.S. Flag Code – she was later told the version proposed by the council does not — its display should be reconsidered and its timing couldn’t be worse.
“The ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag is a statement of support for police, who have committed many acts of brutality against Black and brown people,” she said. “Far from being a disenfranchised group, police forces are wholly supported by local, state and federal tax dollars, have a powerful union advocating for them, and enjoy a position of authority and respect in our communities.
“Our displaying this flag, and displaying it immediately following a Black Lives Matter flag, shows disrespect for the ongoing human rights struggle of people of color in our community, and works in opposition to the value of equity that the city of Barre aspires to,” she added.
Enter, resident Rosemary Averill, who made it pretty clear she’d heard enough.
“This is insane,” Averill said. “I cannot believe what I’m listening to. The Green Mountain Boys? Autism Awareness? You’ve got to be kidding me. You guys didn’t run on this stuff.”
It wasn’t initially clear whether Averill was directing her ire at the council or the committee.
However, after calling its members were “radicals,” Averill seemed to suggest her problem was with the latter.
“I’m going to work my ass off to vote you off this committee,” she vowed, drawing the only admonition of the evening from Herring and prompting a response from committee member Chris Roberts.
Roberts, a gay man who grew up in Barre, said he is sensitive to issues of diversity and equity, but rejecting being tagged as a “radical.”
“I don’t have an agenda,” Roberts said. “None of us have an agenda. We want our community to reflect the people who live here – all of the people who live here.”
By then, the back-and-forth was well underway with some renewing reservations about the raising the Black Lives Matter flag and others suggesting they were troubled by what they perceived as a “Thin Blue Line” response.
“How did this even begin,” resident Laurel Maurer asked at one point, lamenting a debate that has become “more and more fractionalized.”
Maurer said her strong preference would be to stick with one flag — “the American flag” — she said. It “honors everyone” and “leave it be,” she insisted.
“I feel like this is just stirring up so much trouble,” she said.
Boutin repeatedly hinted he’s prepared to support asking voters in March to approve a charter change that would limit the display of flags to the U.S., Vermont and city flags.
Until that happens, Boutin said he was comfortable supporting the December-long display of the Black Lives Matter flag followed by the “Thin Blue Line” flag in January.
The latter flag, Councilor Rich Morey, explained was not a knock off of the U.S. flag that includes a blue stripe, but rather a black banner that is bisected by a single horizontal blue line. That, he said, should quell concerns raised by Kaye and others, that the U.S. Flag Code might be violated by the proposed display.
Councilor Teddy Waszazak sought to further edit the list by approving the only flag – the one that says “Black Lives Matter” — that had been thoroughly vetted by the committee.
Herring said nothing in the policy initially proposed by the committee required its review and councilors approved the back-to-back month-long displays by a vote of, 4-3.
As he did several times last week, Herring cast the decisive vote, joining Boutin, Morey and Councilor John Steinman in a four-vote majority.
Waszazak voted against the motion, as did Councilors Jake Hemmerick and Ericka Reil.
Reil suggested the policy be modified to incorporate language requiring committee review of all special flag requests; while Steinman said that was neither necessary, nor something he could support.
The council did amend the policy to indicate special flag requests “may” be referred to the committee for vetting. That and a couple of other comparatively minor changes were approved, 5-2. Steinman and Boutin voted again that motion.
Based on the council’s latest action, the Black Lives Matter flag is scheduled to be raised in City Hall Park next Tuesday and come down at the end of the month.