Flag burning in downtown Iowa City led to confrontation, citations

Matt Uhrin, Cedar Rapids, sprays a fire extinguisher and takes the flags from protestors Jordan Adams and Paul Osgerby on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Matt Uhrin, Cedar Rapids, sprays a fire extinguisher and takes the flags from protestors Jordan Adams and Paul Osgerby on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Two citations were issued following a flag burning protest on the Iowa City Ped Mall on Thursday afternoon in which a FedEx delivery man intervened with a fire extinguisher to put out the flames and take away some of the flags.

Protesters Kelli Ebensberger and Paul Osgerby received a citation for not having a permit for an open burn. Under Iowa City Code, open burning is prohibited unless an individual has obtained a permit from the fire marshal. A violation is considered a simple misdemeanor or municipal infraction. Simple misdemeanors are punishable with a fine of at least $65 or up to $625, and imprisonment for up to 30 days.

Iowa City Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Scott Gaarde said in an email that an investigation into the incident had been completed and that “based on the information I have been presented there will be additional charges filed.”

Matt Uhrin, of Cedar Rapids, declined to give a statement about why he intervened but noted that his actions had nothing to do with his employer, FedEx.

Gus Gifford, a University of Iowa senior who happened to pass by the protest, also intervened to grab one of the flags.

“I’m not for Trump at all,” Gifford said. “I don’t agree with any of his policies. But this is not how you unite a country.”

He said he believed there should be a law to protect the flag.

“My grandpa fought for this country. He fought for the flag,” Gifford said. “I believe in equality, but burning the flag, it’s not the way to solve the problem. In four years, we will have an opportunity elect a new president. I just hate to see this.”

Jordan Adams, of Iowa City, who was among the protesters, said that the incident on Thursday grew out of a similar incident on the Ped Mall on Friday afternoon in which Andrew Alemao set a flag on fire and a bystander intervened.

Adams said they selected the location in front of the downtown Wells Fargo branch in protest of the bank’s support of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The incident was meant to highlight opposition to a diverse set of issues, she said, including the election of Donald Trump and the history in the U.S. of inequality based on race, ethnicity and gender.

“I’m here because of my belief that everything that Trump is doing is horrible,” she said. “It’s threatening to black people, Hispanic, LGBTQ, women and to the protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

She criticized the actions taken to prevent the group from burning the flags, including the use of a fire extinguisher. Fire extinguishers do carry a caution statement noting that the chemical inside is an irritant to the eyes and respiratory system, although though it is technically non-toxic and not known to cause chronic illness.

“We’re here to change the minds of people who disagree with us, but there is no space for that when we are being attacked,” Adams said.

Osgerby, who received a citation, questioned whether a burn ordinance should override his First Amendment right to free speech. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s Texas v. Johnson decision from 1989, which held that flag burning was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment and struck down a federal flag-protection law and measures in 48 states.

“You can’t look at a flag one-dimensionally,” Osgerby said. “This isn’t us badmouthing veterans or service people. Atrocities have been committed in the name of that flag. You can’t just take one view of the flag as a symbol of freedom when it has been used and continues to be used as a means of oppression.”

President Donald Trump made waves in November when he tweeted that individuals who burned the flag should be punished. But it was hardly the first time that politicians have floated the idea of carving out a special protection to prevent flag burning. In the 1990s and 2000s, Congress voted multiple times on a flag-protection amendment, including one co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton in 2005 (although she later voted against the measure). As recently as 2015, an amendment was introduced in Congress by Rep. Steve Womack (R-Arkansas) and Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), although it did not make it through.

University of Iowa Political Science Professor Timothy Hagle said that, despite the recent talk, he doubted that the Trump Administration and Republican Congress would be able to pass a flag-protection amendment.

“If you get a high profile instance, they may get a bit of a head of steam, but it’s not something that I would anticipate actually occurring. We are 30 years on and people have gotten used to it,” he said, referring to the Texas v. Johnson decision.

He did question the efficacy of flag burning as a protest, especially if the message of the protest was unclear.

“To some extent that was the problem with the Women’s March: Well, what is the point?” he said. “Is it unhappiness with Trump as president? Is that sufficient to justify this protest? The question becomes does burning the flag really have anything to do with that? Maybe burning the flag may turn off some of the people that you could be having a conversation with.”

Editor’s Note:

Kelli Ebensberger is the social media manager at Little Village, but took part in the protest in a personal capacity.

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