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.”

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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.


  1. They could be burning a flag or sign with “Trump” on it, if that’s their point, but burning the symbol of our country is disrespectful and it is disappointing that they don’t see it that way. Their actions now make the story about a flag burning, not a Trump protest. Not a very effective way of making their point. I lived through the 70s in college — I thought we learned that lesson. Maybe there is a whole new generation that needs to be educated with a civics lesson from that time. Happy to see Mr. FedEx and the others take action, not just get out their phones to get some pics or video. Can we take this and learn from it — both sides!

    1. They’ve transitioned from liberal snowflakes to liberal fruitcakes. At least they weren’t dressed up as giant vaginas like in the recent women march for state provided baby murder, or rioting, looting, and burning stores. Nothing says “justice” like looting a convenient store and then burning it to the ground.

  2. Symbol of YOUR country. That flag is a genocide rag carrying American imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation of the poor and other marginalized groups. Asking the poor and people of color to stay silent so you can feel comfortable and maintain your nationalist bull is garbage. F*ck yo flag and I hope for more demonstrations of dissent like yesterday.

    1. Latisha, I encourage your cause to make your point of view heard. However, actions of civil disobedience need to be constructive, well thought out, and most of all respectful. That’s what MY country is all about. If you live in the USA, that is YOUR flag, whether you like it or not. That flag and what it stands for to me, is exactly why your opinions can be heard. Inflaming those with differing opinions will get you nowhere, and that works both ways. I think this country does have some serious coming together to do, but all sides need to make the other understand where we are all coming from and listen, really listen. Generational ideas and changes have always come slowly, and I think always will, as our country’s history has shown over and over again. It will take hard work from ALL involved, government, citizens, and voters alike, not just a protest on a street corner looking for a sound bite. This hits close to home for me, as it is in my community. If you and your cause don’t want to put in the work needed, all the marching, protesting, and dissent will be for not. I say if you think it’s so bad in the USA, you just need to look around the world and see what real exploitation looks like. You don’t really know anything about me, but find it okay to lash out in a way I find disrespectful and counterproductive. Help me hear you and your cause, but be civil and respectful. That’s where I’m coming from! The ball is in your court.

  3. I don’t support legislation banning flag burning as it is a symbol and an act of free speech. That said, just because you can curse someone walking down the street out of nowhere, doesn’t mean you should. A great many people died from the inception of this country to the present, doing what they thought was the right thing. But the flag means different things to different people. To quote Mike Rowe:

    I’ve never thought of myself as “blindly patriotic,” but I am a fan of the United States, the founding fathers, and the men and women who have served on my behalf. I also confess to feeling lucky to live here. Having said that, I think you’re correct about the flag; it’s only a symbol. So too is the Crucifix. And the middle finger. And the Swastika. And the compressed chunks of carbon that millions wear on their ring fingers as expressions of timeless love and eternal devotion.
    It’s easy to make anything feel small and silly by reducing it to its chemical composition or its various component parts. But if you really believe our flag is nothing but a “mere symbol,” equally suitable for flying or burning, ask yourself if you’d be comfortable if the people you work with suddenly started coming to the office in pointy white hats fashioned from bedsheets? Would that be a problem for you? Or how about The Rainbow Flag, favored by the LGBTQ community? Would it be OK if people started burning that? If not, why not? I mean, it’s only a symbol, right?
    Years ago, an artist named Andres Serrano presented a charming piece called “Immersion.” It consisted of a Crucifix, immersed in a glass of the artist’s urine. Amazingly, some people were offended. Christians, in particular. They just couldn’t see that Andres was using a symbol to express himself. Silly Christians. Interesting though, that Andres didn’t submerge Mohammed in the same glass. I wonder why that is?
    The thing about “mere symbols” Susanne, is that they represent “mere ideas,” and “mere ideas” are the backbone of “mere humanity.” In the case of the flag, we’re talking about ideas that are wrapped into the Constitution – a document that separates us from every other country on the planet.
    Mere ideas are the reason people fight and die. Mere ideas are the reason we’re allowed to speak freely, protest publicly, bear arms, and burn the very symbol that represents those very freedoms. I didn’t suggest that you or anyone else be denied your right to fly or burn whatever flag you wish. What I failed to do, is quietly accept behavior I don’t care for. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is the same compulsion that motivates others to publicly express themselves in whatever ways they choose.

  4. These are the actions that divide the country even more, and will lead to the reelection of President Trump. Protesting is a right, but without a purpose and a goal they’re a waste of time and resources. Go ahead, burn the flag, occupy buildings and block highways. But don’t be too upset when Trump/Pence win reelection. Because that is what’s going to happen.

  5. I notice that the wonderful dumb ass liberals have no problem calling someone a “retard” which is hate speech against many persons with disabilities. That is their right under the First Amendment, as is burning a Flag, but it also shows how low-life they are,

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