Despite the uproar over the Berkeley Fire Department’s decision to remove U.S. flags from its trucks prior to a UC Berkeley anti-war demonstration Thursday, the protest was peaceful and rigs were not deployed to the campus. Officials who had been concerned that peace demonstrators might take down or destroy the flags said miscommunication to the press had overblown the issue.
Assistant Fire Chief David Orth said the problem was the size of the flags in question. Large flagpole-sized flags, attached to the trucks after last week’s terrorist attacks, “presented a hazard,” he said. Orth confirmed the department is looking for smaller flags of a “reasonable size” for the trucks.
Mayor Shirley Dean expressed her opposition to the decision to remove the flags in a statement released Thursday. “Our country, its citizens, and its constitution have been attacked. This is a time when our firefighters need to be able to express their respect for the firefighters who gave their lives in New York,” it read.
City Councilmember Kriss Worthington was also outraged about the department’s decision. “It’s sending the wrong message for people mourning and in a state of grief,” he said. “The possibility of protesters destroying the flag, he said, “is no reason for them not to display the sympathy for thousands of people who have died.”
Worthington wore a stars-and-stripes necktie to the UC protest. Earlier in the day, he and Councilmember Linda Maio – both known as progressives – sent a request to the city manager asking him to override the department’s decision.
“We had some experience during the Gulf War where people hopped up on the rigs to take the big flags down, and that puts firefighters at a disadvantage,” said Stephanie Lopez, spokesperson in the city manager’s office. “We’re looking for a smaller flag that could go on the rigs.”
Barbara Wittstock, a resident of North Berkeley, marched into the city manager’s office to complain. “If 300 firemen and police officers have given their lives to rescue people, there’s no reason why they can’t exhibit any size flag under any circumstances,” she told the receptionist. “They ought to be wearing two flags, not one.”
Wittstock said she was frustrated with “radical fanatics” in Berkeley, and suggested jailing those who would attack the flag on a fire truck.
Orth said that an unidentified employee of the fire department had called the press anonymously Wednesday to complain about the decision to remove the flags. The employee was probably upset, Orth said, “because of stress and the patriotic fever we all feel.” But now, he said, the firefighters understand the decision was designed to ensure they could do their job safely rather than having to “protect the flag while doing a rescue.”
At past demonstrations, the Berkeley Fire Department has put out fires set by demonstrators or intervened in medical emergencies. The department readied four extra companies for Thursday’s protest, said Assistant Chief Michael Migliore. But no rigs were dispatched.
Anti-war protesters at Thursday’s rally, said they didn’t think anyone would attack the flag, even if the rigs were present. “It’s not a likely scenario,” said Shoshana Weiner, a health educator who lives in Berkeley. “Most people who are here are here because they believe that peaceful democratic action is more effective and meaningful than violence.”
“Even though personally I object to the flag as a symbol of the U.S. empire, I doubt there is danger that people would rip down flags,” said Aaron Aarons, a retired Berkeley resident.
But Kelly Nordli of the Berkeley College Republicans had another view.
“Of course it’s likely,” he said, describing himself as a “counter-protester.” No one attacked the numerous U.S. flags his group was carrying.