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Confederate flag at parade draws ire

Letters of complaint sent to Ebensburg Borough Council

EBENSBURG — A group of Ebensburg citizens drawn together by their common outrage over a Confederate flag’s appearance during a Memorial Day parade has attracted national attention through an online petition, which seeks to prohibit its future appearance at borough events.

Asked how seeing the Confederate flag made her feel, a black resident said, “It’s like a PTSD response. Whenever I see that flag, I feel fear. I want to get as far away from that person as possible. I know that person is not my friend. I feel tremendous anxiety. I know that person hates who I am.”

The online petition was organized by resident Raquel Lemelle after letters of complaint to the borough drew little response.

Council member Scot May brought the letters up for discussion at a June 8 meeting to discuss the pool.

“The meeting almost ended, and I asked if we were going to discuss the complaints, and I was met with silence. No one said one word. I was met with absolute silence and that angered me,” he said.

Those letter writers and a dozen other borough residents formed The Ebensburg Diversity Group, said resident and member Chris Miller.

Also, the residents would like to see a Diversity Commission formed by council to promote inclusivity. Lemelle said she has contacted the local Anti-Defamation League and the group believes borough officials and local police could benefit from workshops they provide.

The Ebensburg Diversity Group doesn’t believe it is a freedom of speech issue.

“We are not saying someone can’t fly that flag in their yard. We don’t think it should be part of any borough event. … I’m tired of the silence. That flag should not be in a family-friendly event,” Miller said, adding Ebensburg officials shouldn’t want to protect “people who are spreading hate.”

The Mirror talked with several group members, some of whom are white, some black and some of mixed race. The black borough residents wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

Another black resident said his experiences “growing up black” show the Confederate flag is a hate symbol and a means of intimidation.

“I feel fear for my family’s safety,” he said.

Annalisa McCann said the flag’s appearance has prompted much discussion between her and her two children. Her parents taught her as a young child that the Confederate flag and racial slurs were wrong, and she is imparting that wisdom to her children.

Such conversations are needed, group members said and a Diversity Commission would be a start. The borough has several such boards and commissions, for recreation, zoning and sustainability that research topics and make recommendations for action.

May said he would also like borough officials to apologize for what happened at the parade.

“An apology would do so much … it would help toward healing,” he said.

May and group members feel the town hall scheduled next week is unnecessary as they and more than 200 residents have expressed their views through the petition. So far, nearly 2,000 people have signed the petition, with 12 percent of signatures from borough residents; 13 percent live within a 30-minute drive of Ebensburg; and 66 percent from across the country.

Council has advertised the nonvoting “town hall meeting” to be held at 6:30 p.m. next Wednesday in the Community Room of the Municipal Building, 300 W. High St.

“We don’t want to take action until we understand how our residents feel about it. We want to give people an opportunity to share their concerns. We also want to share information on the First Amendment. We felt it would be better to allot more time to it and handle it as a single topic,” Tusing said Wednesday. “We don’t want to ignore it. It is a very relevant issue at this point in time. It’s important to not let it go.”

Council, Tusing said, is also waiting on an opinion from its solicitor and will share that information at the town hall. He noted it is the first time the Confederate flag has appeared at a parade and an unidentified man who is not a borough resident drove a vintage farm tractor that displayed the Confederate flag alongside the U.S. flag.

Danea Koss, director of the Main Street Program, said this year’s parade was impacted by coronavirus restrictions. She helped promote the parade and people were asked to register their participation. However, the person on the tractor did not.

Despite attempts, the Mirror could not independently identify the man on the tractor.

Speech protected

Stephen Ross, a Penn State professor of Law at University Park, said in an email, “In most of the world, hate speech is not constitutionally protected, but in a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held that speech that has the purpose or effect of promoting racial hatred cannot be distinguished from other forms of speech under the First Amendment unless it falls in a narrow category of harassment or creating imminent violence.”

Residents against the Confederate flag would be within their rights to “counter-protest against the use of the flag,” Ross said.

He noted that if the parade is organized by a private party, a ban on the Confederate flag would be allowed “providing that there was some other means for the individual wishing to fly the flag of our former enemy to express their hateful views,” Ross stated. “Unless Cambria County is much different than Centre County, far more of its sons were killed by those bearing the Confederate flag than those bearing the Nazi flag.”

Ross compared it to a Labor Day parade organized by a union group. The pro-union group could bar anti-union posters from the parade because other means of expression exist.

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