After publicly declaring they would burn the Confederate and American flags, a group of protesters set both symbols on fire Wednesday evening, but it was the torching of the latter — the Stars and Stripes — that ended up creating a chaotic scene.
Just after 7:30PM, about 20 demonstrators, some of whom were from Disarm the NYPD, made their way towards the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument, a Revolutionary War memorial in Fort Greene Park. Minutes earlier I had a conversation with Marvin Knight, a 72-year-old African American man who said he lives in the area and supports the action. “I’m glad they are burning it. It needs to be burned,” he said calmly. “Europeans came to America and killed off the Indians, enslaved the black people and they’re still are reaping the benefits from it.”
Activists posted up near the grand steps of the monument that leads to the towering Doric column standing over the site. Surrounded by supporters and photographers, two masked protesters began preparing their makeshift fire pit. They pulled a Masterbuilt portable grill out of a heavy duty IKEA shopping bag.
As an unmarked police car and Parks Department officers kept a watchful eye from a distance, the two men — one sporting a red bandana the other decked out in a black and white keffiyeh — used a lighter to ignite the Confederate battle flag. “Burn it, burn it,” chanted a few people. As it caught fire, the crowd cheered and the snapping of camera shutters could be heard. For the most part, the controversial flag burned without any recourse. The same couldn’t be said of the U.S. flag.
At first it seemed as if Parks Department personnel were going to step in and shut down the protest as its contingent of officers approached the small blaze, but then they were ordered to “stand down.”
Meanwhile, the person carrying the American flag seemed to be having serious second thoughts. The tall lanky man with dreads pulled the flag out of his backpack and dropped it on the steps behind some of his colleagues and told them to burn it. He muttered something about about not having a face covering and how “antagonists” are headed into the park towards the monument with “hammers in their pockets.” This news frightened off a small first wave of protesters, but not the young man who who initially lit up the rebel flag. He took custody of the Stars and Stripes and threw it onto the small barbeque. As it caught fire, the crowd recited names of police brutality victims.
Suddenly, a large middle-aged man rolled up and stomped on the flag to put out the flames. He tried to pick up burning fragments of it and this enraged him more. An activist in the distance could be heard saying, “Guys, let’s fucking go.”
The man responded, “Hey punk, come back now. C’mon you piece of shit. You fucking coward.” Just then, a menacing-looking member of the notorious Hallowed Sons motorcycle club came crashing through the immediate crowd, asking “Who did it? Who did it?”
When a protester bravely responded, “we all did,” he was shoved to the ground and surrounded by men in custom leather jackets emblazoned with the Hallowed Sons insignia on the back. The NYPD intervened and separated both sides. “Yo, put him on the Gothamist,” said a protester about the man who pushed his buddy.
Moments later, another scuffle broke out between bikers and protesters. And then another. At the same time, more and more flag supporters started showing up. Soon they outnumbered the activists. One man carried a giant flag and stood at the base of the monument with his dog. An older woman took position just off to his side and started singing an off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
Although it seemed that the Hallowed Sons had chased off most of the original group that had burned the flag, there was still some holdouts left like Jose LaSalle, a member of the Copwatch Patrol Unit. He refused to back down to the bikers and shot video (embedded below) of the back and forth between himself and the bikers.
As I made my way across the plaza, there was a visibly shaken veteran in his 30s with a flag tucked neatly under his arm. I asked him about the melee and he handed me a business card and asked to call him later. “Right now it’s a pretty tense time over here,” he said. Later, I saw him consoling another vet, who was crying. He asked the camera people to please give them some space.
For the next 15 minutes or so, the monument took on the form of a spectacle as the last of the protester mingled with reporters, police, Parks officers, bikers, and some very ardent supporters of the flag. I spoke to one man with a super soaker draped around his shoulders. He said he was from South Carolina and was there to extinguish any burning flags. When asked if he supported setting the rebel flag on fire, he replied, “I don’t support any of it.” He paused, looked at me and said, “I support racism.”