Jim Kenyon: Fireworks as flags fly in Hartford

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/25/2022 9:39:05 PM
Modified: 6/25/2022 9:38:35 PM

Early on during Hartford Selectboard meetings, the seven members are each given a few minutes to talk about whatever is on their minds.

At the most recent meeting on June 14, Kim Souza, the board’s longest-serving member, used her time to set off another skirmish in the culture wars.

Souza questioned the appropriateness of allowing American Legion Post 84 to put more than two dozen American flags on street light poles in town. The 3-by-5 flags, paid for by Post 84, went up around Memorial Day and are scheduled to remain until Veterans Day in November.

Such a prominent display of patriotism on public roads is “not a welcome sight for everyone,” Souza said at the board meeting, which aired on CATV.

The American flag is “not necessarily a symbol that everyone relates to and admires,” she added.

In these highly polarized times, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Souza’s comments set off social media fireworks. (CATV’s meeting recordings are available on YouTube, so it didn’t take long for word to spread.)

Souza has “no business representing the people of Hartford,” a resident posted on the town Listserv. “If the American flag is so repulsive to her or anyone else, they should do themselves and the rest of us a favor and move somewhere that is more amenable to their way of thinking.”

One overwrought resident even went as far as claiming Souza’s remarks were “bordering on treason.”

Souza, who was first elected in 2018, responded in an online post last week, writing she knew her comments would be “offensive to some people.”

It’s important, however, to acknowledge the flag isn’t a source of pride for all Americans, Souza said. To some Indigenous people, for example, the flag “may be a blatant reminder that their lands were stolen and colonized and that they have been underserved by this country ever since,” she posted on her Hartford Selectboard Facebook page.

Souza is OK with displaying the flags on public property during federal holidays “dedicated to our country’s military service members.” But she doesn’t support the “volume of flags waving on poles along our main roadways” for months at a time, she wrote.

To Souza’s way of thinking, the flag exhibit doesn’t take into consideration the “impacts on those who may feel uncomfortable and even intimidated by the exaggerated presence of a national symbol which has been co-opted and weaponized to symbolize a nationalistic ideology beyond radical fringe groups.”

In her post, Souza linked to a 2019 Time essay about the experiences of four Black Americans during their bicycle trip through rural Pennsylvania. “The less Black people, the more flags,” author Damon Young wrote. “The more flags, the less welcome we felt at restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.”

On Wednesday, I stopped by Souza’s clothing boutique in downtown White River Junction. She was good enough to take time away from customers to talk with me about her comments and the backlash.

She also shared a handwritten note that she’d just received. “Thank you for starting the uncomfortable conversations,” a woman wrote.

In the days leading up to the June 14 meeting, Souza wrestled with what to say — if anything, she told me. But after hearing from several residents who were as puzzled as she was about the flags going up this spring, she felt the urge to speak out.

“I did not ask for the flags to be taken down, but there needed to be an acknowledgment that it’s not a welcoming symbol for everyone,” she said.

Before the meeting — and when she was still thinking about asking the flags be removed — Souza consulted former Selectboard member Dennis Brown, who belongs to Post 84 and helped erect the flags. “Dennis talked me off the ledge,” she said.

Looking back, town officials, including Souza, could have done a better job of communicating how the flag exhibit came about.

Post 84 has been working for several years to gain the town’s approval and also for Green Mountain Power, which owns the lamp poles, to give permission. (Post 84 is named after Lance Cpl. Jeffery Holmes, a 20-year-old Marine who was killed in combat in Iraq in 2004. Holmes had graduated from Hartford High School a year earlier.)

His parents, Patti and Scott, were instrumental in arranging the placement of the 28 flags. Scott handled the paperwork, getting Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis to sign off shortly before Memorial Day. But the “installation of the flags is not in honor of the death of our son,” Patti Holmes clarified in response to Souza’s Facebook post last week.

Post 84 is “trying to promote patriotism,” she said.

Scott Holmes was among a half dozen Post 84 members who spent a recent Saturday erecting an array of flags that would make even Betsy Ross proud.

Starting just below the roundabout at Sykes Mountain Avenue, the flags run along Route 5 South and continue across the bridge that leads to Route 4, stretching past the Hartford Municipal Building.

As strange as it sounds, I think some good can come out of the flag flap.

At the Holmeses’ request, Souza met with them last week in a downtown park. I wasn’t there, but I think it’s fair to assume the Holmeses made their feelings known.

“I didn’t figure a public official would come out like this,” Scott Holmes, who served in the Air Force for four years, told me. “The flag is not meant to divide us. It’s meant to unite us.”

Before leaving the park, he invited Souza to an upcoming Post 84 meeting. She accepted. “We’ll be civil and give her a chance to speak her piece,” Holmes said.

On Tuesday, the Holmeses plan to join others at the first Selectboard meeting since Souza made her comments. “It’s good to see people get involved,” Scott Holmes said.

He’s right. As long as everyone keeps their cool, it could be healthy for people with differing viewpoints to come together in the Selectboard’s meeting room.

A room, by the way, that has its own American flag.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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