Last night, amid the usual smattering of dog walkers and runners in Fort Greene Park, a band of activists led by anarchist group Disarm the NYPD gathered in front of the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, a Revolutionary War memorial. In the wake of the massacre that killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, they were there to burn Confederate and American flags in protest of racism, arguing that both flags symbolize white supremacy.
Though hundreds of activists were expected to show up at the park with flags to burn, having been called to “BYOF” (Bring Your Own Flag), the actual turnout was a measly 20 or so demonstrators. They were far outnumbered by a frenzied group of patriotic counter-protesters proudly waving American flags, including one woman who sat at the foot of the war monument singing “God Bless America” over and over. Ultimately, what was slated to be an anarchic red-white-and-blue bonfire turned into its opposite–a rally of U.S. army veterans and supporters loudly declaring their love for their country (“America is free! She’s a female and she’s a reporter! This country is free!” yelled one man in an American flag-printed shirt, pointing at me.)
In the week leading up to the event, the group’s announcement of the American flag-burning had sparked a media frenzy, with Fox News calling it a possible “precursor to terror.” A single star-spangled banner was burned: As a man lowered it onto a portable grill, the audience called out names of victims of police brutality. But before the flag fully ignited, counter-protesters a few members of Bay Ridge’s notorious Hallowed Sons Motorcycle Club charged towards the protesters. One counter-protesters, John Carroll of Ridgewood, Queens, kicked over the grill and picked up the charred flag as the demonstrators fled. “Hey punk, come on back now, come on you piece of shit, you fucking coward,” he called after them.
One U.S. army veteran, Benjamin Christopher, 29, said that he’d been at the gym when he’d seen an uproar on his Facebook news feed about the flag-burning event. “I immediately ran here to try to stop it,” he said. “Burning the flag should be illegal.”