Battle over Confederate flag erupts beneath Peace Light
By Jeffrey Lauck, Contributing Writer
On Saturday, March 5 hundreds of protesters gathered beneath the Eternal Peace Light Memorial in support of–and in opposition to–the Confederate flag. The Gettysburg chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans acquired a permit to hold a rally in support of the flag, prompting Gettysburg College history professor Dr. Scott Hancock to get a permit for a counter protest at the same time and place.
Roughly 20 anti-flag protesters, including a handful of Gettysburg College students and professors, met near the Abraham Lincoln statue outside Stevens Hall at 1 p.m. before heading to the rally. These protesters, led by Dr. Hancock, took this opportunity to prepare their message for the pro-flag demonstrators. Striving for a more holistic interpretation of the flag’s history, the demonstrators agreed with individuals’ First Amendment right to fly the flag but stressed that the flag has a history rooted in racism and oppression. The protesters posed for a picture next to the Lincoln statue before marching over a mile to the Eternal Peace Light Memorial on Oak Hill.
When the anti-flag protesters reached the Peace Light they were met by an unexpected group of other protesters who had also come to oppose the continued use of the Confederate flag. These protesters, dressed mostly in black and hiding their faces while flying black flags, were a collection of activists who had heard of the Confederate flag rally and organized their own counter-protest through Facebook. They came from all over the region–Baltimore, Frederick, Altoona, Carlisle, Reading, even Washington, D.C.–to protest against racial hatred and stand in solidarity with those who believe the flag is a symbol of oppression. This group, lacking a leader or a name, took to the megaphone to voice their opposition to the Confederate flag, often doing so with the use of expletives and vulgar language, much to the chagrin of many of the pro-flag demonstrators and other anti-flag protesters.
Altogether, about 50 people came out to protest the Confederate flag rally. “There’s a reason the KKK and Dylann Roof use that flag–it is because they know the history of that flag,” Dr. Hancock said at the protest; “If the Sons of Confederate Veterans would be honest and recognize that history and wanted to change the symbol that would be one thing. But that is not what they are doing.” An African American protester with the Facebook activist group said that she sees the Confederate flag as a symbol of hatred and oppression, not freedom. “I hope that one day we will not have to stand out against this. Someday, I just want to come here to enjoy the park,” she said with a laugh.
About 50 yards away the Sons of Confederate Veterans held their own rally in support of the flag. The group listened to speeches from members of the group and even broke out singing “Dixie” and shouting the “rebel yell” at one point. “This flag is a part of our nation’s history,” remarked one pro-flag demonstrator who attended the event dressed in a blue officer’s frock coat, portraying Union general John Newton. Another pro-flag demonstrator from Lynchburg, Virginia explained that he was there to celebrate his family’s heritage in the 29th Virginia infantry, a unit that served in the Confederate Army. “We want unity – not division,” he said. “That’s why we are under the Peace Light.”
At times, the protests seemed far from peaceful. At one point, chants of “Black Lives Matter” from the anti-flag protesters were answered with chants of “All Lives Matter” on the pro-flag side. Members of the Facebook activist group used their megaphones to shout phrases like “The South will not rise again! Your heritage is hate!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! Your racism has got to go!”
Following a violent demonstration by the Ku Klux Klan a few weeks ago in Anaheim that left 5 people in critical condition with stab wounds and other injuries, tensions were high for many of those present. “The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech for both groups,” said Chief Ranger Jeremy Murphy of the National Park Service. “We have two separate areas for the two groups to keep the demonstration peaceful. We also have federal law officers, Cumberland Township police, Pennsylvania State patrol and the Gettysburg Borough police here in case anything happens.”
In between the two barricades, an older woman stood flying an American flag that she said was her father’s burial flag. “My father served at Okinawa in World War II, and this is his flag,” she said. “I am here because we should be united. We are Americans first – we are Democrats, Republicans, Northerners and Southerners second.” She wanted demonstrators on both sides to remember that “this flag is why we are able to protest.”