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Flags Become a Flashpoint in Local Culture Wars

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May 17, 2022

By Barrett Seaman–

Every now and again, tensions rise to the surface between the rivertowns’ uniformed police and firefighters on the one hand and an increasingly progressive citizenry and their elected officials on the other. Beginning with the murder of George Floyd in June of 2020, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, which in turn spawned a Back the Blue pro-police countermovement, followed by protracted examinations of police-community relations by Police Reform and Reimagination committees, emotions have been running on the high side.

This year, the stress lines have come wrapped in flags—specifically American flags artistically elaborated to convey respect for police officers and firefighters injured or killed in the line of duty. They became a common sight on fire trucks and outside firehouses around Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown.

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One faction’s symbol of respect, however, is read by the other as an in-your-face, “We’re more American than you are” challenge against “woke” politics.

In February, the issue came to a head in Sleepy Hollow when Mayor Ken Wray ordered the removal of an Amer­i­can flag em­bell­ished with one stripe, di­vided half blue and half red, to sym­bol­ize fallen po­lice and fire­fight­ers. The order was based on a Board of Trustees’ vote last sum­mer to ban the dis­play of unau­tho­rized “sym­bols, im­ages, ob­jects, words or phrases” on vil­lage-owned prop­erty, in­clud­ing ve­hi­cles. (see https://thehudsonindependent.com/sleepy-hollow-firefighters-push-back-on-flag-display-ban/).

At the next Trustee meeting, some 50 firemen and their supporters packed the boardroom in sullen, arms-folded protest. Speaking on their behalf was John Stiloski, owner of the Tarrytown-based towing service, whose remarks made it clear that this was not just about flags; it was about the culture wars over “American values.”

In Tarrytown, the same issue simmered rather than boiled to the surface. On January 18th, Village Administrator Richard Slingerland wrote the Fire Department’s chiefs noting that the Riverside Fire House behind Village Hall was flying a flag much like the one in Sleepy Hollow, contravening village law that states “No flags that resemble the American flag but with additional markings or stripes are allowed on Village buildings or equipment.”

The issue—and the reaction—was a virtual repeat of what had happened in Sleepy Hollow. Firemen and their supporters began showing up at Village Board meetings, culminating at the May 16thsession, which opened with a celebration of National Police Appreciation Week. A proclamation was read. Mayor Karen Brown and each of the other six Trustees read aloud the names of all 34 officers, from Chief John Barbalet through the newest parking enforcement officer, as applause rang out.

The Chief was diplomatic and gracious in response, but as subsequent speakers rose to address the Board, criticism of Trustees—one called out by name—began to creep into their remarks. One retired police officer berated the Trustees, calling them “disgraceful” for not stopping as they came into Village Hall to acknowledge a prayer vigil underway for fallen officers.

Once again, John Stiloski stood to speak on behalf of those in uniform, whom he praised lavishly and described as if they were regularly under threat and forced to make instant life or death decisions on the job. “I’ve heard trustees say they want to softly arm [officers], dress then down,” he said. “I want to give them bigger guns. I want them to take the threat right away from me.”

Reciting a litany of affronts against Tarrytown police, 36-year resident Tina Bellino said, “If you believe your actions as a board during the last few weeks doesn’t contribute to the blatant disrespect for our police, you are sorely mistaken.”

Mayor Brown and the Trustees listened in silence, as there was little to be gained from engaging in a public debate. Having duly celebrated National Police Appreciation Week, they moved on to more mundane matters of village life: an announcement of street closures for repaving, a public hearing on proposed legislation to streamline the licensing process to permit alcohol consumption at Pierson Park during events, approval to purchase of a new street sweeper and 19 other agenda items.

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