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Sleepy Hollow Firefighters Push Back on Flag Display Ban

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February 9, 2022

By Barrett Seaman—

The culture wars came to Sleepy Hollow’s Village Hall on Tuesday night, February 8. Some 50 members of the village’s volunteer fire department and their supporters lined the back of the room and used the public comments portion of the meeting to question the Board of Trustees’ decision last summer to ban the display of unauthorized “symbols, images, objects, words or phrases” on village-owned property, including vehicles.

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The immediate trigger for their indignation was a demand by Mayor Wray that the fire department remove an American flag embellished with one stripe, divided half blue and half red, to symbolize fallen police and firefighters. The flag, which Fire Chief John Korzelius says has been hanging from the back of one of the department’s fire trucks for two years, violates a village ordinance, enacted into law last July 27th. The law is aimed at blocking symbols that can be interpreted as favoring one cause or another. Exceptions must be authorized by the Board of Trustees.

The ban, passed unanimously at a summer meeting with few if any residents in attendance, was prompted by the discovery that a village employee had a confederate battle flag in a village-owned vehicle he was driving. That matter was handled administratively, but the village attorney advised the Board that if they wanted to avoid a repeat, they needed to spell out what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

Last fall, more than three months after the ban’s passage, Chief Korzelius says the department received a memo from the Village Administrator informing them that they must remove the flag and, if they wanted it reinstated, they must apply for a waiver. In a subsequent letter requesting that waiver, Korzelius defended the flag, writing that it reflected more than the “thin blue line” deemed by many progressives as a rightwing meme; its red line, he pointed out, symbolized support for fallen firefighters. “We understand that the thin blue line flag may be viewed as controversial,” the Chief wrote, “but we want to use it as a way to begin the conversation and to foster a new sense of unity and togetherness.”

“The issue is not that it is an American flag,” Mayor Wray contends, but rather that it is not an American flag. “I’m a traditionalist,” says Wray. “You don’t mess with the American flag. You can’t take the stars out and put a peace sign in there,” (or, by inference, throw in extra stripes in support of a particular subgroup).

In Wray’s view, shared by many progressives, the Thin Blue Line and Blue Lives Matter causes “have morphed into something highly political”—particularly because they gained momentum in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement that at its peak in 2020 embraced a lot of anti-cop rhetoric deemed offensive by many uniformed officers and their supporters. That was certainly evident locally in the summer of 2020, when a “Back the Blue” rally in Patriots Park drew a counter Black Lives Matter rally fueled largely by impassioned Sleepy Hollow High School students.

At Tuesday’s Trustee meeting, John Stiloski, owner of the eponymous towing company based in Tarrytown and a vocal supporter of local police, made reference to “300 of our school kids” laying down at a rally and calling the police pigs. “Something’s being said or being spread when you’ve got a whole class laying on the grass cursing our police,” he said.

In rambling remarks, Stiloski, who is not a member of any fire department himself, tied that incident to the decision to fly a “Tree City USA” banner on the same Village Hall pole with the Stars and Stripes, implying that the left was complicit in a misguided effort to create parity between environmentalism and patriotism and hence a general disrespect for “American values.”

In this hyper-extended divide, the Sleepy Hollow Board of Trustees must soon decide whether to grant the fire department a waiver to display its “memorial flag” with extra stripes or, if not, to work with them to find another way to honor the fallen on a background other than Old Glory. And if they do grant a waiver, both sides agree that they must then find a new line to separate what might actually “foster a new sense of unity and togetherness,” as Chief Korzelius proposed, from that which will only deepen the current political chasm.

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