Updated: Community and Country React

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Back to Article

Updated: Community and Country React

By Gregory Woolston

9/11 Protest

As Kyle Finck reported for the Campus earlier this week, “a 2,977 flag memorial was ripped out of the ground in front of Mead Memorial Chapel shortly before 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 11 by a group of five protestors claiming that the flags were on top of a sacred Abenaki burial site.” This coverage supplemented middbeat‘s original post, featuring the photograph above by middbeat‘s Rachel Kogan.

Both the community and country were quick to react through word and action.

A group of about ten students began replanting the flags in front of Mead Memorial Chapel by 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening; Anthea Viragh captured the photograph below from the reaction. Our upcoming issue (Issue 112, Number 2) will feature a story, gallery and podcast about these students and their effort to replace the memorial.

ReplantedFlags

Late Wednesday evening, middbeat stated that Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’15.5 had “come forward to confirm her involvement in disposing of the American flags.” The alternative news source posted the following statement by Shireman-Grabowski:

Today I, along with a group of non-Middlebury students, helped remove around 3,000 American flags from the grass by Mead Chapel. While I was not the only one engaged in this action and the decision was not solely mine, I am the one who will see you in the dining halls and in the classroom, and I want to take accountability for the hurt you may be feeling while clarifying the motivations for this action.

My intention was not to cause pain but to visibilize the necessity of honoring all human life and to help a friend heal from the violence of genocide that she carries with her on a daily basis as an indigenous person. While the American flags on the Middlebury hillside symbolize to some the loss of innocent lives in New York, to others they represent centuries of bloody conquest and mass murder. As a settler on stolen land, I do not have the luxury of grieving without an eye to power. Three thousand flags is a lot, but the campus is not big enough to hold a marker for every life sacrificed in the history of American conquest and colonialism.

The emails filling my inbox indicate that this was not a productive way to start a dialogue about American imperialism. Nor did I imagine that it would be. Please understand that I am grappling with my complicity in the overwhelming legacy of settler colonialism. Part of this process for me is honoring the feelings and wishes of people who find themselves on the other side of this history.

I wish to further clarify that members of the local Abenaki community should in no way be implicated in today’s events. Nor can I pretend to speak to their feelings about flags, burial sites, or 9/11.

Today I chose to act in solidarity with my friend, an Indigenous woman and a citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who was appalled to see the burial grounds of another Indigenous nation desecrated by piercing the ground that their remains lay beneath. I understand that this action is confusing and painful for many in my community. I don’t pretend to know if every action I take is right or justified—this process is multi-layered and nuanced. I do know that colonialism has been—and continues to be—a real and destructive force in the world that we live in. And for me, to honor life is to support those who struggle against it.

Please do not hesitate to email me or approach me if you wish to discuss this in person.

On Thursday morning, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz released the following statement to the Middlebury College Community:

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the horrific attack on our nation on September 11, 2001, a group of Middlebury students commemorated the loss of nearly 3,000 lives by placing American flags in front of Mead Chapel as they have done a number of times in the past. Sadly, a handful of people, at least some of them from our campus community, this year chose to desecrate those flags and disrespect the memories of those who lost their lives by pulling the flags from the ground and stuffing them in garbage bags.

We live in an academic community that fosters and encourages debate and discussion of difficult issues.  It is also a community that requires of all a degree of respect and civility that was seriously undermined and compromised by this selfish act of protest.

Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed by the insensitivity of this act.  Destruction of property and interfering with the rights of others to express themselves violates the standards of our community. The College has begun a disciplinary investigation of this incident.

There is always something to learn from differences of opinion.  In this case, the disrespectful methods of the protesters overshadowed anything that might have been learned from the convictions they claimed to promote.  We will not tolerate this kind of behavior.

On Thursday evening, a second protester named Amanda Lickers released a statement on Climate Connections, stating that she helped remove the flags from the grass. Lickers gave her reasoning in the posted statement:

i am a young onkwehon:we, a woman, a member of the turtle clan and the onondowa’ga nation of the haudenosaunee confederacy. i have been doing my best to be true to the responsibilities i have inherited through the gift of life, and the relationships i must honour to my ancestors and all our relatives.

for over 500 years our people have been under attack. the theft of our territories, the devastation of our waters; the poisoning of our people through the poisoning of our lands; the theft of our people from our families; the rape of our children; the murder of our women; the sterilization of our communities; the abuse of our generations; the
uprooting of our ancestors and the occupation of our sacred sites; the silencing of our songs; the erasure of our languages and memories of our traditions

i have had enough.

yesterday i went to occupied abenaki territory. i was invited to middlebury college to facilitate a workshop on settler responsibility and decolonization. i walked across this campus whose stone wall structures weigh heavy on the landscape. the history of eugenics, genocide and colonial violence permeate that space so fully like a ghost everywhere descending. it was my understanding that this site is occupying an abenaki burial ground; a sacred site.

walking through the campus i saw thousands of small american flags. tho my natural disdain for the occupying colonial state came to surface, in the quickest moment of decision making, in my heart, i understood that lands where our dead lay must not be desecrated. in my community, we do not pierce the earth. it disturbs the spirits there, it is important for me to respect their presence, their want for rest.

my heart swelled and i knew in my core that thousands of american flags should not penetrate the earth where my abenaki brothers and sisters sleep. we have all survived so much – and as a visitor on their territories i took action to respect them and began pulling up all of the flags.

i was with 4 non-natives who supported me in this action. there were so many flags staking the earth and their hands helped make this work faster. this act of support by my friends, as settlers, tho small was healing and inspiring. we put them away in black garbage bags and i was confronted by a nationalistic-settler, a young white boy who attends the college demanding i relinquish the flags to him. i held my ground and
confiscated them. i did not want to cave to his support of the occupying, settler-colonial, imperalist state, and the endorsing of the genocide of indigenous peoples across the world.

it is the duty of the college of middlebury to consult with abenaki peoples and repatriate their grounds.

yesterday i said no to settler occupation. i took those flags. it is a small reclamation and modest act of resistance.

in the spirit of resilience, in the spirit of survival

Throughout Thursday and Friday, the story gained national attention with various articles appearing on the Addison EagleBurlington Free Press, Business InsiderCBSDaily CallerFox Nation,  Indian Country Today Media Network, Inside Higher EdTimes Argus, University Herald, and WCAX, in addition to a number of blogs, such as Breitbart. Many articles were filled with comments, condemning the protestors’ actions. Further, WPTZ posted a video about the incident, while both the Huffington Post and Addison County Independent reached out to the College and community for additional comments.

Amanda Scherker wrote for the Huffington Post:

That said, Middlebury does not seem to have proof that the memorial had been placed on top of a burial site.

“It has never before been suggested that this is a Native American burial ground,” Sarah Ray, the school’s director of public affairs, told The Huffington Post via email.

Zach Despart at the Addison County Independent published the “Abenaki Response”:

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, called the vandalism “disgusting,” and believes the protestors were acting to promote their own political beliefs.

“We didn’t know anything about this and if we had we certainly wouldn’t have sanctioned it,” Stevens said.

He said that Abenakis do not publicize the locations of their burial sites in order to protect them, and that he has no knowledge of any such sites on the Middlebury campus. Stevens said that even if the site of the memorial had been a burial site, the American flags placed in the earth would not have been a desecration.

“Our burial sites honor our warriors and their bravery,” Stevens said. “Putting flags in the earth to honor bravery would not be disrespectful.”

Stevens served in the U.S. Army; his father fought in Korea and his son served in Iraq as a member of the National Guard.

On Friday evening, the College announced a series of events on “protest and civility” planned for next week. The announcement states, “the occasion for these meetings is the destruction of the 9/11 memorial earlier this week, but our larger purpose will be to consider together the responsibilities we have as an academic community to treat one another with respect and tolerance, even as we pursue political and social agendas that sometimes divide us.”

The various sessions are as follows:

  • Professor of Religion Larry Yarbrough on Monday, Sept. 16 at 8:00 p.m. in the Mitchell Green Lounge at McCullough Social Space
  • Professor of American Studies and Director of the Center for the Comparative Study for Race and Ethnicity Roberto Lint Sagarena on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 12:00 p.m. in Carr Hall Lounge
  • Professor of Religion James Calvin Davis on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in Carr Hall Lounge
  • Chaplain Laurie Jordan on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 4:30 p.m. at the Scott Center
  • Professor of Environmental Studies Rebecca Kneale Gould on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 4:30 p.m. in Coltrane Lounge
  • Professor of Political Science Erik Bleich on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 8:30 p.m. in the Mitchell Green Lounge at McCullough Social Space
  • Professor of Economics and Faculty Director of the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship Jon Isham and Professor of Geography Kacy McKinney on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 4:30 p.m. at the Scott Center

On Monday, Sept. 16 Ben Kinney ’15, co-president of College Republicans, wrote to the Campus, “I just got an email from Public Safety that two boxes containing all of the stolen flags were just dropped off at their door anonymously.”

On Monday, Sept. 23 the Student Government Association Senate released the following statement:

We condemn the method of protest utilized on September 11th outside of Mead Chapel. We believe it was highly disrespectful, destructive and in violation of the the Student Handbook’s policy on respect and community standards. We support the administration’s decision to pursue disciplinary action.

Many members of our campus community, including members of the SGA, have lasting and painful memories from that horrific September morning in 2001. These members viewed the protest as a highly offensive act. Whatever one’s feelings towards American policy and this country’s history, the lives lost on September 11th were those of innocent individuals.

The Senate also condemns the disrespectful, hateful and violent speech exchanged in the wake of the 9/11 flag protest. Much of this speech came from outside of the campus community. But some discussions on campus included unnecessarily malicious and personal attacks. This practice is also disrespectful, destructive and in violation of the the Student Handbook’s policy on respect and community standards.

Protest as a practice encourages valuable debate. Protest enables the exchange of critical ideas, the altering of opinions, and, eventually, change and progress. But as with all things, there are lines that one should not cross. We, as leaders of the campus community, want to foster a forum for productive exchange and dialogue. The protest on September 11th has absolutely no place in this forum. It is our hope that the student body will rise above the malicious actions and speech that have permeated our campus in the last two weeks and create an environment that fosters effective and respectful discourse in our community.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. – Martin Luther King Jr.

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