In the first few hours of Sunday, Sept. 11, students at Occidental College dismantled and snapped the 2,997 American flags that were assembled by the Occidental Conservative Club to memorialize those who lost lives during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93. Since these events, the college has become subject to an international media frenzy. The Occidental Weekly offers an insider’s glance as students, alumni and staff weigh in on these events, providing a diverse range of perspectives, reactions and responses.
Complex interpretations of the meaning of the U.S. flag, memorializing and 9/11
In planting the flags to memorialize 9/11, members of the the Occidental Conservative Club stated that their intent was apolitical. According to their Facebook post, their intention was to place each flag as a direct representation of a life lost on that day.
“It [the memorial] could have been executed in a way to sort of highlight conservatism and conservative values, but we, because it was up to us, chose to make this apolitical and an event that would engage people from all sides, or both sides, of the political spectrum,” Alan Bliss (sophomore), president and cofounder of the Occidental Conservative Club, said.
The American flag has been widely used to memorialize the tragic events of 9/11 and was not specific to the Occidental Conservative Club’s memorial. The event was sponsored by The Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization that has funded nearly identical memorials across the country as part of the the 9/11: Never Forget Project. The 9/11 memorial in New York City also offers a limited program to fly American flags over the One World Trade memorial upon request.
“I did not foresee, anticipate, think or even imagine that the flags and the memorial would create dissent,” said Occidental Senior Philanthropic Advisor and Executive Director of Principal Gifts Mitchell Spearman, who is the advisor to the Occidental Conservative Club.
Others on campus, however, were troubled by the nature of the memorial. Some students have emphasized that the United States should not separate the horror and loss of life on 9/11 from the horrors and loss of life that followed during the War on Terror. These students believe that the sole use of the American flag oversimplifies the memorialization of 9/11.
“The main thing I’ve found is that the American flag symbolizes something that I will never fully be able to amalgamate into, something I have to work around. I could not build my identities into the flag as a Muslim and an Arab. I think [the American flag] forced me to recognize the politics of my existence at a very young age,” Karim Sharif (junior) said.
While the protesters disagreed with the choice to use flags to honor the victims of 9/11, no one interviewed took issue with memorializing 9/11 itself.
Claire Strohm (junior), co-founder of Occidental Conservative Club, explained how her family history and her family’s involvement in the military has shaped her personal view of the flag.
“The American flag, to me at least, is a symbol to so many veterans in my family, so many people like that who have helped to serve our country.” Strohm said. “Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II, so I’ve had a lot of connections to that.”
Students who belong neither to the Occidental Conservative Club nor the Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) had various reactions to both the memorial and its destruction.
“I would have loved to have seen a diversity of flags because there was definitely a diversity of people who died in that event … but I think it’s also equally triggering to see flags commemorating people — families and loved ones you lost — in the trash,” a senior who wished to remain anonymous said.
Furthermore, the debate and self-reflection stirred by these events has spread beyond simply the student body at Occidental.
“I feel pride when I see the flag. It reminds me of our country, but I would say that over the years I can see how the flag could mean different things to different people,” said Tamara Himmelstein, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Life. “I can definitely appreciate for instance, how maybe American Indians feel about the American Flag and just how our history as a country has been plagued by social injustices.”
David Pino ‘14, a founding member of CODE who writes about social justice issues online, expressed his indifference about the flag.
“As a citizen born and raised here, I’ve never cared if folks burned, defecated, or defaced the stars and stripes. It’s just a piece of cloth,” Pino said.
Alma Olavarría Gallegos (sophomore), a CODE member who did not participate in the protest but empathized with its intentions, explained why the flag is problematic to her.
“I don’t really care much for the American flag. The United States continues to colonize the world in many formal and informal ways.” Gallegos said. “The history of the United States is written on the flag, represented by it. I would rather not exist next to it in general.”
Bliss also drew on notions of the nuances and inevitable subjectivity of symbolic meaning, yet viewed it from a Conservative angle.
“When I see the flags, I see a life, a life lost in Sept. 11,” Bliss said. “Of course, when they [those who took down the flags] see the flags, they see hate. There are many different ways to see a symbol. You look at a painting, and fifty different people can have fifty different interpretations. There’s not one right interpretation.”
Connection to nation, institution
Conflict over the symbolism of the American flag is certainly not confined to Occidental’s small campus. The use of the flag in the memorial and the subsequent protest paralleled a broader national conversation about the meaning of patriotism. In this year’s presidential race, both sides have repeatedly made reference to what it means to be an American.
On the one hand, Republican candidate Donald Trump has run under the slogan of “make America great again,” which implies that the United States was of higher quality in the past and that he would resurrect historical glories and values.
A trending hashtag, #NotMyAmerica, opposes the Trump point of view, revealing the desire by many who live in the United States to detach themselves from the American identity or to define their Americanism more pluralistically.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has countered Trump’s slogan by asserting that “America has never stopped being great” in speeches and that the American people must look to the future, rather than the past, for answers on how to improve the country’s society.
To explain his view of the protest of the 9/11 memorial on campus, Sharif referenced the recent national outrage at NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who knelt during the national anthem .
“I have never seen anyone pause and consider [Kaepernick]’s perspectives. I have seen people move towards total solidarity or calling for him to be practically arrested,” Sharif said.
Sharif suggested that the lack of communication and understanding between the Occidental Conservative Club and the protesters parallels the discussion of Kaepernick’s action.
The protests not only echo the presidential election and Kaepernick’s protest activity, but also a general discussion around the country on the role of colleges and universities in political diversity.
Spearman worried about the impact of aggressive polarization at a school where the majority of students identify as Democrats or uphold liberal values.
“Personally, I have wondered, what does it mean to be a conservative, and to have a conservative voice as a college student at a place like Occidental,” Spearman said.
Not only did the Sept. 11 incident reflect national trends regarding university political environments, but also recalled past events, in particular, the protest of Condoleeza Rice April 22, 2016. While not organized by the same people, the messages of both protests aligned. Both actions sought to bring to light the assertion that the United States does not work for all citizens equally, especially citizens of color.
Response by media outlets and reactions
In the two days immediately following the protest of the 9/11 memorial on the academic quad, local, national and even international news outlets picked up the story, fueling an intense social media response from outside of the Occidental community.
While many news sources did cover the story, they were unable to speak with any sources beyond some members of the Occidental Conservatives Club. Some outlets reported on the incident solely through the use of Facebook posts that certain groups, such as the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB), CODE, and the Occidental Conservatives Club made on their public pages.
“We all know that we are in very, very polarizing times, and there are many agendas out there.” Spearman said. “We are in a moment where every word can be turned to help someone else’s agenda.”
While Spearman pointed out that language can always be used to one or another group’s advantage, he also argued that since the story had been reported essentially the same by various news organizations, there was some level of bipartisan agreement.
“I am comfortable with what I have read in the mainstream media … Mainstream news seems to reflect accurately on the events,” Spearman said.
Bliss agreed with Spearman on that point, arguing that people across the country felt that the actions of the protesters violated a moral code beyond politics. He argued that the national coverage was evidence of this.
“It’s actually been very relieving to see all these news organizations lie on the same side as we do … They’re not conservative, they’re just right,” Bliss said.
In opposition to Bliss’ argument was a clarification of the purpose of the protest. According to one of the protesters, who chose to remain anonymous, they had no intention of seeking media coverage by removing the flags and posting signs and poems.
“Our point was to start a conversation within the Oxy community about what it means to memorialize 9/11 in this way,” the anonymous protester said.
Community expresses shared, conflicting, goals for future
There are as many views of how the campus community should respond to the 9/11 incident as there are opinions on the value of the memorial and protest. People from many parts of the community shared their hopes for how Occidental will proceed.
“Mutual respect and understanding is still possible in bipartisanship engagement, even in a country as polarized as ours,” Caleb Betts (junior) said.
Some people spoke to the importance of continuing the organic debate that developed in the immediate aftermath, and bringing interested groups face-to-face.
“The best outcome for this conflict would be more dialogue […] We should encourage dialogue, debate and protests on all campuses,” Pino said.
Sharif offered specific ideas for what the dialogue should look like.
“I would like to see all parties take a step back and really consider their own identities, their own various intersections, their own individual privileges. I would like for everyone to reconsider what the flag means to them but also that the flag might mean something different for the people sitting next to them,” Sharif said.
Chief Diversity Officer Rhonda Brown hosted a dialogue Tuesday at 6:00 p.m.
“I invite you to join a productive conversation on these important issues,” she said via campus-wide email. This article went to press before the event.
Not all students involved are confident that the college’s response will help.
“I just hope to heal my community. I don’t think that a communal response — an entire Oxy community healing — is possible at this time because of how polarized initial conversations about it became,” said a protester, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even within similar groups, students gave varied opinions, highlighting yet again that this issue is not starkly divided into two camps.
“It’s easy for someone to say I’ll try to meet you where you’re at but I find that it’s exceedingly rare for someone to actually try to,” Sharif said, echoing the skeptical sentiment of the anonymous protester.
As for the Occidental Conservatives Club, Bliss called upon students who disagree with him to join him in discussion.
“Come talk to me,” Bliss said. “I’d love to hear why, I will listen with open ears, and I will do everything I can to work with you to compromise.”
The campus community continues to debate the events on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and the removal of the flags. It is clear that this is not simply a two or even three-sided issue and has sparked controversial discourse upon the boundaries of free speech, the symbolism of the U.S. flag, what it means to memorialize and questions of American identity.