1199 Organizer: At issue, bullying of Hampshire College

December 7, 2016

This letter to the editor by 1199SEIU organizer Amber Cano-Martin was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

I would like to respond to Bill Newman’s piece, “As a bulwark, we need the flag” published in the Dec. 3-4 Weekend Gazette. I am an Amherst resident, and I know Bill and respect him and his work. Nine times out of ten, he and I will surely agree.

In this instance, however, I feel that his response completely missed the boat in terms of what the issue at hand actually was. I understand his argument that we as progressives should not cede the American flag as a symbol to the authoritarian right. And to an extent, I agree.

However, the issue here was the bullying of a private institution of higher learning, Hampshire College, by vicious forces: locally, at the state level, and at the national level. Students and faculty were subjected to constant racist and sexist threats via phone, email, and social media. Their learning environment was severely disrupted.

Fox News fanned the flames at the national level, inciting people across the country to participate in this bullying. Students were harassed on campus. President Lash had to call the police on a Fox News reporter, who became aggressive at his own home during an interview.

The first “Raise the Flag” protest included the menacing of a counterprotester by the crowd and a shout of “grab her by the p---y” directed at a photographer.

Donald Trump, our new bully-in-chief, weighed in, saying that those who burn the flag should go to jail for a year, or lose their citizenship. Local politicians, such as Mayor Dominic Sarno of Springfield and state Rep. John C. Velis, D-Westfield, who represent no one in Amherst, piled on, taking political advantage of the situation and demanding with no authority whatsoever that Hampshire raise the flag.

Bill Newman, of the ACLU, where is your firm denunciation of this reprehensible behavior? Your unequivocal support of the First Amendment rights of the Hampshire students (and faculty)?

If the flag is a symbol whose meaning is always subject to negotiation and struggle between groups fighting for freedom and those fighting for repression, why would we as progressives not allow Hampshire College to have exactly that debate independently and internally? Because that is exactly what they were doing, before bullies decided to put a stop to it and attempt to intimidate them into compliance through shows of force and threats of violence.

No one said they were never going to put the flag back up again. They were simply making the space to have exactly that democratic debate about the flag’s meaning that you reference. There are people on that campus from all walks of life: different countries, different languages, races, sexual orientations and gender identities, and different histories. They all deserve the right to speak their truth about what the flag means to them in a respectful campus dialogue without drawing right-wing vitriol from across the nation.

With all due respect, I think you got this one wrong. I was with a group of citizens Sunday who stood together to protest an American Flag/Blue Lives Matter flag convoy that decided to barrel through the town of Amherst, making sure to pass through Amherst College and UMass as well to make sure their message was loud and clear.

We needed your voice to stand against the vile bullying of one of our valued local institutions, and speak out against the harm that has come to real people there that are a part of our community. I invite you to join us now.

Amber Cano-Martin, of Amherst, is a labor organizer for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union.