New photos: With tensions high, citizens raise first-responders flag in Bristol

While the structured part of the ceremony went smoothly, some heated debate followed

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 7/3/20

People began to gather around 9:30 on Friday morning in Independence Park for the raising of a flag in honor of first-responders, an event sanctioned by the Bristol Town Council following a 4-1 vote …

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New photos: With tensions high, citizens raise first-responders flag in Bristol

While the structured part of the ceremony went smoothly, some heated debate followed

Posted

People began to gather around 9:30 on Friday morning in Independence Park for the raising of a flag in honor of first-responders, an event sanctioned by the Bristol Town Council following a 4-1 vote at their Wednesday, July 1 meeting. The flag-raising was petitioned for by Mike Byrnes, chairman of Bristol County Concerned Citizens, a group that supports “family values” and other traditional conservative ideals, and Karl Antonevich, commander of the Bristol VFW.

While a flag honoring first-responders might, at first glance, seem to be a fairly benign request, for some residents, its timing was troubling, coming so soon on the heels of an approved request by the same council to fly a Black Lives Matter flag over Town Hall in the month of June. At that meeting, Mr. Byrnes was one of several “concerned citizens” who spoke in opposition to that petition.

Many residents spoke in opposition to the first-responders flag on Wednesday night, most questioning the timing and the motives of the Concerned Citizens, and a much larger group showed up Friday morning at Independence Park. Dressed mostly in black, they stood closely together, almost forming a wall in front of the small group of citizens organizing the ceremony. A roughly equal number of residents showed up to support the Concerned Citizens, many of them carrying U.S. or armed services flags. They gathered mostly to the right, while the Black Lives contingent was gathered mostly to the left or center. At about 9:50, Mr. Byrnes began to speak.

“For the past four months, first-responders have been constantly on the front lines, (demonstrating) unselfish commitment to their fellow human beings,” he said. “We will start by honoring those who have borne the heaviest burden during this crisis: nurses.” His words were met with widespread applause from both sides of the gathering.

The response from the left half of the crowd was noticeably muted, however, when Mr. Byrnes went on to say that police “serve us well in an era when their fellow police are under attack and depicted in the most outrageous manner — they deserve better.” Mention of Bristol’s volunteer Fire Department restored the crowd’s enthusiasm.

Tom Carroll, Bristol Republican Town Committee chairman and an emergency medical technician, spoke next, followed by Mr Antonevich of the VFW.

The flag raising followed, with Mr. Byrnes asking the crowd to place their hands on their hearts or salute, as appropriate. Half the crowd chose to do that, and half chose to take a knee, an act that apparently upset some in the crowd.

"Bow to that flag!" one man yelled.

Though that should have been the end of the event, a significant group of people stayed behind in the park to have conversations, one on one and in groups, and some of those conversations became heated, even requiring the intervention of police officers at a couple of points. Others remained civil, notably during an exchange between Mr. Byrnes, Black Lives Matter rally organizer Dyshell Palmer, and Ms. Palmer’s friend, Tyler Fontaine, as they exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet another day and sit down together to discuss their issues and work toward understanding.

Bristol Fire Chief Mike DeMello and Bristol Police Chief Kevin Lynch were both present during the proceedings, along with many members of the respective departments. Bristol Town Administrator Steven Contente also attended with his son.

The first-responders flag will remain over Independence Park for two weeks.

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