Bristol grants 'Citizens' wish, will fly first-responder flag on Friday

By Scott Pickering
Posted 7/1/20

One week after proposing the idea of raising a first-responder flag in downtown Bristol, an upstart citizens group won the day. The Bristol Town Council voted 4-1 Wednesday night to allow that flag …

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Bristol grants 'Citizens' wish, will fly first-responder flag on Friday

Posted

One week after proposing the idea of raising a first-responder flag in downtown Bristol, an upstart citizens group won the day. The Bristol Town Council voted 4-1 Wednesday night to allow that flag to be flown over Independence Park on Thames Street for two weeks.

Now the “Bristol County Concerned Citizens” are moving forward with their plan to hold a march, ceremony and flag-raising to honor first-responders on Friday morning, July 3.

The Bristol council’s decision came after a two-hour dialogue on Zoom that was laced with political maneuvering and accusations of racism. Despite council chairman Nathan Calouro’s best attempts to keep everyone on the single topic of raising one flag at Independence Park, public comments from dozens of people spanned an emotional spectrum.

The decision comes a few weeks after a similarly emotional night, when dozens of Bristol residents spoke passionately about why Bristol should raise the Black Lives Matter flag over Town Hall for the month of June. After hours of discussion on that topic — which included everything from Bristol’s sordid role in the American slave trade, to Bristol residents telling ugly stories of racism in town and the town’s legal counsel suggesting councilors should not approve a citizen’s request to raise that flag without a policy to guide such decisions — the council voted unanimously in favor of the request, and the Black Lives Matter flag flew above Town Hall for the past several weeks.

On Wednesday night, councilors were deep into another flag discussion, prompted by the newly-formed “Citizens” group and the commander of the Bristol Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, who collectively asked for permission to raise a new flag for the month of July.

In honor of first-responders

Introduced by ‘Citizens’ group vice chairman Mike Byrnes, the request was positioned as a timely effort to recognize the many first-responders who have endured a long, arduous struggle in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our first-responders have really been on the front lines,” Mr. Byrnes said. “They deserve accolades. We need to make sure that they know they are appreciated.”

Later in the meeting, it was clarified that “first-responders honored on the flag include police officers, firefighters, doctors and EMS personnel, dispatchers, nurses and military and armed forces personnel. The flag has six stripes, with the words “Salute Our Heroes” at the top.

Despite the noble presentation of the request, others suggested there were other motivations for the timing, with a couple noting that Mr. Byrnes spoke in opposition to the Black Lives Matter request a few weeks earlier.

Said resident Beth Vorro, “You know better than I do that three of the leaders of this so-called BCCC were among the vocal opponents of raising the Black Lives Matter flag … Who could possibly object to this request, to honor first-responders? And that’s what they’re banking on.”

Her biggest question was, why now?

“We all know why now. It doesn’t take a cynic to know why now,” she said. “There’s a right time to do this and a right way to do this … It should be done right, and with the right motives.”

Councilors suggest flag in October

At the outset of the discussion, Councilor Tim Sweeney made a motion to recognize all the deserving first-responders at a time already set aside for that purpose — some time sandwiched around Oct. 28, National First Responders Day. In his original motion, Mr. Sweeney mentioned a week-long recognition, and he later clarified it would be for the entire month of October. Councilor Aaron Ley seconded his motion, and both councilors spoke in favor of the idea.

Mr. Ley thought the October suggestion was a “great idea,” and he also warned about approving the July petition. “I think we need to be a little careful of the optics of raising another flag on the heels of our last action,” he said, adding that the town should not be “provocative.”

Councilor Antonio “Tony” Teixeira initially indicated he would support that idea, but as the meeting continued, he changed his stance — and perhaps the outcome of the decision.

Councilors in favor

From the beginning, councilors Mary Parella and Mr. Calouro spoke in favor of the citizens’ request, with Ms. Parella scolding the council for getting itself in a bind in the first place.

“We got ourselves into this,” Ms. Parella said. “It was very, very clear at the last meeting that we were violating our own unwritten rules … Our chairman cautioned us many times that we would be setting a precedent.”

She went on to talk about the tremendous work of first-responders (as did every single person who spoke Wednesday night, whether they were for or against the request). She said of first-responders during the height of the pandemic,  "people lived in their basements, they lived in their garages, and they still do, to be sure they could continue to work on the front lines, and still keep their families safe."

Ms. Parella also scolded some Bristol residents who were lobbing accusations against the petitioners.  Speaking of the two flags — Black Lives Matter and first-responders — Ms. Parella said, “I see them as two separate things. I don’t think one diminishes the other … But calling people ‘racist,’ I don’t think that’s an accurate depiction.”

Ms. Parella also spoke about the divisive climate surrounding this issue. “I don’t know what happened to dialogue and respecting other opinions,” she said, suggesting people should “be tolerant, be respectful and learn from other people’s perspectives.”

Audience mixed, but most in favor

As the discussion continued, several people spoke about the group making the proposal — the ‘Citizens’ who have stated they support “traditional family values,” they are pro-life, and they want “strong borders,” “the right to bear arms,” and “reasonable environmental policies.”

"It’s a smokescreen for an agenda," said Stephan Brigidi. "They're creating their own particular platform, their ‘traditional values’ campaign, which is discriminatory … It has no regard for human rights."

He continued, "There’s a lot more behind it than what is being advertised. I believe it is a camouflage, a smokescreen … it’s a political stunt, and that’s what I’m opposed to.

But more people spoke in favor the effort than against. They included a retired nurse and nursing professor, a retired hospital CEO, a veteran who did numerous tours in combat,  a lifelong EMT, and Bristol's own town administrator, retired policer officer Steven Contente.

At the end of the dialogue, Councilor Tony Teixeira indicated he had changed his mind and he was in favor of the July request. Councilor Tim Sweeney then introduced some confusion by saying he was changing his motion to include flying the flag on July 3 AND for the entire month of October, but the council went ahead on his original motion to fly it for only October. That voted failed 2-3, with Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Ley in favor of it.

Mr. Teixeira then made the motion to fly the flag from July 3 to 17 at Independence Park. Mr. Calouro, Ms. Parella, Mr. Teixeira and Mr. Sweeney voted in favor of it, while Mr. Ley reiterated his opposition.

"I didn’t fall off the back of a turnip truck," he said. "I see what’s happening, and I don’t think it’s something I can endorse." When casting his vote he said, "I worry about what this looks like."

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