Trump flags, controversy on high school campus
Anger exploded in the days following the controversial ‘flag incident’ on the Arcata High School campus, raising questions over first amendment rights and political symbolism on public school campuses.
On Feb. 26, a group of students wore clothing supporting President Donald Trump, and flew Trump flags and American flags off of their cars, in support of what they called “Patriotism Day.”
During nutrition break and lunch that day, the students drove two cars around the parking lot, each trailing large American flags or Trump flags.
Assistant Principal Jim Monge stopped one car and spoke to the student driving. Principal Dave Navarre also spoke to the students involved but did not speak on the record about what he said. After the interactions, the students removed the flags from their cars after backlash from non-Trump supporters.
Many students on campus took offense to the display and were angered by what they thought the Trump supporters were trying to say.
On the same Wednesday that the Trump group brought their flags and clothing, the Black Student Union started to run assemblies meant to educate students on Black History Month as well as microaggressions and appropriation towards black people in society.
Some students assumed the Trump and American flags were in direct response to the assemblies, which the Trump supporters denied.
“We mainly did it because people were showing their support for Bernie, and we wanted to show our support (for the president) … we had no idea that the BSU thing was happening. The teachers were very bad at informing us with that information, and we would not have picked that day if we knew,” said Casey McAtasney, one of the Trump supporters who wore clothing supporting Trump.
The information was in the bulletin. However, it was placed in the “faculty” section, which some teachers do not read to their students.
Some students felt that it was not a coincidence that “Patriotism Day” was held on the same day as the first of three BSU assemblies.
“Immediately I thought that they were doing it on purpose because it was like the first time having a meeting for Black Student Union, so I thought they were doing it for (the) intent to get a reaction,” Axeri Ramirez, a junior, said of their actions.
Social media exploded with videos mocking and criticizing the students who took part in publicly supporting Trump. One student called them “clowns” while others called them “racist.” Junior Riley Walsh, one of the students who drove one of the cars flying a flag, claimed that he received some death threats and was told to kill himself. When Monge stopped the car to speak to the driver, a student ripped a flag off Walsh’s car. At lunch, another student ripped a Trump flag off senior Mateo Vincent’s car.
Some students reacted physically towards the Trump supporters. A student threw Kool-Aid at the car of one of the students who attached a Trump flag and American flag to the back.
The events of Wednesday were not contained to the Arcata High campus. Members of the community heard that it was a “white supremacy” event, and one individual called on people to come support the BSU. Terry Uyeki called on people to “show support to the African American students and the observance of Black History Month,” in her email addressed to “social justice warriors”.
“We had various reports that we were gonna have, essentially, rallies, on our campus, in support of various causes,” Navarre stated.
Several community members did show up to the event, and were invited to stay as visitors of the assembly.
However, the student Trump supporters did not mean to incite backlash. According to members of the group, they picked the day because they were celebrating the anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment and because they were “feeling patriotic that day.”
“We were just supporting our country. It wasn’t a protest,” McAtasney stated. Their claimed intent was not to undermine the BSU assembly, but to show support for the president.
It was not perceived that way, though. For some students, especially students of color, Trump, and by association his flag, represents something very different than patriotism.
“I don’t think (support for Trump) is a really positive thing to be spreading on campus because of what he stands for. He stands for racism, sexism, sexual assault, and also just like, his name can scare a lot of people who have immigrated to America,” junior Bella VolzBroughton said.
Others echoed VolzBroughton’s sentiments.
“America is not that great. There’s a lot of things we need to solve, and a lot we need to fix, so don’t even try that, and also it’s just kinda disrespectful,” senior and president of BSU Nishyra Aaron-Williams said.
In an article for Pepperbox, Madeline “Henny” Lassiter-Chavarria and Ramirez expressed that in seeing support for Trump, they see support for racism and worry that it may create a situation that endangers them. Since Trump’s election, there has been a statistical increase in hate crimes. According to a Politifact analysis of federal data, there was a 17% increase in hate crimes from 2016-2017, the year following Trump’s election.
The controversy surrounding Trump paraphernalia at schools is not isolated to Arcata High. A school in Fresno was sued after not allowing a student to wear a MAGA hat because it would make others feel “unsafe.” In North Carolina, a cheerleading squad got placed on probation for displaying a Trump sign at a school event.
While students on a high school campus have limited rights, they do have the right to free speech as long as it is not “obscene, libelous, likely to incite material disruption or violation of school rules, or is deemed a ‘true threat,’ ” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Political free speech does not fall under any of these categories unless it contains fighting words, which the Trump-supporters were not voicing.
“Students have free speech just like anybody else, and the thing that schools have is that it can’t interfere with school activities,” Monge explained. He did not feel that school had been interrupted by “Patriotism Day.”
“(School) pretty much ran as normal. We had a few flags, and then we didn’t,” Monge said.
With the events of last Wednesday still fresh, how the campus moves forward is up to everyone. People involved with the day say that they are planning on having more “Patriotism Days” in the future, but they also say they have learned from this one.
Senior Emma Frazzel said, “We know that some people got their feelings hurt, so maybe next time we won’t put ourselves out there as much. We know that people were like ‘that was too far’, so let’s take a step back, still show our support, but maybe in other ways.”
For others on campus, the event simply represented students taking action on their rights.
“I think when (free speech) becomes aggressive or like threatening then it’s not okay, but they didn’t say anything mean about any of the other candidates,” Judah Thompson said.
Izzy Knife summed up how she feels about not only political free speech but the issue at large.
“I know a lot of people generalize, so when they see the Trump flag, they think about racists and sexism and things Trump has said. but I feel like everyone should be judged individually.”
Stella Walston is the managing editor and Jack Taylor is the opinion editor of The Pepperbox, where this story was originally published. Additional research was done by research by Martina Mapatis, Fiona Murphy, and Bailey Ives.