EBENSBURG BOROUGH COUNCIL PRESIDENT’S TOWN HALL MEETING ADDRESS
June 17, 2020
As indicated in the Agenda, my comments are broken down into three main areas: 1) the parade itself, 2) post-parade activity, and 3) some steps moving forward. Please understand that many of these comments reflect my personal thoughts and opinions, and as such, do not necessarily reflect the thoughts and opinions of the Mayor, other Council members, or Borough staff. Any formal statements or actions resulting from this meeting would require discussion, deliberation and potentially voting during a regular public meeting of Ebensburg Borough Council.
I’ll start by providing some background information about the recent Ebensburg Memorial Day Parade, which has been an annual community tradition as long as any of us can remember. The event is a cooperative effort between the Borough, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Dauntless Fire Company. Over the years, the Borough has evolved somewhat into the lead role as the overall event planner and organizer. In particular this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, planning was disrupted, and it appeared there would not be a formal celebration. But the idea for a “roving parade” emerged, and plans were quickly implemented, on somewhat short notice. In an attempt to make the event as meaningful as possible and to appropriately honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans, an open invitation was offered for the solicitation of participants. As is in the past, participants were requested to contact the Borough office ahead of time, but not all did.
When the parade began to form, an individual from outside the Borough displayed the confederate flag, together with the American flag, on his tractor. The judgment of Borough police at the scene was that the use of that symbol was protected by the individual’s First Amendment rights, and as such, no action could be taken to stop the participation of the individual or to force him to remove the flag. This was confirmed by our Solicitor’s formal legal opinion which states:
“Had the Borough attempted to prohibit the flying of the confederate flag when participants were lining up, the Borough could have violated the First Amendment rights of the individual flying the confederate flag. The same could have been true had the Borough attempted to remove the flag from the parade once it began.” He goes on to say that the Borough “cannot prohibit individuals from presenting the confederate flag on public borough-owned property and in borough-organized parades open to the public and on public streets.”
Before going any further, I want to make it totally clear that no person or group involved with the Borough in any way had prior knowledge or indication that the confederate flag would appear in the parade. To the contrary, given that such an issue had never arisen in past years, its appearance was completely unexpected. That said, we do understand that the image of the confederate flag, especially with a Borough police car directly behind it, could give the impression that the display was somehow pre-planned or organized by the Borough. I am 100% confident in stating for the record that it was not.
From a purely legal perspective, the bottom line is this – as a governmental body, the Borough does not have the constitutional authority to limit speech, including the display of flags or other symbols, on public property. Period. Given that, although it may be deemed as offensive by some, in this instance, the display of the flag was perfectly legal and constitutionally protected. With that as a basis, please understand that we are not here this evening to discuss or debate the merits of the First Amendment. It is the law of the land, and it remains alive and well. As with all laws, the Borough will continually strive to fully respect it and abide by it.
But as we all know, just because something is legal, does not necessarily make it “right”. Regardless of one’s personal feelings regarding the confederate flag, the appearance of the symbol in our parade flies in the face of the very freedoms that so many before us have fought for – and died for – men and women, of all races, religions and backgrounds. Earlier today, I spent a few moments at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in downtown Ebensburg which lists thousands of the names who served – all Cambria County citizens – and of course, some of were killed in combat. Almost 3,000 names appear on the 19 plaques dedicated to our Civil War servicemen. I was personally surprised by the fact that I recognized many surnames from families who still reside in town. Unfortunately, the presence of the confederate flag in our parade dishonored what was otherwise intended to be a meaningful and solemn tribute to those who paid the ultimate price in defending our country and our freedoms. If for no other reason, all of us, as Americans, should be outraged and offended.
But, there is more…. When a distinguished and noble institution such as the United States Marine Corps or the United States Navy takes the bold step to ban a symbol from their installations, we should all take notice. On April 20 of this year, in a letter to members of the Corps from Marine Corps Commandant, General David Berger, states that:
The Confederate battle flag “has the power to inflame feelings of division.” He added, “I am mindful that many people believe that flag to be a symbol of heritage or regional pride. But I am also mindful of the feelings of pain and rejection of those who inherited the cultural memory and present effects of the scourge of slavery in our country.”
I understand that it can be difficult for some to comprehend how a singular image – like that of the confederate flag – can elicit such fear, anxiety and division. But it does. And, it did in the case of our parade. Should an Ebensburg family ever feel the need to quickly rush their children into the house immediately as the confederate flag is paraded by their front lawn? Imagine the horror as their sense of elation, their uplifting spirit of patriotism and their feelings of gratitude toward our departed military were suddenly shattered by the passing image of that confederate flag. That thought disturbs me deeply.
Clearly, as a country, we have much work to do to address racism and intolerance at all levels – interpersonal, structural, and institutional. As a Borough, I believe we have an obligation to our community members to do this as well, and I, for one, take that obligation very seriously. For these reasons, I respectfully invite the Mayor, my fellow Council Members, and all Borough staff to join me in the formal denunciation of this offensive and hurtful display.
I believe that even before the parade had ended, the Borough began receiving complaints regarding the presence of the flag. These came from both white residents and residents of color, who told us in respectfully written messages, that they felt that the confederate flag was not welcome in the parade and that they and other community members watching with them were hurt to see it.
Let me just say that our overall response as a Borough was well below our own standards. Mistakenly, we handled this situation in the same manner as with other complaints – assess the relevance and urgency of the issue, consider possible courses of action, etc. This case was inherently more complicated by the legalities involved, which required research and input from our Solicitor. Although some Borough work was underway in the background, our limited communication created the perception that the issue was not viewed as important and was not being given adequate attention. An informal group named “Inclusive Ebensburg” was formed, and an online petition seeking a ban of the Confederate flag at all Borough-sanctioned events was launched. In short, we were slow to react and did a poor job of communicating in a timely manner with those who complained. As Council President, I accept full responsibility for this communication failure, and I offer my most sincere apology to those who had initially reached out to us, as well as to all other borough residents who are being negatively affected by this situation.
The online petition I mentioned seeks the banning of the confederate flag from all Borough events. Recently, both the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat and the Altoona Mirror have published editorials in support of that idea. But as already stipulated, as a governmental body, the Borough has no authority to limit free speech in public areas, including the streets and sidewalks where events are held. Therefore, no matter who might support the idea, or how many signatures may be obtained on a petition, we simply cannot legally do what is asked.
Yet, I believe that some concrete actions are warranted. All of us should be able to agree that the Borough and its residents do not want the Memorial Day Parade, or any other festival, event or celebration to become a hurtful or divisive issue in our community. We want Ebensburg, and any events that take place within it, to be welcoming and family-friendly to all residents and visitors. As such, and in accordance with the Solicitor’s advice, it is anticipated that the Borough would take future action which “prohibited the Borough itself from organizing parades, and required future parades and events, such as PotatoFest, to be organized by private groups. Any content restrictions would then be permitted at the sole discretion of the private organizer.”
The fact is that essentially every event held within the borough, with the exception of the Memorial Day Parade, is already sponsored and/or managed by independent, third-party organizations. Most fall under the umbrella of the Ebensburg Mainstreet Partnership, a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit that represents business interests in both the Borough and the surrounding Cambria Township. The Partnership has its own board and bylaws, and although it works in cooperation with the Borough in many areas, it remains a separate entity. Another example is the Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Trot” 5K, which is sponsored and organized by the Ebensburg Running Club, again, a totally separate organization. Such groups are free to design, organize and implement events and activities that they deem are appropriate to the message they wish to convey.
In addition to the Borough’s expected action to divest itself from the “organizer” role in parades or events, I further hereby request that the Borough Manager draft an ordinance to regulate parades, events and other demonstrations for future Council consideration. Such an ordinance is very common in other municipalities and cities around the Commonwealth, providing a general framework for various organizations to follow with regard to these activities.
Thank you all for your time and attention. For the record, I am happy to provide a full copy of these remarks in writing to the media or to anyone else who desires.
Faithfully prepared and submitted by:
Doug Tusing, President
Ebensburg Borough Council
PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD
We will now move on to the Public Comment portion of the Town Hall Meeting. To safely maintain a smooth flow of speakers, we will entertain comments in the following order:
1) Members of the group “Inclusive Ebensburg” and/or others who submitted written/email complaints
2) Ebensburg Borough residents and/or taxpayers
3) Any other participants who wish to speak
– I sincerely thank all who participated this evening
– I give my personal commitment to carefully consider all comments made from either side
– I am sorry that this incident occurred and for the hurt it has caused
– I appreciate those who were willing to step forward and bring this issue to the forefront
– This is a wonderful town, full of good and well-meaning people. Yet, we must all strive to do better with regard to tolerance and inclusion – not just with regard to race, but in other areas of diversity as well
– The only real way forward is through open dialogue, education and discussion; there are many resources available
– While we do have some specific actions to work on, we should all recognize that this is the beginning of a journey, not the end
– So let’s join together, as a community, and build a model to set an example of how this can all work – peacefully, intelligently and respectfully
– Because in the end, we cannot allow this incident to define us and we must not allow this incident to divide us
Thank you, good night, and please continue to be safe.