Veterans burn U.S. flags to protest law

Oct. 28, 1989
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SEATTLE -- Vietnam War veterans burned an American flag lowered from a post office and torched 1,000 smaller flags early Saturday, saying a new anti-desecration law is an attempt to ram patriotism down their throats.

The protesters were jeered by a small group of neo-Nazi 'skinheads.' There was no violence or any arrest made.

The Washington chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War led a demonstration of about 200 people in front of a post office on Seattle's Capitol Hill described by Randy Rowland, a group boardmember, as a 'festival of resistance.'

A group member scrambled to the post office roof shortly after midnight and lowered a flag from the building's 20-foot pole. Another demonstrator doused the flag with a substance -- calling it napalm - ignited the banner and raised the burning emblem up the pole.

One-thousand tiny paper flags were given to protesters, who threw them into two fires burning in baking pans.

Speakers barked out 1960s-style phrases, accusing the United States of world imperialism and Congress of legislating patriotism and infringing on the First Amendment right of free expression.

The federal law, which went into affect at midnight, provides for up to a $100,000 fine and a maximum of one year in jail for anyone convicted of intentionally desecrating the American flag.

Rowland made it clear that he was aware of the potential penalties.

'It's a year plus a $100,000,' he said, 'so I figure, at a thousand flags, that'll be a thousand years and $100 million. But I figure they spend more money than that on the defense budget, so it's the least I can do.'

The veterans group, which was among the most active during the anti-war protests of the late '60s and early '70s, challenged authorities to lock them up.

No uniformed police were in view during most of the demonstration, which included a confrontation by a handful of bald young men who identified themselves as neo-Nazis.

The 'skinheads' jeered the demonstrators and verbal sparring eventually escalated as the two groups threw punches and bottles at each other.

A dozen police cars finally ended the confrontation at about 1:30 when they entered the area and blocked off the streets, sending the demonstrators home. There were no arrests.

Meanwhile, the Washington state office of the American Civil Liberties Union blasted the anti-desecration law as unconstitutional. Kathleen Taylor, executive director, blamed Congress and President Bush for the flag-burnings.

The anti-desecration law, which may not survive a constitutional challenge, 'has encouraged the very actions Congress and the president wished to discourage,' she said prior to the demonstration.

Taylor said the law is contrary to the Constitution and to America's historical commitment to freedom.

'The U.S. has stood four-square for the freedom to express unpopular opinions. Why should we change now?' she asked.

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