PORTSMOUTH — Earlier this week, conversation surrounding confederate flags during a prior Portsmouth City Managers’ session caught the attention of a national organization dedicated to its descendants and proponents of its history.
John Anson, Ohio Division Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, addressed the matter of banning its presence on city properties in a letter sent to City Clerk Diana Ratliff where he urged no action to be taken.
“I understand that this flag is sometimes considered offensive, however, it is only through ignorance of the flag’s meaning,” Ratliff read aloud from Anson’s letter on Dec. 14.
Discussions on the flag were a continuation of 2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon’s Nov. 23 inquiry if any action could be taken after hearing complaints regarding the symbol’s presence along the riverfront campgrounds.
This symbol, she feels, does not align with the city’s message of inclusiveness and hurts attempts to attract businesses and students to Shawnee State University.
“We as a Council have been aiming to create a city in which all citizens feel comfortable navigating all parts of the city,” she said during the Dec. 14 meeting. “When there are symbols of hate displayed, not all citizens feel safe.”
Gordon’s comments received many comments in an earlier Portsmouth Daily Times article on the matter, a considerable portion seeing such an action in contrast to free speech rights. Fellow Council members like 1st Ward‘s Sean Dunne, Edwin Martell of the 5th Ward, and the newly-minted 6th Ward Councilman Dennis Packard however sided with her.
Martell compared the situation to a landowner’s ability to determine what is and is not allowed on their property. Since the city owns the campgrounds, he questions whether Portsmouth could exhibit similar forms of control.
“People see this as a symbol,” said Martell of the Confederate flag. “It’s a symbol that creates divisiveness between citizens and something that causes this much divisiveness has no place in our society.”
Dunne echoed much of Martell’s statement, saying how the flag’s meaning has transformed from a battle flag to one openly embraced by fascists, neo-Nazis, and opposers to the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” endowment in more contemporary times.
The discussion, in many ways, mirrors the national racism debate, which led to the removal of confederate and Christopher Columbus statues earlier this year. That movement encouraged activism from both the SCV and the Portsmouth Unity Project, where SCV asked for volunteer, non-armed guardians of Ohio confederate and the Project responded by creating itself in June and later hosting an Emancipation Day celebration.
Gerald Cadogan, Unity Project organizer and SSU Men’s Swimming Coach, called action against the flag a “step forward” for the city. The claims that the Rebel flag is one to denote pride in southern heritage is not one that he buys, rather seeing it as open support for slavery and racism.
“Growing up as an African-American male, I was always taught to stay clear of the people waving that flag,” he said. “It is a symbol that you’re not welcomed, it is a symbol of southern pride and southern pride is rooted in racism.”
“It’s important that we make sure Portsmouth is inclusive to everyone no matter what color they are to make sure we are all in this together.”
Martell had said previously that a 1977 city ordinance regarding prohibited signs and statements might apply in this scenario. That legislation, Chapter 1308.08 of the Portsmouth Codified Ordinances, denies the presence of “obscene, indecent, or immoral character” symbols on city lands.
Whether or not any legislation will or can be created was unknown as of the November meeting and is still being considered a discussion item. City Solicitor John Haas said during that session that he needed time to review legal precedent but sensed that their First Amendment challenges.
The topic will be revisited in the final 2020 session of the City Managers on Dec. 28.
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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