WEST NEWBURY — Amid a chorus of praise from residents for this year’s Memorial Day parade and ceremonies, the presence of a Confederate flag and aggressive language on a vehicle rolling down Main Street on Monday has has drawn criticism from residents who found the display to be offensive.
The truck in question was one of three military vehicles arranged by Bernie Fields, who has participated in previous Memorial Day parades, according to Town Manager Angus Jennings.
The words “Hell’s Breed” were painted on the passenger’s side, and “Hired Killers” painted across the back. A small Confederate flag was attached to its antenna.
Jennings — who for the first time teamed up with Director Theresa Woodbury of the Council on Aging to plan Memorial Day events this year — said he and police Chief Jeff Durand spotted the language on the back of the truck about 10 minutes before the parade was set to step off from town square.
“We weren’t aware of the flag at that time,” Jennings said.
Still, Durand and Veterans Agent Karen Tyler worried the messaging on the truck might be offensive to some parade-goers. When they approached the driver of the vehicle to ask that a blanket be draped over the wording at the back of the truck, the response was nonconfrontational, but firm.
“The truck driver said that the truck — including the “Hired Killers” language — was a replica of an actual vehicle from the Vietnam War. He said that if that language was obscured, he would withdraw all vehicles from the parade,” according to Jennings.
“He made it clear,” Jennings said. “It was all or nothing.”
Although he knew some people might be offended, Jennings was mindful that the government should not take actions that might be construed as impeding free speech. These were veterans and family members of veterans who were specifically invited to participate.
He said it was not his place to impose his personal values on the situation. He will, however, propose that selectmen create a policy for future parades to discourage or prohibit certain language, flags or symbols. The other option would be simply not to invite this particular group to participate in future parades, he said.
The issue continued to be hotly debated on local social media sites in the days that followed the parade. Although the vast majority of feedback following the parade was overwhelmingly positive, Jennings said he has heard from a few residents who were upset.
“It’s just a product of the world we live in,” he said.
Resident Vanessa Graham wrote to Jennings immediately following the parade. She complimented organizers for the job they did, calling it “a real treat for the community.”
But she also included a photo of the truck in question.
“I want to be sure that you are aware that one of the vehicles in the parade waved a Confederate Battle Flag. I’m writing to request that these people not be invited to return in subsequent years,” Graham wrote.
After learning of the controversy, Barry Fogel — an attorney and West Newbury resident — also contacted Jennings, wanting to hear more about the selection process for Memorial Day participants.
Although he didn’t attend the parade and hasn’t seen the vehicle, Fogel said he believes that in general symbols such as the Confederate flag “should not be displayed in any form by a participant in a town-sponsored event, even on a vehicle that is intended to be “historically accurate.’”
It isn’t an issue of free speech, Fogel said.
“If the owner of the vehicle wants to display a vehicle that he believes is period accurate, he can freely do that on his own time and through his own events or property,” he said. “Those veterans can participate fully in the parade without presenting a symbol of racism and division in an event that is organized by the town.”
Fogel said the fact that this was how the vehicle appeared during the 1970s only underscores that those who displayed that flag back then were unaware — or did not care — how it might affect others who view it as a hurtful symbol of slavery and hatred.
“I like Angus’ idea of bringing the issue to the Board of Selectmen to develop a formal policy on what to allow in our town’s parades. We can honor veterans without also presenting clear symbols of racism and division,” Fogel said.