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Activist plans to burn Confederate-Nazi flag in Gettysburg

Written by Dustin B. Levy/The Hanover Evening Sun | Nov 10, 2017 7:05 AM
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Gene Stilp burns a two-sided Confederate-Nazi flag in Alabama as part of a demonstration against white supremacy in a video on Facebook Live. (Photo: Submitted)

(Gettysburg) -- The weekend of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day in Gettysburg will be marked by a consecration of the National Cemetery, a reading of the Gettysburg Address, and, if one man has his way, the symbolic burning of a flag.

Activist Gene Stilp, of Middle Paxton Township, wants to burn a combined Confederate-Nazi flag in front of the Adams County Courthouse at noon Friday, Nov. 17. He addressed the county commissioners with a public comment during their Wednesday meeting.

Stilp described the demonstration as an "educational effort" to bring attention to racism in the state and teach people what he believes those flags represent. He named racism, bigotry, hatred and white supremacy. 

Stilp started the effort, in which a two-sided flag is burned over a metal trash can for about 30 seconds, at the Columbia County Courthouse after the Bloomsburg Fair allowed vendors to sell Confederate flags. Stilp also demonstrated at NASCAR races around the country and will keep up the efforts at county courthouses in the state, starting with an event in Perry County on Thursday.

The decision to pick Adams County just before the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address was intentional, Stilp said.

"I believe the date of remembrance for Lincoln's speech is coming up soon, and so I wanted to make sure that it was close to the date of remembrance so that people could get a better understanding of this symbolism and what it means, and also the initial effort would be understood," he said. 

The borough does not have an open burn ordinance that would prohibit the flag burning, according to Joseph Dougherty, chief of the Gettysburg Borough Police Department.

Dougherty said he has not been contacted by Stilp, but he is not required to obtain a permit because of First Amendment rights.

The event cannot pose an unsafe, unhealthy or hazardous threat to the public, Dougherty said.

"As long as it stays in Constitutional bounds, we don't have a problem with it," he said.

Stilp plans to contact the borough on Friday and has already been in touch with the county sheriff's office and courthouse security to determine the safest spot for the demonstration.

The commissioners appreciated Stilp's advanced notice and recognized his First Amendment right to demonstrate, provided public safety was the top priority. They told him to contact Gettysburg Borough because the courthouse is on the borough's land.  

As a former National Parks Service law enforcement ranger, Commissioner Randy Phiel experienced the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists holding controversial rallies.

"It's not really what we personally like or don't like or think," he said. "It's what's allowed by the First Amendment -- as long as it's safe, as long as property isn't damaged, as long as it's controlled in some manner as far as time as location."

Phiel acknowledged that the nature of Stilp's demonstration could attract counter-protesters. 

"This type of activity fuels emotion on both sides of the issue," Phiel said. "It's an issue that has supporters and detractors, and sometimes they come looking to show that support. Hopefully, they do it in a peaceful, professional manner."

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and The Hanover Evening Sun.

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