Gettysburg ‘protest’ shows power of Internet to divide Americans

A fake flag burning event drew hundreds of armed civilians to national battlefield site

  • Russ Walker/PA Post
What’s on your summer reading list? That question came to mind on Sunday thanks to LNP’s opinion section, which published lists from a wide range of Lancaster County citizens of the books they’re reading in this summer of coronavirus and protests. As for me, I’m reading Edward St. Aubyn’s series of books about Patrick Melrose, which I picked up after watching the terrific adaptation on Showtime a few years back. It’s cynical and biting and painful, and I’m enjoying it very much. What are you reading this summer? Let us know in our Listening Post; I’ll publish a roundup next Monday.— Russ Walker, PA Post editor
Members of a militia walk past a tourist as they patrol the area surrounding the Gettysburg National Cemetery Saturday, July 4, 2020, at Gettysburg National Military Park, in Gettysburg, Pa.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Members of a militia walk past a tourist as they patrol the area surrounding the Gettysburg National Cemetery Saturday, July 4, 2020, at Gettysburg National Military Park, in Gettysburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. That should be the first takeaway from July 4 events at Gettysburg National Military Park. Plenty of people showed up to defend the American flag from being burned by “Antifa” activists who supposedly used social media to advertise plans for a big Independence Day protest.

The problem? There were no Antifa activists planning to burn flags in Gettysburg. The whole thing was a prank, and very possibly an example of the sort of social media mischief that Russian agents carried out in 2016.

So what happens when social media is weaponized to inflame the passions of people? Mike Argento of the Hanover Evening Sun offered this description:

Gettysburg was besieged by heavily armed people, some members of right-wing militias and others just people who have a lot of guns. Just walking around and observing, it seemed fair to conclude that there hasn’t been this much firepower present in Gettysburg since 1863. 

A sizeable group of people armed with military-style semi-automatic weapons – a lot of AR-15s and a few AK-47s (a Russian weapon) – stood in the shade of a large oak by the entrance to the parking lot across Taneytown Road from the National Cemetery. They flew American and Confederate flags. Many wore T-shirts expressing their support of gun rights and Donald Trump. 

A small contingent of armed people had stationed themselves at the Virginia Memorial on Confederate Avenue on the battlefield. A half-dozen agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – called in by the National Park Service to provide security — kept watch over them.  

PennLive noted that it “was not the first time Antifa was accused of making similar plans in Gettysburg. Similar rumors cropped up in July 2017. Although no protest occurred, several hundred heavily armed individuals arrived to counter protest and one person accidentally shot himself in the leg.”

The Washington Post went the extra mile in trying to track down whoever advertised the event, but all the newspaper was able to do was prove that a person claiming to run the social media accounts was entirely made up. The Post also had this:

As the 3 p.m. start time for the planned flag burning approached, there was no sign of Alan Jeffs or of busloads of antifa members.

Suddenly, by the statue of Lee, a biker shouted that he had gotten an alarming call. Someone was preparing to burn a flag, after all, he said. Scores of people jumped on their bikes and roared toward the cemetery.

There, they learned it was not the threat they imagined.

A man had entered the cemetery wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The man, Trent Somes, later told The Post he was visiting the grave of an ancestor, not protesting. A seminarian and associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Hanover, Pa., Somes said a crowd of about 50 people surrounded him and aggressively questioned him about his shirt.

“I didn’t do anything to them,” he said.

Police arrived and encouraged Somes to leave.

“For his own safety, federal law enforcement made the decision to remove him, and he was escorted out of the cemetery,” Jason Martz, acting public affairs officer for Gettysburg National Military Park, later said.

The Gettysburg battlefield is getting attention lately for the presence of numerous statues and monuments to the Confederacy. As cities like Richmond and Charlottesville remove Confederate monuments, should the same be done at the many famous battlefields of the American Civil War?

In the Pittsburgh Post-GazettePeter Smith has a wonderful essay that explores the topic. He speaks with academics who hold opposing views on the matter. He quotes one, Messiah College’s John Fea, who said: “These monuments scream white supremacy, states rights, the Lost Cause, and the culture of Jim Crow. They are indeed troubling, but I believe that an encounter with the past should trouble us. As a history teacher who has been bringing history students to Gettysburg for 20 years, I do not want these monuments removed. They give me an opportunity to explain what they mean and why they were erected when they were erected. If they are removed, we are missing the opportunity for students to see a symbol of racism. We miss the opportunity to talk about this.”

Two sidenotes:

  • First, PennLive has a story about a little-noticed Confederate monument that was recently removed from Hampden Township. It honored the Confederate general whose troops approached Harrisburg as the battle at Gettysburg raged.
  • Second, the politicization of mask wearing led to a state legislator from Ohio being told to leave the Gettysburg park for refusing to wear a mask. (Seriously? Wear a mask!)

Best of the rest

  • This is why we can’t have nice things, people. Fireworks mania went way too far in York County over the weekend, prompting local fire departments to respond to numerous, including a blaze in York City that displaced a dozen people. It’s hardly surprising that the city’s fire chief wants the law that legalized the purchase of fireworks to be repealed. “We talked to a lot of people and they think that just because they are legal to buy, it’s legal to shoot them off anywhere,” said York City Fire Chief Chad Deardorff said. “Just because they’re legal doesn’t mean they’re legal to shoot.” The legalization sent the wrong message, Deardorff said, with people assuming that since fireworks are for sale, it’s legal to shoot them off anywhere.

  • I’m only surprised there weren’t more incidents like this reported across the state this weekend. From The Morning CallConfrontations over fireworks leads to machete, gun arrests, police say

  • New York Times story that ran Friday looks at President Trump’s prospects for winning Pennsylvania again this year. While the story notes the huge challenge faced by the incumbent president, the overall takeaway is that a Biden win in Pa. this fall is far from certain. Republicans are optimistic for three reasons: The lack of a strong Biden field operation in the state; their hopes of linking Biden to the Green New Deal and policies that could hurt the state’s natural gas industry; and their effort to tie Biden to the “defund the police” movement that emerged out of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

  • Sen. Pat Toomey (R) is pushing legislation in Washington to penalize countries that don’t act to cut off fentanyl shipments to the United States. Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, is far more potent than heroin; when mixed with other opiates, it can lead to fatal overdoses. “While we understandably have been extremely focused on coronavirus and the deaths that have resulted from COVID-19, I don’t want us to lose sight of the appalling consequences of the ravages of the opioid epidemic, which is not over,” Toomey said.

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