Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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Confederate Cultural Clash

By Jeremy Morrison

The Confederate flag has seen a lot of action as of late.

It’s an old debate. One with roots stretching deep into America’s painful past. And one being taken up with a renewed interest following the recent massacre of nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by a 21-year-old who draped himself in the Confederate flag and preached the gospel of American hate.

The conversation is nationwide. Even in the South, in places like South Carolina Mississippi and Alabama, places of legend and lore along America’s darkened back roads, places where the rebel flag is emblazoned on bumper stickers and belt buckles and boogie boards, the debate has reached a tipping point.

Seemingly swept up in a wave of self-reflection, multiple corporations are discontinuing the sale of merchandise adorned with the Confederate flag and public officials across the South are rethinking the Confederate flag’s placement in their official displays. Locally, officials in both the city of Pensacola and Escambia County have made moves to scrub the flag in the face of such national debate.

And the debate continues. Among public officials, in the halls of government, and on the street, among the people, at work or church, in restaurants and bars, by morning DJs on the radio—and at places like Pensacola’s graffiti bridge, where the debate plays out in spray paint.

“It’s not for racism,” John Colvill said, as his compatriots busily painted a Confederate flag on the side of the bridge as passerby honked their horns, leaned out car windows and whooped in support, or conversely, shot middle fingers into the air in a show of disgust.

It was the group’s second session at the bridge. Their Confederate paintings of the previous evening had been quickly covered up by rainbow flags and messages espousing “unconditional love for all.”

A man sporting a rebel flag on his T-shirt arrived to help. Having just come from Cordova Mall, flying the flag in the parking lot, he reported many thumbs-ups.

“The Confederate flag is not just for whites being racist against blacks,” Colvill said. “It’s for any color and race.”

“We tried to explain,” Hunter Bardisa said, recalling the previous night when people had showed up to protest their bridge painting. “Your forefathers came out here and fought for this. You live in Florida; they fought for you.”

A few nights prior, as Escambia County commissioners debated the flag, Clorissti Mitchell had raised a question touching on this point: “I always hear people say history and heritage. My question is what history? What heritage? Because if there’s something other than slavery then I want to know what that something is, we need to talk about that.”

The city of one less flag
A week after the Charleston killings, Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers sent a letter to Mayor Ashton Hayward informing him that she intended to propose an ordinance limiting flags flown by the city to the U.S. flag and the state of Florida flag.

“I don’t understand why the Confederate flag is acceptable,” Myers said later that day. “The Confederacy existed to preserve the institution of slavery.”

This is not a newfound, flavor-of-the-month passion for the councilwoman. She grew up in Montgomery, witnessed firsthand the uncivil Civil Rights Era, and has long railed against the flag.

“This isn’t a new idea for me,” Myers said. “I’ve been opposed to flying the Confederate flag since—well, I’ve never understood the reason for flying it.”

The city of Pensacola has not flown the Confederate battle flag in years, instead opting for the First National Flag of the Confederacy.

“The one that we’re using does not seem to inflame the same passion,” Councilman P.C. Wu said.

Myers finds that version of the flag, albeit less culturally popular, no more appetizing.

“It’s still a Confederate flag,” the councilwoman said. “I don’t know why we should fly the flag of the Confederacy or any other country.”

In addition to the Confederate flag, Myers’ sights were set on removing the Spanish, British and French flags that fly on city property as well. The city of Pensacola—known as the City of Five Flags—traditionally raises public displays of all five flags that have flown over the city at various times in its history.

“I don’t understand the use of flying other countries’ flags,” Myers explained. “Most countries do not fly the flags of their colonializer, yet we fly the British flag.”

Wu questioned the need for Pensacola to address any flag issue, Confederate or otherwise.

“Sherri may be solving a problem that isn’t there,” Wu said.

Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn questioned if tinkering with the city’s flag displays was the right path.

“I think we begin a process of censoring and saying ‘this is inappropriate,’” she said, also arguing that focusing on a flag should not be substituted for educating people about the deeper issues bubbling beneath the surface of such iconography.

“If we don’t have a general education and understanding about the hate in America and how you can address these things, we are not dealing with the issue and simply taking away symbolism.”

Cannada-Wynn, an African-American, suggested the presence of the Confederate flag could help remind people of America’s struggles, both past and future.

“What it reminds me each and every day is that we should work toward the equality of all people,” she said.

Other city council members seemed more attuned to Myers’ thinking.

Council Vice President Larry B. Johnson said addressing the city’s use of the Confederate flag was “an uncomfortable conversation that needs to happen,” especially following the recent tragedy in Charleston.

“I think it’s timely to do it now, and I support Councilwoman Myers’ move,” Johnson said. “I’m sure that some people are going to be upset about them coming down, I just think it’s time and we should move on this.”

Council President Andy Terhaar was also supportive of the planned proposal—“obviously, the Confederate flag has a bad connotation with it”—and said he appreciated that it was not limited to just the Confederate flag.

“Let’s just go ahead and take’em all down,” Terhaar said, explaining that people have asked him about the city’s multiple flags before and suggesting that the U.S. and Florida flags would suffice. “I tell’em, ‘listen, we just need to say Pensacola is American, we’re an American city.”

As it turned out, the council didn’t have to wait to debate city’s flag displays. On June 25, Hayward addressed the issue himself.

“Today, I directed City staff to remove the Confederate Flag from display at all City of Pensacola facilities and to fly in its place the flag of the State of Florida,” the mayor said in a prepared statement issued to the press. “While the Confederate Flag undeniably represents a part of Pensacola’s history, to many it is a painful symbol of racial hatred and intolerance. I proudly celebrate our great city’s rich history, but I do not believe that we are defined by our history alone. We will always be the City of Five Flags—but now is the time for us to turn our focus to our city’s bright future.”

Hayward did not address the city’s remaining extracurricular flags. City Public Information Officer Vernon Stewart said there had been a discussion at city hall about only flying the U.S. and state flags, but the mayor’s “main objective was for the Confederate flag to come down.”

Myers applauded the mayor but said she still planned to propose her ordinance in July.

“I still think there needs to be an ordinance, so this flag is not placed up there again after Ashton,” she said, adding that she would change her proposal to mirror the mayor’s move and deal only with the Confederate flag.

Deja vu redo
Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May was discussing the flag issue with Hayward in the days leading up to the mayor’s decision. The commissioner—representing a largely African-American district—is a vocal critic of the Confederate flag and said Hayward was game for the conversation.

“I talked to the mayor about the importance of taking the flag down,” May recalled. “He knew he would take some heat and he said, ‘I’m willing to take the heat and do the right thing.’”

Within hours of Mayor Hayward pulling down the Confederate flags on city property, Escambia County followed suit. There was only one, at the Pensacola Bay Center. That flag was prefaced on the city’s historical five flags display, and thus so was its removal.

According to a resolution Escambia commissioners passed in March, historical flag displays in the county are based on such displays in Pensacola. The removal of the city’s Confederate flags triggered the removal of their county counterpart.

It was a win, but it didn’t taste quite right.

“We could have put this to rest in December,” said May.

In December, county commissioners voted to remove the Confederate flag at the Bay Center. A couple months later they voted to hoist it back up. Spirited back-and-forth throughout.

And now, in the sorrowful shadow of Charleston and amid the sweep of other Southern jurisdictions making the call to ditch the flag, Escambia finds itself again delving back into the flag debate.

It’s not the way May would have liked to see it go down. It would have been nice to see such epiphanies locked down decades ago, or at least by last December.

“We certainly could have been ahead of this,” May said. “Instead, we’re reactionary.”

Following the city’s move, members of the public showed up at that night’s county commissioners’ meeting and requested the county stop piggybacking onto the city and that commissioners formalize the removal of the Confederate flag on county property with a resolution.

And they almost did, too. But Commissioner Wilson Robertson, who pushed for the display of the Confederate battle flag on county property in 2000, protested that the discussion should be tabled due to the absence of Commissioner Grover Robinson.

He also said the commissioners should consider more than the opinions presented to them by members of the public—overwhelmingly critical—present for the evening’s meeting.

“We have a group of citizens come down and we’re just going to bow down to their request and your not even thinking about the hundreds out there that, actually — the Sons of the Confederacy and I could go on and on and on …,” Robertson argued.

Ultimately the commissioners agreed to hold off on formalizing the county’s removal of the Confederate flag until July when the full board will be present, but not before Commissioner Doug Underhill and Chairman Steven Barry unofficially pledged their support for May’s eventual resolution, seemingly sealing the three needed votes.

“If you want to call the question tonight, I’ll tell you I’ll support you,” Barry told May.

“Tonight, tomorrow night, a thousand nights,” Underhill assured.

Rebel graffiti
The second round of Confederate flag paintings on graffiti bridge attracted a curious crowd. Both in support and opposition.

Becki Bryce was there with her children, blowing Yemenite shofar horns, which she described as a Jewish practice meant to dispel evil. She said she came to blow the Yemenite horns in an attempt to “create unity in the city.”

“Basically, what we’ve come here to do is trying to scatter the spirit of the enemy,” Bryce said, looking over at the group painting on the bridge.

As the woman’s “beautiful multi-brown children” played on the slope of grass beneath the railroad tracks beside the bay, she explained that she grew up in the South, but couldn’t grasp the attachment people had to the Confederate flag. She wasn’t sure her kids understood either, though she hoped they had at least an academic grasp of what was going down.

“I gave ’em a brief history lesson,” Bryce said.

A few minutes later one of the men painting on the bridge walked past the mother and her children. He noted her son’s sounding of the Yemenite shofar horn.

“Good job blowing that horn, boy,” he said.

“He’s not a boy,” Bryce said. “He’s a man of God.”

Across the parking lot, some Pensacola police officers had gathered at graffiti bridge. They asked if everything was all right.

“Last night there was a little problem,” Bardisa said, standing on the embankment beside the in-progress Confederate painting.

“I was here,” responded an officer.

The painters said they had expected their first Confederate flag graffiti to disappear quickly. They weren’t deterred that the new renderings might be covered up in a matter of hours as well.

“And we’ll come back out here,” Bryan Ware said.

The Confederate flag camp at the bridge cited the recent removals of the flags on city and county property as their inspiration. They described the moves as misguided and the debate as off track.

“We want them to know it’s not about hate, it’s not about race,” Bardisa said. “It’s about pride. It’s about history.”