ITHACA, N.Y. –– Controversy broke out this week after protesters rallying for racial justice outside the Ithaca Police Department took down the American flag from the station’s flagpole, ripped it, burned it and rehung it.

For 17 straight weeks, protesters have gathered on the Ithaca Commons and marched through downtown in solidarity with thousands across the nation mourning the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day back in May. Protests have continued across the country for months, and here in Ithaca crowds have ebbed and flowed as additional deaths of Black people have occurred at the hands of law enforcement throughout the nation.

Protesters Sunday met for their weekly rally on the Commons before marching through the Fall Creek neighborhood and back to IPD headquarters. There, members of the crowd rallied and demanded IPD officers to “quit your jobs.”

Protesters took the American flag from the flagpole outside of IPD before cutting and burning it in an act presumably meant to spark outrage from those in opposition to the racial justice movement, and highlight the lack of anger when Black Americans are killed by police brutality.

One protester, Genevieve Rand, who did not participate in the destruction of the flag but did witness it said on Twitter, “actions like this let us examine the responses of people in power — if they’re louder about a ripped flag than the state-sanctioned murder of Black people, they’re the problem with American government.”

“It was clearly intended to provoke,” Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said in a statement about the incident Wednesday. “As we speak it’s being used by internet trolls and people who would like to see this spark a broader real-world conflagration.”

Myrick has continued to state publicly that he supports the mission to scale down and demilitarize police while also now condemning Sunday’s vandalism for going too far.

“I personally attended many of these protests earlier in the summer and was proud to, because the fight for racial justice and social justice is personal to me,” Myrick said. However this action, he said, “falls clearly outside the bounds of peaceful protest.”

In the face of this latest incident, the mayor urged those with opposing viewpoints and those offended by the action to not use it as an excuse for violence.

“It’s up to us to measure our reactions to these provocations. I’ve urged all of our employees, including the police, and all of our residents that in the face of provocations to listen hard, to employ restraint and to assume positive intent,” he said. Myrick went on to cite the clash that occurred when a right-wing activist said he was injured after engaging in a dispute with protesters

IPD Chief Dennis Nayor told the Ithaca Voice that the incident is currently under investigation and that destroying the flag was, “disgraceful.”

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1989 that flag burning is a constitutionally protected form of “symbolic speech,” the destruction of city property is a criminal act.

Weekly protests are set to continue this Sunday, while counter-protests are set to continue for a second time in three weeks with another “Back the Blue” rally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 3.

Myrick in his statement said he is not discouraging, “anyone left, right and center” from protesting but that in the future he hopes protests and rallies remain peaceful. 

“Acts of vandalism and violence will only distract from meaningful progress,” he said. 

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com