Flag debate re-emerges in Oak Bluffs

Select board members drag their feet after being presented with a more inclusive town flag policy.

The Oak Bluffs select board raised concerns about a proposed revision of a town flag policy. — MV Times

Almost a year after the Oak Bluffs Select Board reluctantly agreed to raise the Progress Pride flag in recognition of Pride Month, a proposed revision of the town’s flag policy, which the board acknowledges as restrictive, failed to garner support of the board, prompting the policy to be back under debate.

The decision to fly the Progress Pride flag last year came after lengthy and well-attended meetings where LGBTQ community members and their supporters urged the board to acknowledge and celebrate the town’s diversity. 

The topic morphed into a heated discussion after it was announced that the town was considering a flag policy prohibiting any flags other than those approved by the select board — flags of the United States of America, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Town of Oak Bluffs, and official military and POW-MIA — from being raised on any town property. 

The controversial policy was ultimately approved, prior to the denial of a request from the NAACP to fly the Juneteenth flag.

A five-member working group was later assembled to come up with a more palatable policy, and on Tuesday, the group presented a newly drafted policy that would give the town the flexibility to allow non-federally-recognized flags to be flown on town flagpoles.

The working group is made up of select board member Emma Green-Beach, board chair Ryan Ruley, two representatives from the NAACP Martha’s Vineyard branch, and the Dukes County veterans service officer, Randy Dull.

Per the revised draft, the Progress Pride flag and the Juneteenth flag would be allowed to be flown at Ocean Park for six to 31 days and one to seven days, respectively. 

But select board members immediately raised concerns about the inclusion of the two flags in the policy. “If I was representing my personal beliefs, there would be no flags on the flagpole besides the American flag, and the POW flag, and etc.,” board member Brian Packish said. That was before sharing his belief that both the Progress Pride Flag and the Juneteenth flag “should be flown.”

But the proposed six to 31 days is “extreme,” he said.

Because June is Pride Month and includes Juneteenth, Packish said he worries about flying too many flags. It would “look like a fishing tournament,” he said.

Green-Beach clarified that per the revised policy, “Only one flag which is not federally recognized will be flown at a time.”

Select board member Gail Barmakian said she’s “very uncomfortable” with the new draft, as it could give way to a slew of requests from the public to fly other flags.

Next year there may be another nationally accepted flag, Barmakian said: “We’re in a period and culture of movements.” 

She said the two flags mentioned “have become different” from what they were originally created for; they are “now a movement translated into a flag.”

Barmakian said because “they’ve become somewhat political,” perhaps there is “a better venue to promote certain causes.”

Green-Beach noted that Juneenth is a federally recognized holiday.

“But there’s no federally recognized flag,” Barmakian said, adding that Pride Month and Juneteenth have been “singled out” for approval, per the policy. “Everybody’s not being treated fairly,” she said.

Select board member Jason Balboni agreed, and reiterated previous concerns about allowing certain groups to display their flags, and rejecting requests from others. “Picking and choosing [will] be very dangerous for the town,” he said.

Balboni said it “bothers” him that the proposed new policy seems to be tailored in favor of two particular flags, although he “[doesn’t] have anything against either one of them, personally.” 

He said “it doesn’t seem like any effort” has been put into alternative solutions.

Last year the board briefly entertained the idea of introducing a completely new flagpole on town property, to be used exclusively for third-party flags, but that was eventually dismissed. On Tuesday, Packish said he felt that an additional pole would imply “secondary treatment.”

Green-Beach agreed. “It would alleviate some feelings and create others,” she said.

Last year’s approval of the restrictive flag policy followed a ruling by the Supreme Court that the city of Boston was in violation of the First Amendment when it denied a request by a conservative activist group to fly a Christian flag outside City Hall. 

Select board members then referred to the litigation when making their decision, and later engaged town counsel for assistance. The attorney confirmed the town may “speak on the causes they choose.”

In the Boston case, Green-Beach said at Tuesday’s meeting, “they did not exercise their government speech properly.”

They allowed a number of flags to be raised, she said, and when Boston wanted to deny a request, “they didn’t have the grounds to do it.”

With the newly proposed policy, there wouldn’t be guidelines on how to decide which flags to raise, Green-Beach said; it would be at the discretion of the select board. 

On the proposed new flag policy, “town counsel says this passes constitutional muster,” Green-Beach said. 

“Sadly, not everyone has felt represented by the American flag,” she said. “That’s a hard thing to say out loud, but it’s very real.”

The current policy may be “all well enough for some people, but not for everybody … I don’t want to just leave it alone,” she said.

“We just have to find out what’s important to us,” Green-Beach continued. “This is important to me. It’s important to a lot of people. And I’d think we want to be a town where everyone feels welcome, safe, and embraced.”

The select board took no vote, and said they’d be interested in reviewing a redrafted policy.

In a call with The Times Wednesday, Green-Beach said although she didn’t expect the board would get to a vote Tuesday, she’s still “disappointed.”

As elected representatives, “we have to look at things from all perspectives,” she said, and “our community has asked us to raise [the Progress Pride and Juneteenth] flags.”

Both of them “represent big, important issues,” she said, and are “hugely significant parts of our history.”