Flag Burning: Will ANTIFA Desecrate Gettysburg National Cemetery?

Could the site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address be used for a flag burning protest? (Anthony C. Hayes)

GETTYSBURG, PA. — On July 1, 1863, battle lines were drawn around the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. The outcome of that horrific three-day engagement proved to be a turning point in the American Civil War – one which directly led to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Veterans on both sides of the conflict considered the rolling farmland around Gettysburg hallowed ground. Their descendants still gather there every year to celebrate both the victors and the vanquished. But this weekend, Lincoln’s call for unity may once again go unheeded, if plans, put forth on social media, to burn an American flag at the National Cemetery actually come to fruition.

The Women’s Memorial near the Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse in Gettysburg. Credit Anthony C. Hayes).
The Women’s Memorial near the Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse in Gettysburg.
(Anthony C. Hayes).

“We are aware of the Facebook posts and are taking them very seriously,” said Detective Dennis Bevenour – Investigator with the Gettysburg Borough Police Department. “We’ve received over 200 calls on this matter. There’s also a social media post saying that the Gettysburg Police Department has ‘Confirmed an ANTIFA plan’ and there’s no truth to that at all. But we are in touch, obviously, with federal, state, and other law enforcement agencies, because we don’t know who may or may not show up.

“At this point, no one has confirmed that this alleged ANTIFA post is actually authentic. But we are obviously going to take precautions to ensure that everybody who comes into town has a nice, safe weekend.”

Bevenour confirmed that state police and federal entities are actively looking into this matter and are also poised to respond en force, if needed. However, he could not say whether or not the Park Service has issued a permit to any group planning to burn a flag.

“I don’t know how the park operates when it comes to (burning a flag) on Federal property,” said Bevenour. “But I can tell you that – to date – none of the statues or monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park have been defaced.

“As far as First Amendment rights go, protesters really don’t need a permit here in town, unless they’re going to block a road or a sidewalk or something of that effect. We have a lot of people lately that protest in the square. As long as they’re not blocking anything, that’s their personal way.”

Flag burning, as an exercise of symbolic speech, was deemed to be protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in the landmark Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

The problem for law enforcement is that the social media posts for this particular protest are also provocative, demanding that patriots, militia men and bikers keep away from the flag burning event.

As anyone who has been to Gettysburg for the annual battle reenactment can attest, the town is usually filled with bikers and veterans during the Fourth of July weekend.

“Normally, we have anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people here over the July 4th weekend. A lot of that is because we have Bike Week and the (Civil War) reenactments. However, this year (because of the pandemic), Bike Week and reenactments have been canceled. Even so, since a lot of the COVID-19 restrictions have recently been lifted, we’re assuming that a lot of people will probably come here just for a quick vacation,” said Bevenour.

Phantom Protesters?

This weekend’s alert is not the first for the Gettysburg National Military Park. A similar threat to burn Confederate flags on July 1, 2017 never came to fruition. Nor did a bomb threat in November of that same year, which effectively cut short some of the Remembrance Day activities.

Jason A. Martz – Visual Information Specialist, Public Affairs Officer (acting) for the Gettysburg National Military Park – told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that the Park Police are not taking the social media threats lightly. But he recalled the previous threats as being somewhat anticlimactic.

“I can tell you the U.S. Park Service is taking this present threat very seriously.

“We had something similar happen in 2017, where there was a social media post that created a lot of fervor. And a lot of counter protesters. Of course, the original group never showed. The counter protesters did, and everything was largely fine. We’re kind of hoping that this takes a similar track – that the whole thing turns out to be a bit of hoax, or a bit of trolling as it’s termed – and the counter protesters show up, they do what they need to do, and everyone’s safe.”

Has the Park Service issued a permit to an ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter, or any similar group for gathering on July 4?

“No. No permit request has been submitted, and that’s pretty much it. We haven’t had any permit requests from any of those groups, and the normal process requires the permit be applied for at least 30 days in advance.”

Would a small gathering of flag-burning protesters in the cemetery even need a permit?

Flag burning: Canons stand as silent sentinals over some of the graves at Gettysburg National Cemetery. (credit Anthony C. Ha
Canons stand as silent sentinels over some of the graves at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
(Anthony C. Hayes)

“That would add a whole a different element to this,” said Martz. “The National Park Service has designated First Amendment rights areas within the military park, and the National Cemetery is not one of them.

“One of the locations is nearby. So – this is hypothetical – if that group wanted to participate in any kind of First Amendment activity, including a flag burning, they would need to submit the necessary permit. Management team at the park would then review that permit and either agree to it as is, reject it but with suggestions, or flat out reject it.

“Under the circumstances right now, would a flag burning permit be accepted? I don’t know.

“We would also likely call in our wild land fire experts, to make sure that the conditions would be within a realm of acceptability. We can’t have an uncontrolled wildfire running rampant across the battlefield. In many cases, the battlefield surrounds the town of Gettysburg, so there would be a lot of potential fire hazard issues with that.”

What kind of penalties would a protester face, if they violated the sanctity of the cemetery?

“Honestly, I can’t tell you, off the top of my head,” said Martz. “Those penalties fall into the Federal Code of Regulations, and those things are not part of my normal purview.

“I can tell you, however, that the penalties for defacing or destroying a statue – or other monuments – is a fine of up to $500 or up to three months in jail, plus full restitution for whatever damage is caused.

“Any damage to a monument would be adjusted on a case by case basis.

“Our law enforcement Rangers have the federal authority to arrest, to cite, or to do whatever is needed to protect the resources.”

Keeping A Watchful Eye On History

The Gettysburg National Battlefield covers approximately 6000 acres. Within that area, there are more than 1,300 statues, monuments and markers – including 40 statues of Confederate luminaries, such as Robert E Lee. We asked what the Park Service is doing to protect those monuments.

A monument overlooking the Gettysburg Battlefield. Picture taken on Remembrance Day 2017 - credit Anthony C. Hayes Baltimore Post-Examiner
A monument overlooking the Gettysburg Battlefield.
(Anthony C. Hayes)

“Well, that’s something that is a multi-faceted answer,” said Martz. “First and foremost, we do have a dedicated law enforcement staff on site. They do patrols throughout the park on a daily basis and cover as much ground as they possibly can. But we also have our resource management folks, our maintenance folks, our interpretive Rangers, and so forth. They drive around all corners of the battlefield. So, we have eyes and ears out there all the time, in addition to our law enforcement.”

Martz told us that Park Service staff are not alone in the quest to keep things in order.

“We have several additional security layers. One is our Park Watch, which is made up of dedicated volunteers, who also serve as the eyes and ears of the park. These folks are incredibly dedicated; they take their activity very seriously, and they’re in direct contact with law enforcement.

“There are also the locals – the townspeople in Gettysburg and Adams County.

“A lot of people utilize the battlefield for recreation purposes – walking, jogging, hiking, biking, taking the dog out for a walk. These folks are very familiar with the battlefield, know what to look for, and recognize when things are potentially out of place.

“And then the final layer would be the visitors themselves.

“I think we’re lucky in this regard.

“The people who come to Gettysburg know there’s something special about the battlefield. There’s something special about the stories, and the connections to what happened in July of 1863 – for better or for worse.

“And there’s a certain reverence, I think, that’s applied to visitors coming to the battlefield.

“Those are some of our biggest advocates. When it really comes down to it, if someone notices something, we’re gonna hear about it. Under the circumstances, we probably have our angles covered as best as we possibly can,” said Martz.

“That’s really what we’re hoping for – that everyone who comes to Gettysburg has sincere reasons for being here. As long as people are secure and the resources are protected – and everyone gets home safe and sound on the evening of July 4 – that’s the best we can hope for.”