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Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Symbolic signage: Flags catch flack in local politics

Jeslyn Chen

From his seventh-floor window in Palo Alto City Hall, City Manager Ed Shikada can survey the streets below. Outside his window, five flags fly atop city poles.

“On the eastmost flagpole, we have the American flag,” he said. “Next to it, in the center … is the United Nations flag, and then down below, is the Pride flag. And then over on the … third flagpole is the State of California flag and down below it, the City of Palo Alto [flag]. These are the flags that have been flying for as long as I can recall.”

These flags are a constant in the City Hall plaza. But locally and nationally, city and school flagpoles have become sites for recent political controversy.

Protests for Palestinians

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On March 30, protesters hoisted Palestinian flags onto city flag poles outside of Palo Alto City Hall. According to Musa Tariq, the policy coordinator for the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, the protest aimed to raise awareness for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Palestinian flag is a symbol of liberation, a symbol of its people right now,” Tariq said. “This is a people that has been wiped out, genocided, silenced. So, it’s more important than ever that we put the Palestinian flag high. … because if we allow this genocide to continue in silence, then these people have died for nothing. I think it’s important that we amplify the voices of the voiceless.”

In response, the City of Palo Alto removed the flags and locked down the flagpoles to prevent similar displays.

It’s important that we amplify the voices of the voiceless.

— Musa Tariq, Policy Coordinator for the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

“We understand that that [unauthorized flag flying] was an issue and we reviewed the situation,” Shikada said. “As a result, the city is placing locks on the flag … halyards [the rope used for raising and lowering a flag] … in order to prevent unauthorized use in the future.”

However, Tariq reaffirmed the importance of the protest.

“Any form of protest in front of a City Hall is … a valid way to express concerns within a community especially when their elected officials are not hearing them out,” he said. “If they have to hang a flag on a flagpole, I think that’s a pretty harmless form of expression to get some form of acknowledgment.”

Displaying Pride flags

Veronica Qiu, a Palo Alto High School sophomore and president of Paly’s Cultural Connections Club, is familiar with the cultural importance of flags, but she also recognizes their political significance.

“I think there’s definitely two sides of flags,” she said. “In one way they can show a cultural aspect of a community and their values, but I think also, it can represent a political movement … like the rainbow flag.”

According to Shane Stahl, communications manager for Equality California, a statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, it has become increasingly common for cities to ban Pride flags.

In addition to cities such as Huntington Beach banning Pride flags on city property, multiple California school districts have restricted the flying of Pride flags, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In Sunol, an Alameda County town less than an hour’s drive from Palo Alto, the school board passed a resolution to ban the flying of any flag except for the U.S. and California flags. In both cases, supporters of the flag ban worried that flying the Pride flag would cause division.

“Sadly, there’s been an increase in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment over the past couple of years, including a rise in hate crimes,” Stahl said. “Those attempting to ban the Pride flag … are extremists using this as another tactic to intimidate and harass LGBTQ+ people.”

For Stahl, cities such as Palo Alto that fly the Pride flag are beacons of acceptance for the queer community.

“The Pride flag is a symbol of the diversity and beauty of the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “For many people, seeing a Pride flag instills a sense of safety and security.”

Policies and protocols

Amid these debates, institutions grapple with policies governing flag displays.

For many people, seeing a Pride flag instills a sense of safety and security.

— Shane Stahl, Communications Manager for Equality California

Shikada said that the city can fly new flags during a special event, such as when one of Palo Alto’s sister cities is visiting.

Otherwise, the City Council would need to pass a resolution.

“[Flying] the United Nations [flag], the Pride flag, were determined by City Council action, most likely a resolution at some point in the past,” Shikada said. “Over time, that [the flags the city flies] will change based on City Council direction, and there could be a resolution to fly some other flag, either on a special event or in recognition.”

Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin said that although some school districts may choose to display other flags beside the U.S. and state flags, PAUSD follows convention.

“When we get into weighing the merits of the different flags whether for protest or presentation, that’s problematic for a lot of reasons and not something we would not want to weigh into,” Austin said. “Individuals have tons of rights when it comes to what they want to do in their own facilities, their own homes, their own property. There’s a lot of freedom there but as far as a school district or government entity, I’m comfortable with the long-standing practice of sticking with the two and staying out of the discussions about what other flags might make sense to go up.”

Places in California where the LGBTQ+ Pride flag has been banned