Activists set fire to the American flag at a Brooklyn park that memorializes thousands of Revolutionary War heroes Wednesday in protest of "systemic racism," though turnout was much smaller than the hundreds expected for the planned event, which had drawn the ire of lawmakers and residents across the five boroughs.
A group called Disarm NYPD was to lead the protest at Fort Greene Park at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday -- but in a Facebook video posted around that time, the group said: "Last night we decided to take immediate action and burned the flag in Fort Greene Park" after "the usual suspects threw an impressive tantrum" over the flag-burning plans.
The video showed an American flag burning at Fort Greene Park's Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, but it's not clear if it actually took place at the park Tuesday night.
The group had said it also planned to burn the Confederate flag in a rally against the country’s long history of systemic racism after nine people were killed in a historic South Carolina church earlier this month.
Several activists still showed up Wednesday evening to burn both the Confederate and American flags. A handful of people, their faces covered by scarves, set fire to one American flag near a grassy area, and then set fire to a Confederate flag and an American flag by the monument.
"Let that [expletive] burn," a woman could be heard saying. Others chanted the names of black men who have recently died at the hands of police.
Carlos Cabera, a member of Disarm the NYPD, said, "White supremacy, racism, colonial imperialism still exist, and they're only superficial differences compared with the Confederate flag and the American flag."
Police officers watched nearby but did not interfere because no law was broken, police said. It is legal to burn something in a barbecue grill, they said, which is what happened at the park.
A group of pro-flag protesters, including about 30 people from a Brooklyn-based biker club, caught wind of what was happening and stormed over to pull the flag out of the fire. They clashed with the flag-burning group, and police followed the chaotic melees as the two groups ran through the park shouting and cursing at each other.
There were no arrests, police said.
While the intent of the demonstration may have been to open a dialogue about race, the focus for many was on the burning flag.
"If you're going to burn the American flag, you're going to run the risk of running into people like me," said John Carroll of Ridgewood, one of the pro-flag demonstrators. "I will stand by this flag all the time."
Diane Atkins said, "We believe in what the United States of America stands for, and the flag that people have died to protect it."
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a memorial to the more than 11,500 American prisoners of war who died in captivity aboard British prison ships during the Revolutionary War, sits at the center of the park, atop its tallest hill. The remains of some of those who died on the ships are interred in a crypt underneath the base of the war monument.
That the protesters would burn the American flag in such a place of memorial doubled the outrage for some.
“It’s wrong,” state senator Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn, said before the event. “It’s a wrong message to send to our children, wrong message to send to our communities. Just plain wrong.”
Golden said he was determined to stop the group, saying that burning anything in a city park is illegal. He said he called on Mayor de Blasio's administration to step in to stop the protest.
De Blasio's office said protest is a "divisive, disrespectful way to express views, and does not reflect the values of our city."
Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams said, "I am sympathetic to those protesting institutional racism in our society, but burning the American flag is a fringe act that will do nothing to combat the challenges we face."
The group responded to criticism in a statement on its Facebook page.
“We find it a sign of the times that people can care so much about a piece of cloth, while at the same time be so quiet about black churches being burned all over the country,” the group said.
"We do not believe the ideals of America are anything to be revered ... We dream of what real freedom looks like: freedom from paramilitaries occupying our communities, beating and killing our sons and daughters; freedom from our communities being destroyed by the speculative capital of gentrification; freedom from mass surveillance; and freedom from systemic racism," the statement continued. "So, we will burn the American flag, a symbol of oppression and genocide, and in the same action, dismantle our stunted, cynical expectations of what is possible in the world."
In the Facebook video posted Wednesday, it added: "It is important to remember that while the Confederate flag symbolized the defense of slavery, the institution reigned under the Stars and Stripes for nearly a century. After Jim Crow, segregation, and their current manifestations within the prison-industrial complex, it is clear that both racist flags deserve matches and lighter fluid."
In April, a group of artists hauled a 100-pound statue of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the park in the dead of night and installed it on top one of the war monument's pillars.
The intent, in that case, was to highlight those who sacrificed their safety to fight against "modern-day tyrannies," the group said. The statue was removed a day after it was installed.