Several hundred students at American University gathered Wednesday, Nov. 9 at a campus center, where several American flags were burned in protest after Donald Trump won the presidential election.
The demonstrators gathered at Mary Graydon Center, which houses a dining hall and classrooms, to rail against the Republican’s Election Day victory, using matches and lighter to set several small U.S. flags ablaze.
“That women should have the right to their own bodies, that Native Americans should have clean water, that police should stop killing black people. That’s what I’m trying to say,” sophomore Isiah Young responded when asked why he was burning the flag.
Some cheered as flags were burned, but others challenged the protesters. Scuffles and shouting matches ensued when counter-protesters attempted to grab burning flags.
The event was thought to be organized by the American University’s Black Student Alliance. On Twitter, the group said that while some of their members were present, it was not their event.
“The event was not a BLM movement and none of the people who attended came as BLM members we came with the intention to make a bold statement,” said sophomore Ciera Jefferies. “We also came to show love and solidarity to those that feel affected by the election results.”
Jeffries said the event was organized by a white female student who shared similar sentiments.
Public safety officers and campus administrators were present to ensure the safety of all participants.
Saira Umar, a sophomore theater major at the university, said she came across the scene on her way to class and approached it cautiously.
“I think it’s important for people to voice their frustrations with the system, and I understand where they were coming from, but I don’t agree with necessarily how they went about it,” she said. “It was very unclear why they were upset, to most watching, and burning the flag, to many, did not seem to correlate with being upset about Trump’s election.”
Umar said she saw one student run away from the rally in tears.
“As a minority, I’m personally really worried about how our county will change, as it already has, but there needs to be more organized ways to ensure that all Americans keep progressing towards equality and maintain and gain rights they are owed,” she said.
Similar demonstrations against the Trump victory and his inflammatory campaign rhetoric have played out in cities across the nation including New York, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and D.C.
While many videos of the flag burning circulated on social media, the campus newspaper, The Eagle, tweeted that the rally, which lasted over 90 minutes, gave some the opportunity to stand in small groups and discuss their differing views about Trump and Clinton.
“The American University Student Government is and will remain to be a nonpartisan organization,” student body President Devontae Torriente said in a statement. “However, we are steadfast in our belief that our students of color, LGBT+ students, Muslim students, Jewish students, women students, students with disabilities and survivors of sexual assault are to be respected, protected, supported and loved. We will ensure that their rights will be upheld, even in the face of disapproval.”
AU President Neil Kerwin said though flag burning is a protected form of expression under the First Amendment, “it is also an act of profound disrespect that left many members of our community outraged, deeply offended, and disappointed.”
“Inflammatory language and actions were evident. I am disappointed that an opportunity to express deeply felt concerns about the results and implications of the election became an incident that has further divided members of our community and reflected poorly on our university,” Kerwin said in a statement.
He said the best ways to remedy tension surrounding the election are “open discussion and healthy debate for all viewpoints.”