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Pressure increases on Coast Guard to ban Confederate flag

In early March, Lauryn Banks, a Black female cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, stood up in front of a packed auditorium and asked the head of the service about a statement he’d made about banning the Confederate flag.

“I respectfully request to know why the use of the Confederate flag would not offend someone, knowing its history, and if the use of such a derogatory object does not offend someone, especially here, shouldn’t we be worried about their ability to effectively lead and understand people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities? If we want to maintain and create more diversity in the Coast Guard, why wouldn’t we move to ban such a thing?” Banks asked.

Her question followed a wide-ranging discussion at the academy between Adm. Karl Schultz, the head of the Coast Guard, and former CNN Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve, who’d asked Schultz whether the Coast Guard was considering banning the Confederate flag, as the Marine Corps recently had done.

Schultz responded by saying the Coast Guard hadn’t banned the flag but changed its policy in 2019 to give commanders discretion as to how to handle such imagery, "if it's revealed and it's offensive to somebody.” He added that the Coast Guard was watching the Marines’ decision.

“This will butt up, I think, against constitutionality, First Amendment rights, so we’re intrigued by what the Marine Corps is doing,” Schultz said. “Every situation on a Coast Guard facility that involves a Confederate flag or any hate symbol will be investigated. It will be immediately removed.”

Since that March 4 conversation, much has happened in the world, including the continuation of a global health pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color and mass demonstrations protesting police brutality and racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, by a white police officer.

These events have led many to renew their calls to ban the Confederate flag, including by military services such as the Coast Guard.

Asked this week whether Schultz had changed his position in light of recent events, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride pointed to the service’s recently released diversity and inclusion plan and said in an emailed statement: “As we build the most inclusive, safe, and respectful environment for the entire Coast Guard community, the service continues conversations on significant issues impacting diversity and inclusion within the Coast Guard workforce.”

Some members of Congress have waded into the debate, speaking out and drafting legislation, such as a recent House proposal that would ban the display of the Confederate flag at all Department of Defense sites.

In a June 8 letter to Schultz, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat representing Illinois and a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said the Coast Guard “should demonstrate moral leadership in swiftly moving to prohibit the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag, rather than waiting on Congress to force such action.”

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat representing Mississippi and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, which has oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and thus the Coast Guard, urged the Coast Guard to ban the flag and “ensure discipline for military members or civilian employees who disobey such a ban.”

The New London chapter of the NAACP called upon Thompson's committee in a June 30 letter "to move with all deliberate speed to ban the brandishing of the confederate symbol from all facilities."

Some in the Coast Guard question why pressure from Congress is needed to institute change.

 “It is truly a disgrace that we need external pressure from Congress to ban a racist hate symbol used to harass Black people in the Coast Guard. We have already pushed for its removal, unsuccessfully, as Coast Guard affinity group members,” said Lt. Junior Grade Caleb Tvrdy, a 2017 Coast Guard Academy graduate and co-founder of the Coast Guard's first anti-racist queer affinity group, called CG Spectrum.

Internally, many in the Coast Guard have talked about the need to ban the flag, including the service’s Affinity Group Council. The council represents all affinity groups — groups that are created around shared interests and identities and that promote inclusive and diverse work environments — in the Coast Guard, encompassing hundreds of people.

The council recommended to Schultz last year that the service prohibit the display of the Confederate flag in any iteration on all U.S. Coast Guard installations and government-owned housing.

Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, a member of the council, said the policy giving commanding officers the discretion to handle instances of the Confederate flag being displayed “puts the onus on the person who perceives it as harassment to file a complaint that is then subjected to the interpretation of the investigation.”

Young-McLear has spoken out about bullying and harassment she faced while a member of the faculty at the academy, including at a congressional hearing in December 2019 that Rep. Thompson helped spearhead following an 18-month investigation by Congress into how the Coast Guard handles such complaints. An inspector general’s report found Young-McLear received low marks on a performance evaluation after she reported bullying and harassment by her superiors, a violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act.

Some have argued that banning the Confederate flag is largely symbolic and that more needs to be done to institute systemic change and hold those accountable who use hate symbols as a means of oppressing others.

“Banning the Confederate Flag is just the tip of the iceberg for eradicating racism. I’ve intervened numerous times not only because of the Confederate flag but also other patterns of unlawful systemic racism which harmed Black cadets and faculty at the Coast Guard Academy. This includes a complete lack of justice and accountability in the two recent DHS OIG reports,” said Cmdr. Royce James, a member of the permanent faculty at the academy and co-founder of CG Spectrum.

A report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General released publicly last month found that the academy fell short in its handling of rase-based harassment allegations involving cadets and, at times, did not take disciplinary action even when allegations were substantiated.

One of the cases, which happened in April 2017, involved a picture of two cadets who posed in front of a Confederate flag, which one of them posted on his social media account. The academy investigated but did not involve civil rights staff, as required, and the command ultimately found the post did not constitute an act of hate and did not punish the cadet involved, despite the investigator in the case concluding he should be disciplined. Additionally, the command did not determine whether the posting constituted harassment, which is required even if the allegation of hate is not substantiated, the report said.

The descendant of a founder of the Confederacy also has asked Schultz to ban the Confederate flag.

Denise Rucker Krepp, who served in the Coast Guard from 1998 to 2002, is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Howell Cobb, who was the secretary of the Revenue Cutter Service, an antecedent agency of the Coast Guard.

One of the last acts he took as secretary was to advise Georgians to secede from the Union, Krepp said.

"Allowing the Confederate flag to be flown on Coast Guard facilities implies that the service endorses my grandfather's racism and prejudice and I can't support that," Krepp said in a June 17 letter to Schultz. "I can't support bigotry and hatred."

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the name of the cadet who asked Schultz about banning the Confederate flag.

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