Claim: The fire chief of Berkeley, California, ordered the removal of American flags from city fire trucks.
Origins: Fire trucks in Berkeley were stripped of their American flags by order of the fire chief, but the order was temporary and was prompted by a specific safety concern.
the events of September 11, firefighters at all seven of Berkeley's fire stations placed flags on the backs and sides of their engines to show solidarity with the missing firefighters and police officers in New York. Because a run on the supply of flags made smaller sizes difficult to obtain, firefighters used the flagpole-sized 4-by-6-foot flags the department had on hand to adorn their trucks.
On September 20, in anticipation of a Stop the War rally at University of California at Berkeley's Sproul Hall Plaza (described as "the spot where countless protests have degenerated into burn-and-pillage free-for-alls, where rally-goers loot Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue stores, upturn vehicles and set fires") Fire Chief Reginald Garcia ordered that flags be removed from fire trucks for the day in order to avoid making them the target of violence by anti-war demonstrators:
Officials said they were trying to avoid a repeat of violence that occurred during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles at city firetrucks sporting American flags. This week, the flag atop the Berkeley post office was burned in an anonymous act of protest, they said.
(Garcia said that it was his command staff who issued the order without his knowledge after a meeting he did not attend, but that he "certainly didn't rescind the order.")
The concern was that the presence of large flags on fire trucks during the Stop the War rally might create situations under which firefighters were diverted from their primary duties:
"Based on past experience, these flags may be inflammatory to people and provoke them to take the flag or whatever else," said Berkeley Assistant Fire Chief David Orth. "I don't want a firefighter defending a flag in lieu of fighting a fire or rescuing somebody."
As things turned out, the department's fears were unrealized:
The department's concerns appeared to have been for naught. Not one fight broke out among the 2,500 or so anti-war protesters who converged on Sproul Plaza for yesterday's noontime rally. In fact, the greatest tension came from a counterdemonstration's chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A!" that drowned out those speaking at the rally.
The day after the rally, the fire trucks' flags were replaced with smaller 2-by-3-foot versions, and Chief Garcia apologized for the misunderstanding:
Stung by criticism from around the country, from his own ranks and from city politicians, Chief Reginald Garcia said the fault was not a lack of patriotism but a misunderstanding of the flag order, which was meant to be a temporary safety measure.
"I want to apologize," Garcia said, directing his words to Berkeley firefighters and "to all of our brother and sister firefighters across the country and to all the American citizens" who may have felt Berkeley firefighters were not proud of the flag or supporting the country.
Fire Lt. Rick Guzman, president of the Berkeley Firefighters Association, accepted the chief's apology, adding that the problem "hinges on miscommunication on the administration's part."
"I think it was blown way out of proportion," Guzman said of public reaction. "We're not any less patriotic than anybody else."
Last updated: 7 March 2008
Burress, Charles. "Chief Apologizes for Removal Order."
The San Francisco Chronicle. 22 September 2001 (p. A14).
Glionna, John M. "Berkeley's Removal of U.S. Flags from Firetrucks Sparks Outrage."
Los Angeles Times. 21 September 2001 (p. B3).
May, Meredith and Henry K. Lee. "Berkeley Fire Trucks Stripped of Flags."
The San Francisco Chronicle. 20 September 2001 (p. A1).
May, Meredith et al. "Firefighters Ordered to Furl flags."
The San Francisco Chronicle. 21 September 2001 (p. A12).