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Newton firefighters oppose city order barring ‘red-stripe’ memorial flag

More than 200 protesters demonstrated in front of Newton's Fire Station 4 after Mayor Ruthanne Fuller recently banned their Fire Department from flying flags supporting firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
More than 200 protesters demonstrated in front of Newton's Fire Station 4 after Mayor Ruthanne Fuller recently banned their Fire Department from flying flags supporting firefighters who have died in the line of duty.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The union representing Newton’s firefighters has filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor Relations after the group said it was prohibited by Mayor Ruthanne Fuller from displaying a memorial flag in honor of fallen firefighters at a local fire station.

The firefighters’ “Thin Red Line” flag -- a black and white US flag with a single red stripe across it -- had been on display for more than two years at Fire Station 4 when it was ordered removed June 12, the union said in a statement.

Many firefighters are members of the second and third generations of their families to serve in the profession, and the flag helps proclaim that legacy, said firefighter Marc Rizza, the president of Local 863, in a statement.

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The union argued that flying the red-stripe flag is a protected activity under the state’s collective bargaining laws, and its removal without notice to the union was a violation of the city’s obligation under the law.

“We fly the remembrance flag in honor of the valiant men and (women) who sacrificed so much to protect their communities. Keeping alive the memory of those who gave their all is a deep part of who we are,” Rizza said.

The flag was removed as part of an order from Fuller notifying department heads earlier this month that only US flags and Newton banners can be displayed on city buildings, city spokeswoman Ellen Ishkanian said in a statement.

“The Mayor supports the values embedded in the Firefighters Remembrance Flag and is deeply grateful for the sacrifices made by our firefighters,” the statement said. “This is not about one particular flag. Rather, this is about not putting the City in a position of censoring/endorsing which banners and ideas put forward by our employees will be on the sides of our buildings.”

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Fuller also told Newton employees to only wear face coverings that are solid, floral, or striped, Ishkanian said, with no logos or symbols.

Fuller’s order comes amid nationwide protests over police violence against Black Americans and people of color. In Newton last month, a Black resident and his wife were stopped by police searching for a suspect in a fatal Boston shooting.

During the stop, one of the officers on the scene drew his gun. The resident, Tim Duncan, said he was afraid to reach for his wallet and retrieve his identification in case police thought he had a weapon.

Duncan, 50, was not the shooting suspect, and a detective apologized for the stop. Duncan went public with the incident following the death of George Floyd, 46, while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Four officers have been charged in connection with Floyd’s death.

On Monday night in a televised speech, Fuller announced a civilian task force would examine the city’s police department. At the same time Fuller spoke, more than 200 demonstrators protested against her decision that barred display of the firefighter flag at the Nonantum fire station.

Demonstrators sang patriotic songs, including “God Bless America,” many carried signs with the message: “Respect the red, let the flag fly!” with an image of the red-stripe flag. Some in the crowd carried images of loved ones who had served as firefighters in Newton and other communities.

Among the speakers at the protest was City Council Vice President Rick Lipof, who criticized the decision to bar the display of the flag. Of the decision to remove the firefighter flag, Lipof told the mayor: “We were wrong.”

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In the union’s statement Rizza, the group’s president, said they appreciated the show of support, but the organization did not participate in the demonstration.

“The decision to refrain from participating is based on our concern that some may seek to use this event to create controversy over the recent protests that have been taking place in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and most recently, Rayshard Brooks, by law enforcement officers,” the statement said, referring to a 27-year-old man killed by Atlanta police June 12.

Local 863 condemned the killings, the statement said, and many of the union’s members have participated in protests against police violence or “voiced their outrage” in other ways.

The dispute with the city is not related to broader demonstrations against police violence, the statement said.

“It is important that we as a union do what is possible to prevent the misuse of our dispute by those with an agenda that is inconsistent with our core values,” Rizza said in the statement.

Matt Lee of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

More than 200 protesters demonstrated in front of Newton's Fire Station 4 after Mayor Ruthanne Fuller banned the Fire Department from flying flags supporting firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
More than 200 protesters demonstrated in front of Newton's Fire Station 4 after Mayor Ruthanne Fuller banned the Fire Department from flying flags supporting firefighters who have died in the line of duty. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff



John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.