MIDDLEBURY — A memorial on the Middlebury College campus to those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was vandalized this past Wednesday, shocking many on campus.
A leader of a group that pulled up 2,977 American flags placed in the lawn between Mead Chapel and the Davis Family Library told the Addison Independent in an exclusive interview that she had no regrets for her actions, saying she found the display offensive to Native Americans.
The flag memorial has been a tradition on campus for at least six years. It is coordinated by the college’s Democratic and Republican groups.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m. this past Wednesday, junior Benjamin Harris was leaving class when he observed five people removing the flags from the lawn and placing them in plastic garbage bags. Harris, co-president of the college Republicans, and five other students had spent two hours setting up the memorial the previous evening.
At first, Harris thought the individuals were moving the flags out of the rain, as inclement weather was expected that afternoon. When he realized this was not the case, he confronted them.
Harris asked why they were tearing up the flags. When he told the individuals the memorial was commemorating those who died in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., during the attacks, he said one of them responded, “You’re commemorating the wrong deaths.”
The person continued, “This monument stands for American imperialism and we’re confiscating it.”
Middlebury College senior Julia Madden also witnessed the vandalism and approached the protesters at the same time Harris did.
“They said it was disrespectful to the Abenaki (native American peoples),” Madden said. “I told them they were being disrespectful to the victims of 9/11.”
Madden suggested the memorial be relocated as a compromise to both parties. The protesters refused. Madden said Harris asked if he could at least have the flags back, as his group had purchased them. The protesters refused.
Harris was able to forcibly take one of the garbage bags, but the group fled the area with the other. UPDATE Harris said the second bag of flags were annonymously returned to him in a box Monday night.
“I felt angry and offended,” Madden said. “It was surprising to me that on a campus that’s supposed to foster discussion about different points of view, someone would think their cause is better than another.”
Senior Rachel Kogan, who also witnessed the incident and corroborated the accounts of Harris and Madden, said she was shocked by the vandalism.
“I’m a firm believer of free speech, but this was just offensive,” she said.
After attending another class later in the day, Harris filed a report with campus security about the incident. He said campus officials told him that one of the protesters was a student, while the other four were not affiliated with the college.
That evening, dozens of students returned to the site of the vandalism to reconstruct the memorial.
By Thursday, the incident had garnered state and national media attention, prompting college President Ron Liebowitz to issue a statement.
“Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed by the insensitivity of this act,” the statement said, in part. “Destruction of property and interfering with the rights of others to express themselves violates the standards of our community.”
Liebowitz added that the college has opened a disciplinary investigation of the incident. A college official confirmed that a student had filed a report with campus security about the incident.
Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, called the vandalism “disgusting,” and believes the protesters were acting to promote their own political beliefs.
“We didn’t know anything about this and if we had we certainly wouldn’t have sanctioned it,” Stevens said.
He said that Abenakis do not publicize the locations of their burial sites in order to protect them, and that he has no knowledge of any such sites on the Middlebury campus. Stevens said that even if the site of the memorial had been a burial site, the American flags placed in the earth would not have been a desecration.
“Our burial sites honor our warriors and their bravery,” Stevens said. “Putting flags in the earth to honor bravery would not be disrespectful.”
Stevens served in the U.S. Army; his father fought in Korea and his son served in Iraq as a member of the National Guard.
As of Friday afternoon, two of the five people who pulled up the flags claimed responsibility.
Anna Shireman-Grabowski, a senior at Middlebury, issued a statement claiming she was involved in the vandalism. It was published on middbeat.org, a blog run by Middlebury students. In the statement, Shireman-Grabowski said she wanted to “take accountability for the hurt you may be feeling while clarifying the motivations for this action.”
Shireman-Grabowski said she acted in solidarity with a friend who was of Native American descent to help her “heal from the violence of genocide that she carries with her on a daily basis.” She acknowledged that her actions were not a productive way to start a dialogue on “American imperialism,” and said she did not expect them to be. At no point in the statement did Shireman-Grabowski apologize for her actions.
She did not respond to multiple requests from the Independent for comment.
Shireman-Grabowski is no stranger to political activism.
She was co-organizer of a protest held prior to a Vermont Public Service Board hearing on the Addison Natural Gas Project at Middlebury Union Middle School on Sept. 10.
During a brief interview that evening with the Addison Independent, she identified herself as a volunteer with Rising Tide Vermont, a group whose self-proclaimed mission is to be “part of a movement which opposes the expansion of industrial infrastructure in the Northeast U.S. and Eastern Canada, and exposes corporate and state-sponsored false solutions to the climate crisis.”
Shireman-Grabowski also led a similar protest in June, when she and 20 others marched into the Montpelier offices of the Public Service Board and demanded to meet with Commissioner Chris Recchia, vtdigger.org reported. She also was leader of a May 7 march on campus that culminated in the presentation to college officials of a petition signed by 1,400 people asking them to revoke their support for the natural gas pipeline.
A second person also spoke about her involvement in the vandalism through an online post and in an interview with the Independent.
In an article posted on climate-connections.org, Amanda Lickers stated she was also involved in the vandalism.
Lickers said she is a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, another name for the Iroquois, a group of tribes in New York state.
According to her statement, Lickers said when she saw the 9/11 memorial, she made the decision that “the lands where our dead lay must not be desecrated.”
She also described her interaction with Harris.
“I was confronted by a nationalistic-settler, a young white boy who attends the college demanding I relinquish the flags to him,” Lickers said. “I held my ground and confiscated them.”
In a phone interview, Lickers identified herself as the leader of the group and said she had “absolutely no regrets” about her actions.
Lickers said she was invited to campus by the Associate Dean of Students for Student Activities & Orientation J.J. Boggs to give a workshop on “settler responsibility and colonization.”
College spokeswoman Sarah Ray disputed this and said Lickers was invited by Shireman-Grabowski.
At the workshop, which was held at noon on Wednesday, a Middlebury student said the campus was the site of an Abenaki burial ground, Lickers said.
Based on this information, Lickers made a “spontaneous” decision to remove the flags after she discovered their presence on a campus lawn.
Lickers confirmed to the Independent that she was approached by Harris, who asked her if he could have the flags back, and that she refused.
Lickers explained that she didn’t return the flags because students would simply reassemble the memorial after she left.
Lickers also said two other Middlebury students who were passing expressed support in her actions and helped remove the flags.
Harris and Madden said they saw only the five protesters removing flags.
When asked if she was aware that others might be offended by her actions, Lickers replied, “I wasn’t concerned for patriotism at the time,” adding that “American flags have never made me jump for joy.”
She said she has received a lot of negative responses to her incidents, but did not fear for her safety. However, Lickers said she fears for the safety of Shireman-Grabowski, and criticized the Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper, for publishing Shireman-Grabowski’s name.
In response to Chief Don Stevens’ assessment that even if the campus lawn was the site of an Abenaki burial ground, it would not be offensive, as the memorial commemorated bravery, Lickers responded, “His response is that of one person — a lot of people would disagree.”
Lickers said other indigenous people, including some Abenaki in Vermont, had supported her actions, but declined to identify these individuals.
Editor's note: This story was updated after its original posting to add the fact that more of the flags were returned.