HADDAM, CT — For the second consecutive meeting, Haddam Selectwoman Melissa Schlag kneeled during the reading of the Pledge of Allegiance before the start of the Board of Selectmen session Monday night.
This time, unlike last time on July 16, however, her kneeling which she said she did as a protest to President Donald Trump’s policies on Russia and immigration, was done in front of a few hundred angry audience members, several dozen supporters, and a large contingent of Connecticut news media.
Schlag, a Democrat who also is the town’s former first selectwoman, kneeled before the start of the meeting just as she did two weeks ago on July 16.
After dozens of people berated Schlag for kneeling again, on Monday she rose to speak to the audience in her defense.
“I don’t have to stop my free speech when I walk into a selectmen’s meeting,” Schlag said to a chorus of boos.
Schlag added: “I don’t hate my country. I love my country. We need to continue this conversation.”
As Schlag rose to talk to the crowd, many in the first few front rows kneeled or turned their backs to her.
In her Facebook post following the July 16th kneeling, Schlag said: “I knelt out of extreme sorrow for our country, because earlier that day, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, sat down with a murderous dictator, Vladimir Putin,” Schlag said in the letter. “I knelt out of extreme sorrow for our country, that the leader of our great nation rejected the advice and findings of all American intelligence agencies and would rather support the lies of a murderous dictator.”
Schlag also said she now felt compelled to kneel because she thought she needed to send a message.
“I have reached a point in my life where I feel I need to send the message by kneeling,” Schlag said, “that none of this is okay and all of this is as unpatriotic as it can get and the antithesis of what America stands for.”
She said she would continue to kneel “as long as Donald J. Trump is the president of the United States.”
“If you wish to lecture about being unpatriotic, that is your right,” Schlag said. “My question to all those who take offense to my choice to kneel, who are you to decide what I should or should not do, and under what authority do you decided what is sacred and what is not?”
The action of “taking a knee” stems from the controversial decision by some NFL players to kneel during the National Anthem before a game, a form of protest that some, including Trump, believe to be unpatriotic and disrespectful toward U.S. service members. The kneeling was a protest of police shootings of minorities and the oppression of colored people.
Schlag’s kneeling on July 16th became a viral event as many national news outlets covered it — making Monday’s night meeting a standing room only event.
Before Monday’s meeting, a rally was held at the Higganum Town Green, less than a mile away from the selectmen’s meeting at the firehouse, to denounce Schlag’s protest.
Two Republican candidates for governor, businessman Steve Obsitnik and former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, along with State Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook and Darien First Selectwoman Jayme Stevenson, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, attended the rally.
“She needs to resign immediately,” Herbst said, a statement which was repeated often at the selectmen’s meeting by Schlag detractors. “We might have disagreements when it comes to politics,” Herbst added, “but we don’t disrespect our flag.”
Obsitnik, who served it the Armed Forces, added: “We can never, never, let up for what the flag, what liberty stands for.”
And Stevenson, who said one of her first actions when elected first selectwoman in Darien was to order the Pledge of Allegiance be read at the start of selectmen meetings, said the flag symbolizes “rights and freedoms that we have and we cannot take them for granted.”
Democratic Party Chairman Nick Balletto accused the Republicans of being overly dramatic.
“More selective outrage from the Connecticut GOP,” said Balletto. “This is a desperate attempt from Timmy to grab attention from Donald Trump two weeks before the primary. Democrats will continue to focus on the issues Republicans are ignoring, like health care, gun violence prevention, and women’s health.”
Back at the meeting, a steady chorus of Haddam and other Connecticut residents paraded to the front of the firehouse to give short speeches, some lectures to Schlag, criticizing her “taking a knee.”
Pablo Arroyo, a Haddam resident, said while he respects Schalg’s right to protest, “You should do it on your own time — not when you are representing all of Haddam.”
Arroyo said he was a combat veteran who fought in Beirut in which he saw a lot of the men in his unit die in war. “You are urinating on their graves,” Arroyo told Schlag.
While the vast majority of the crowd criticized Schlag’s stance, she did have some supporters. Some carried signs defending her right to free speech. Dozens lined the street outside the meeting to support Schlag.
One of them who rose to her defense was Sean Moriarty, of Haddam, a policeman who said he was also a Gulf war veteran.
“The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech,” he said. “She has every right to do so. I may not choose to do it myself, but I defend her right to do so.”
Other supporters of Schlag pointed out Republican Regional School District 17 Board of Education members Maura Wallin, of Haddam, and Democrat Eric Couture, of Killingworth, have been kneeling at meetings for nearly a year, but haven’t received the same sort of criticism.
Wallin said she began doing so to support her Latina daughter after the NFL football season began last year.
Couture, a former political researcher, said he and Wallin didn’t consult one another, but happened to make their decision at the same time.