Middlebury College Junior Ben Kinney Harris helped plant almost 3,000 tiny American flags on the green in front of Mead Chapel Wednesday, a remembrance of those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in 2001.
"The flags are just there partially to serve as a form of remembrance of the lives lost, but it's also a way to remember September 11th for those of us who are students and we were so little when the attack happened, we don't have anything to remember the events of that day by," Kinney Harris said.
But later that afternoon, Kinney Harris noticed a small group of people pulling up the flags and stuffing them into plastic garbage bags. The school newspaper got a picture of the event.
"And they told me I was commemorating the wrong deaths and that this was an Abenaki burial ground and the flags for them symbolize death and oppression," Kinney Harris said.
The woman who pulled the flags has been identified as Amanda Lickers, an activist for Native American rights who was invited to the campus to speak at a workshop by Middlebury College student Anna Shireman-Grabowski, who also helped to pull up the flags.
As a member of the school paper, Kinney Harris decided to check out the story.
"(Thursday) night we were able to contact the Abenaki tribal office in Maine and they told us first of all, there is no Abenaki burial ground. And second, the Abenaki do not view the sticking of objects into the ground as offensive to the dead on top of burial grounds," Kinney Harris said.
Students we talked to were upset over this turn of events.
"My reaction was pretty much the same as everyone else's; it was pretty terrible, a really negative view of the student who did it. I am forgetting her name, but I know she is coming under a lot of attack on campus. I think everyone thought it is a pretty horrible thing to do," said Alex Beall, a senior.
"I didn't see exactly what happened, but no matter what the beliefs are, it was the wrong way to go about that and it was just disrespectful," said Gioia Pappalardo, a sophomore.
Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz issued a quick response to the incident, saying, "Destruction of property and interfering with the rights of others to express themselves violates the standards of our community. The College has begun a disciplinary investigation of this incident."
Kinney Harris says some good has come out of this event. For instance, there seems to be renewed emphasis on the importance of remembering the victims of 9/11 and a renewed interest in the American flag.
That activist, Amanda Lickers, has been linked to the group Rising Tide Vermont, which supports anti-colonial solidarity work. Rising Tide issued a statement saying those who participated in the Middlebury incident were acting as individuals, not representatives or with the endorsement of the organization.