WEST NEWBURY — Town officials are seeking public input on a proposed policy for the annual Memorial Day parade.
The decision to create a formal written policy for the yearly tradition followed concerns in May when a Confederate flag was seen flying on a replica of a military vehicle rolling in the parade.
Selectmen asked town counsel Michael McCarron to take a stab at a draft policy after holding two meetings on the topic in September and reviewing written public comments. They also researched what other communities have in place for this type of policy.
The document notes that the parade is “open to many different units, including Pentucket School bands or music groups, color guards, antique cars, military vehicles, scouting organizations or community marching units who wish to honor our veterans with their participation.”
It authorizes selectmen to designate a parade chairperson who will work with Town Manager Angus Jennings and other municipal personnel to ensure the adopted policy is implemented.
The proposed guidelines call for entries to be in good taste, suitable for families, and respectful to other participants and the community. The chairperson has the right to reject any entry deemed inappropriate or unfit for a community celebration.
“Improper use of the American flag is strictly prohibited” as are “organized groups that appear to be participating for the purpose of protesting for or against a cause,” the proposal states.
There is to be no lewd or vulgar language written or spoken, nor is promotion of candidates for public office permitted in any form. Any signs or other carried items must specifically relate to honoring those who serve or have served in the military.
In addition, the proposed policy stipulates that owners of horses and dogs in the parade must clean up after them as the parade progresses.
All vehicles must have proper registration and insurance and be deemed “road safe.” Without exception, “all entries must keep moving and in line of march at all times” and participants are prohibited from consuming or possessing alcohol or drugs.
The parade chairperson must receive advanced notice from anyone wishing to hand out items during the parade, and no real weapons are allowed. Replica weapons must be identified on the application form, reviewed by the chairperson, and approved by Police Chief Jeff Durand. For safety reasons, vehicles in the parade are subject to search.
Following the parade in May, some residents complained about one of three military vehicles arranged by Bernie Fields, who has participated in previous Memorial Day parades.
The words “Hell’s Breed” were painted on the passenger’s side of one vehicle and “Hired Killers” painted across the back, with a small Confederate flag attached to a long pole flying above.
In addition to the flag, the vehicle featured replicas of machine guns that were pointed at people in jest, provocative signs referencing napalm and a “Trump” bumper sticker.
Fields and others from the community have argued that it was a replica of an actual vehicle from the Vietnam War.
For some, the Confederate flag is a time-honored representation of Southern heritage and pride. Still, others see it as a First Amendment issue and cautioned against censoring the free speech of a minority group, no matter how offensive it may seem to the majority in town. Fields said at the time that, if that language was obscured, he would withdraw all vehicles from the parade.
“He made it clear — it was all or nothing,” Jennings later told selectmen.
But for other residents, the Confederate flag is connected historically to structural racism. Its appearance in a town-sponsored event was hurtful and out of step with the town’s moral compass, according to residents opposed to flying the flag in the parade.
With no explicit policy on the books, Jennings was conflicted about interceding at the time parade participants were about to step off that Monday in May and whether it could be construed as a freedom of expression issue by some.
Feedback on the new policy can be sent to email@example.com or made in person to selectmen or Jennings. Selectmen plan to adopt a policy at their meeting Dec. 23 and it would be in place for next year’s parade.