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Hingham Sees Shift In Response To First Responders

Kristen Arute, Hingham Current Staff, August 20, 2020

Hingham Current File Photo / Kristen Arute

Back in the spring, the Town of Hingham could be found honoring its first responders for their continued efforts amid the ongoing threat of COVID. Townsfolk have always had a generally positive relationship with the police and fire departments and appreciate the work they doSelectman Joe Fisher put it best when he said, "We have a proud history of recognizing and valuing the contributions made by the men and women who serve the Town with distinction and honor." However, that sentiment has taken a noticeable turn due to a series of events that began in early June.

 

On June 2, 2020 in response to George Floyd's death, the Hingham Unity Council hosted a candlelight vigil at St. John's Episcopal Church in Downtown Hingham. Chrissy Roberts helped distribute Black Lives Matter signs at the event. "When planning the candlelight vigil in honor of Black Lives, I immediately thought of St. John's for two reasons," said Roberts. "St. John's to me represents what is good in this world - a community of people who in a variety of tangible ways show what it means to love thy neighbor. I knew that our clergy would be accepting of our idea. And second it made for a good place to safely come together in a socially distant way." Within two weeks, two more Black Lives Matter rallies would be held in Hingham, this time at the Harbor.

Hingham has traditionally been apolitical and, although residents are vocal on local issues, the Town does not have a history of becoming involved in national politics. Candidates for office run independent of political party; political figures at the state and federal level make rare appearances in town; and rallies and protests are nonexistent. However, in just over two months, there have been a total of eight rallies and three counter protests mostly run by groups from outside of Hingham. America Backs the Blue has held three rallies in Hingham to show support for firefighters and law enforcement in the wake of the Town's decision to remove a Thin Blue Line flag from the back of a fire truck; Hingham Unity Council held both "Black Lives Matter" and "Hate Has No Home Here" events; and Black Lives Matter has participated in Hingham Unity Council events and has held counter protests to America Backs the Blue rallies.

 

In response, the Selectmen adopted a statement which dismissed any local relevance to the issue of police brutality. "In recent months we have seen protests around the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and others that have motivated calls for increased scrutiny of police budgets," read the statement. "Those concerns (are) not justified in Hingham because, in our Town, police officers perform to a high level of professionalism (and) are sensitive to issues of fairness and justice in our community." In spite of this, the Selectmen still insisted upon the removal of the Thin Blue Line flag from the back of a Hingham fire truck.

Since the story of a young man's disapproval of the presence of the flag on town property first broke in July, the controversy has caused quite a stir. Whether expressed in private conversations, during public meetings or on social media, opinions on the topic vary widely. Megan Buhr who serves on the Housing Authority has described the flying of the flag as “hero worship” that is “largely based on emotional manipulation rather than facts or statistics about the actual relative danger of the job.”

 

Others see it as a symbol of hate. “All white people are racist to a degree,” said Alyssa DeCourcey, president of the Hingham Pride Project. “We are saying that seeing this flag hurts BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). This flag has been turned into a hate symbol.”

 

Some, like long-time Hingham resident Lisa Shetty, see the firefighters’ decision to fly the flag as a selfish one. “The fire department that serves our community has decided to go against a directive to remove a symbol that causes pain and distrust (because) they decided their pain matters more,” said Shetty. “I have had some great and genuinely humorous interactions with (the Hingham Fire Department), but right now, they need to do better.” It was due to sentiments like these that the Board of Selectmen made the decision to deem the flag political in nature and order its removal from the town-owned truck.

Apart from two press releases, Firefighters Local 2398 of Hingham has been largely silent on the matter. However, in public statements the union has made it clear that commemorating Sgt. Chesna on the second anniversary of his brutal death was the sole driving force behind flying the Thin Blue Line flag on the back of the fire truck. Members of the Hingham Police Department were among those who responded to the call on July 15, 2018 in order to provide backup to their fellow officers in Weymouth. Sgt. Chesna had been struck over the head by a large rock and, while incapacitated, had been shot in the face seven times with his own weapon. It goes without saying that the Hingham police officers saw things that day that made the flying of the flag much more personal.

 

Given that there is no memorial in Hingham to Sgt. Chesna, the firefighters in Local 2398 have committed to flying the flag every year in his honor for his family to see. This year was especially difficult because Cindy Chesna’s memorial to her late husband had recently been vandalized. The show of support by Hingham firefighters did not go unnoticed. Sgt. Chesna’s father came to the station in tears to thank them for what they had done, and they have received an outpouring of support from all across the country and as far away as Canada and the United Kingdom.

In Hingham though, the firefighters have gone from being lauded for their bravery during a time of pandemic to being questioned for unwittingly stepping into the middle of a highly-polarizing national issue. Perhaps due to the Town's recent involvement with events taking place on the national stage, it would seem public sentiment was destined to clash with their decision. Local context no longer would apply to "Chesna's flag." Their act of honoring a fallen officer would take on a larger meaning. As a result, the Selectmen and the fire chief chose not to come to their defense when allegations of racism were levied against them.

 

Unsubstantiated reports from several sources say that Town Administrator Tom Mayo is "not happy" with the firefighters in Local 2398 and that he has retained the services of Regina Ryan, founder of Discrimination and Harassment Solutions (DHS) to investigate the actions of three members of the department for refusing to remove the flag. It is unclear why this is being undertaken at this time or how much an investigation of this nature might cost the taxpayers of Hingham. Neither Tom Mayo nor Regina Ryan have returned calls or emails with requests for information.

 

The Selectmen have decided to address the situation by exploring the creation of a flag policy so that the Board can maintain consistency in its decisions moving forward. In the meantime, fire trucks in other communities, like Weymouth, proudly fly the Thin Blue Line flag. Mayor Bob Hedlund, a Hingham native, was asked about the Town of Weymouth's flag policy. "Our policy is we honor the memory of Sgt. Chesna," he said.

Kristen Arute can be reached at kristen@hinghamcurrent.com.