EXCLUSIVE: Emails Reveal Effort to Disown Stonewall Pride Flag By Trump Administration Official

June 21, 2018 - 9:07 am
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by Alex Silverman

As they march through America’s national monument to LGBT rights near the end of this weekend’s Pride parade, tens of thousands will pass a flag that, at a glance, is just like countless others. But this rainbow -- the first to fly permanently on public land in New York City -- followed a puzzling path to the top of the historic flagpole at Stonewall.  

As revealed in nearly 1,000 pages of emails obtained by WCBS Newsradio 880, federal officials orchestrated a last-minute two-step to ensure this Pride flag would not be the property of the U.S. government.

“A victory for our community”

On the morning of Oct. 6, 2017, emails between National Park Service staffers were growing increasingly frantic. “NEED THAT PHOTO of the FLAGS at St. Christopher Park (sic) ASAP - breathing down my neck at (the Department of the Interior),” wrote Jane Ahern, the park service’s regional director for external affairs.

Not quite 90 minutes earlier, a colleague had alerted department officials to an article claiming a Pride flag at Stonewall would be the first “permanently placed on federal land.”

“It is a victory for our community to have these symbolic colors flying majestically over our Stonewall...even as our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are under attack by the current regime in power,” the activist who initiated the effort told Newsweek.

“We are so looking forward to this event!”

On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama announced the designation of the Stonewall National Monument, memorializing the site of the 1969 uprising that launched the modern LGBT rights movement. Soon after, advocates who had long sought a permanent Pride flag in New York began appealing to the local arm of the National Park Service to raise one on the flagstaff at Stonewall.

The National Parks of New York Harbor acknowledged a request from activist Michael Petrelis on June 22, 2017. “Do we even own the flag pole? Not sure what our response should be,” an official asked in an email provided to WCBS 880 in response to a public records request.  

“Yes and yes,” replied Shirley McKinney, the monument’s site superintendent.

A month before the planned dedication ceremony, on Sept. 5, McKinney wrote to Petrelis. “We are so looking forward to this event! Let us know if we can assist in any way.”

In late September, the rainbow flag was raised beside the National Park Service banner with no fanfare or controversy and the full backing of NPS bureaucrats in New York.

“Breathing down my neck at DOI”

Five days before the ceremony, everything changed.

On Oct. 6, just minutes after a communications official at the park service blasted out the Newsweek story, came an email from a higher authority: Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Willens, a former congressional aide appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke four months earlier. “Can you please get details from NPS and report back,” he wrote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That sparked a series of increasingly alarmed messages between parks officials in New York and their colleagues in Washington. “Breathing down my neck at DOI,” wrote Ahern at 9:04 a.m.

 

 

 

 

 

The inquiries sparked a scramble for an explanation. By 1:48 p.m., NPS officials in New York had determined and reported to Washington that the flagpole technically sits outside the property transferred to the federal government when the monument was designated. (Official maps indicate the monument encompasses the surrounding streets, but only the triangular park across from the Stonewall Inn is labeled “U.S. Owned”).

But as National Parks of New York Harbor Commissioner Joshua Laird acknowledged, “we manage the flagpole as a part of our overall management of Christopher Park.”

Four hours later, Michael Reynolds, the acting director of the National Park Service, received an email from a deputy director: “Todd instructed us to remove all flags...from the pole tonight.”

Assistant Deputy Interior Secretary Todd Willens did not respond to a request for comment and  confirmation that he issued the order. The emails provided to WCBS 880 do not illuminate what his motivation might have been for issuing such an order.

“Needless to say,” the deputy director continued, “there is significant concern on how this will transpire with the community.”

“This could be a safety issue,” replied Acting Director Reynolds. “We will stay close on how they are doing.”

Reynolds, who has since been reassigned to Yosemite National Park, did not respond to a request for comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It was never our flagpole”

Meanwhile, NPS staffers in New York were working on a face-saving solution. Laird, the top department official in the local office, wrote to New York City Parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, apparently memorializing a very recent verbal conversation. “I would like to offer the donation of all flags placed on the flagstaff by the NPS to the New York City Parks Department,” he said. Silver quickly replied, accepting the “donation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further emails detail the Park Service’s effort to control the message. A local spokeswoman suggested telling the media that the ownership of the flagpole came under discussion “through the permitting process,” though emails indicate plans for the ceremony were in place and the flag had been raised prior to any such conversation.

Later, the park service’s chief spokesman, Jeremy Barnum, advised officials to only mention the transfer of the flag to New York City “if pressed.”

The National Park Service did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It was never our flagpole,” Laird, the National Parks of New York Harbor commissioner, told WCBS 880 at the ceremony on Oct. 11. Asked why control of the pole was ceded to city, Laird replied: “So there would be no question about it hanging properly and legitimately on the pole.”

The flag has flown alongside the city Parks Department banner ever since.

Reached by email, Laird told WCBS 880 he had no additional comment for this story.

“NYC is proud to be the birthplace of the LGBTQ rights movement, we’re proud to have the world’s biggest Pride march, and we are damn proud to be the ones to raise the rainbow flag over the Stonewall National Monument," said a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

The Department of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment. The office of the Secretary of the Interior has acknowledged but not provided any documents in response to a Freedom Of Information Act request filed by WCBS 880 in October.

Timeline of events, through emails provided to WCBS Newsradio 880: