Jul. 30–SCRANTON — Gene Stilp expected handcuffs.
Instead, he was free to go.
The 70-year-old Wilkes-Barre native and political activist intended to burn three Trump campaign flags in a metal trash can Thursday afternoon in front of the Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton. He only burned one.
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Lackawanna County sheriff’s deputies warned Stilp they would arrest him “on sight” if he set one of the flags on fire. County officials had already told him he’s not allowed to do it.
“You know you’re going to be arrested,” one deputy told him.
Stilp was unconcerned.
“I think it’s important,” he replied. “Nothing personal.”
Ultimately, the deputies did not arrest or charge Stilp for burning a flag. It was not clear why they reversed course, or if Stilp would instead get a citation in the mail. Contacted afterward, Sheriff Mark McAndrew said he wanted to speak with his deputies before commenting.
One Trump campaign flag was emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag, one had a Nazi swastika sewn into it and one was conjoined with the flag of the former Soviet Union. Each flag has a meaning, Stilp said. They symbolize that President Donald Trump is a “white supremacist,” a “fascist” and is subservient to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Anticipating he would get an opportunity to set just one ablaze, he picked the Trump/Soviet flag and decided to set it on fire in front of the Vietnam War memorial.
Activist Gene Stilp plans to burn three flags as a protest against President Donald Trump in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties on Thursday. https://t.co/i4CwAt5pOs
— The Citizens' Voice (@CitizensVoice) July 29, 2020
He said veterans should be “scandalized” by Trump’s unwillingness to confront Putin over allegations Russia paid bounties to Taliban fighters for the lives of American soldiers.
“Trump has done nothing about it,” Stilp said.
Only a handful of people turned out for the demonstration, most of whom supported Stilp.
Robert E. Griffin of Forty Fort brought a sign that read “Trump must go” and a red “Make America Great Again” hat for Stilp to burn.
“If you want to make America great, Trump must go,” Griffin said.
An elderly couple from Scranton and self-described Trump supporters, who declined to give their names, mildly heckled Stilp. The man, waving a small American flag, called Stilp’s demonstration a “cheap publicity stunt.”
Overall, the demonstration in Scranton was less combustible than a similar flag burning Stilp held earlier Thursday in Wilkes-Barre.
About 20 protesters and counterprotesters gathered around Stilp late Thursday morning as he burned the same kind of flags in front of the Luzerne County Courthouse.
Trump supporters taunted him and tried to reach into the garbage can to grab the flags.
That did not happen in Scranton.
Instead, a sheriff’s deputy doused the garbage can with a fire extinguisher almost as soon as Stilp set fire to the Trump/Soviet flag.
With the fire out and expecting arrest, Stilp looked at the deputies and said he was ready to go with them.
They instead told him he was free to go.
Stilp said their decision “shows there was some respect for the First Amendment.”
He chose not to set fire to the other flags to avoid antagonizing the sheriff’s office further.
“We’ve made our point,” he said.
Contact the writer: [email protected], 570-348-9100 ext. 5187; @jkohutTT on Twitter.
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