GROTON — A conflict over First Amendment protections of expression and a nationwide debate over racial equality played out Friday on a small scale along Groton sidewalks as a Moravia man sold flags supporting President Donald Trump, police and firefighters.
The focus of the tension was Confederate battle flags that Stephen Sawyer was also selling.
While those flags had been on display two previous weekends when he sold flags, T-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps, buttons and stickers, they were stowed away inside his trailer on Friday, but still available for purchase.
His merchandise lined a table and samples of his flags were strung from two ropes and a pole along the sidewalk outside a welding shop at 207 Main St. as 10 supporters stood nearby. A block away, eight people lined the sidewalk shortly after noon to protest the Confederate flag. The rally was expected to continue through much of the afternoon.
“I believe in equality and human dignity for all,” said Kellie Lamoreaum, 45, of Groton, a nurse at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center. “We are born into a very racist society … I am here to stand in solidarity with people of color and to oppose hate.”
Lisa Stevens, 48, of Groton said she objected to Sawyer selling the Confederate flags. Stevens, a housekeeper, said she opposed hatred, and she believes the flag is a symbol of hatred.
“I have biracial children,” she said. “I left Groton to raise them.”
She said she moved back to Groton a year ago after living in Ithaca for several years.
Tim DeWitt, the owner of the shop at 207 Main St. in front of which Sawyer was selling his wares, said he had allowed Sawyer to sell his merchandise, but declined further comment.
Several vehicles passing Sawyer’s display before the protesters arrived blew their horns in apparent support and some drivers gave their thumbs up.
While he would not discuss his political beliefs, Sawyer said he understood the protestors had the right to object to him selling Confederate flags.
“I don’t see the negativity at all,” he said, noting the flag has been associated with rebellion and was once prominently displayed on the Dodge Charger featured in the “Dukes of Hazzard” television show from 1979 through 1985.
His 12-year-old daughter, Kimberle, said the protests have followed her father to Marathon, Aurora and other places.
“They have the right to protest,” said Tony Busco of Liverpool, who came to support Sawyer because he heard there would be a rally opposing him. “Whenever we hear there’s trouble, we come down to keep it calm. They have every right to protest unless it gets violent.”
Busco said he would intervene if anyone tried to destroy Sawyer’s property, although not violently unless the other side used violence.
“I came to support Steve and support Trump and support America,” Richard Hacker, 32, of Groton said after buying a baseball cap with the phrase, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross,” and a flag with the images of Trump and a tank.
“They have their beliefs and we have ours,” Hacker said. ”As long as there is peace and order, I have no problem.”