Matthew Thornton typically walks by the Center for the Arts on his way to class.
He’s well aware of the ongoing CFA construction project, which has fenced off part of the sidewalk between Alumni Arena and the Student Union.
He’s seen signs apologizing for the project’s inconvenience.
But the junior mechanical engineering major says the symbol he saw near the blocked sidewalk on Monday morning, a Confederate Flag, was “out of place” and “not socially acceptable.”
The flag, which students on /r/UBReddit called a “hate symbol,” was seen Monday on a local contractor’s unmarked truck in the CFA parking lot. SUNY lists Rodems Construction, an Orchard Park-based company, as the contractor overseeing the roughly $12 million CFA project. A community member brought the flag to UB’s attention, according to UB Facilities, Design and Construction’s project manager Rob Weller, which led to the contractor’s foreman asking the employee to remove the flag.
A project employee, who was in the truck which displayed the flag Monday, said on Wednesday he “didn’t understand” students’ concerns and drove away from a Spectrum reporter. The Spectrum attempted to get in contact with Mike Waters, who is listed as Rodems’ vice president on LinkedIn, but he could not be reached before publication.
The university released a statement Wednesday, stating the campus community must “endeavor to uphold” its “values of diversity and inclusion.”
“The Confederate flag is viewed by many as a symbol of racial exclusion and hostility,” the statement read. “While the First Amendment protects expression that may be unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive, we strive to ensure that the university community feels safe, respected and valued.”
Thornton originally posted the flag display on /r/UBReddit, a forum where some users said they were “disappointed” and that the flag is a “common sight in rural regions of [Upstate] New York.”
Thornton said he wanted to “call out” the display once he saw it.
“Even though it’s not illegal to display the flag, the [workers] should be getting feedback like, ‘Hey, this is not acceptable in society,’” Thornton said.
Carole Emberton, a professor with a focus on 19th century American history, said the flag became the “Confederate flag” after the Sons of Confederate Veterans began displaying and marching with it around the 1890s. She said the worker has the First Amendment right to display the flag but, the worker’s employment can “somewhat curtail those rights.”
“None of our constitutional rights are absolute, there’s always context and the Supreme Court has limited First Amendment rights and personal liberties throughout American legal history,” Emberton said.
The Confederate flag has appeared at white supremacist rallies throughout the country in recent years, including the Unite the Right rally which left three dead in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
“With recent events, with this flag being used by violent, white supremacist rallies/organizations, one can make a legitimate argument that the display of this flag can signal a threat to public safety,” Emberton said. “Whether or not that’s on the university’s mind, probably not because there hasn’t been any altercation erupting on it, but it’s about what this represents.”
Emberton said the flag is often used as an “intimidation tactic” and noted it “only began to be popularized” in the wake of the civil rights movement.
“You can’t divorce or separate that symbol as a weapon of racial intimidation,” Emberton said.
UB currently has about $20.6 million worth of projects with Rodems, according to the SUNY Construction Fund website, including ongoing work on South Campus’ Townsend Hall. CFA construction is expected to last until October 2020, UB spokesperson John DellaContrada wrote in an email earlier this year.
The Spectrum asked UB spokesperson Kate McKenna if UB or SUNY will continue its work with the contractor and whether the flag display impacted the project in any way. McKenna did not respond in time for publication.
Thornton sees the project’s management as part of a larger concern.
“I think the project manager should acknowledge that they’re impacting students by this, of course they’re building something but they don’t have to have racially insensitive flags hanging at the sidewalk or [they don’t have to] close off walkways [to the shore Lake LaSalle,]” Thornton said. “They’re bothering students just to bother students is how I see it. The rest of it you can rationalize but the flag was what someone made the conscious choice to bring one day.”
Benjamin Blanchet is the senior engagement editor for The Spectrum. His words have been seen in The Buffalo News (Gusto) and The Sun newspapers of Western New York. Loves cryptoquip and double-doubles.