Hartland firefighter suspended after flying Confederate flag in parade

Published 8:57 pm Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Confederate flag was flown on the back of the Hartland Fire Department's truck during the Third of July Parade. — Provided

A Confederate flag was flown on the back of the Hartland Fire Department’s truck during the Third of July Parade. — Provided

By Albert Lea Tribune and Associated Press

A Hartland volunteer firefighter was suspended Sunday for flying a Confederate flag on the back of a fire truck during Friday’s Third of July Parade, and he said he expects to be asked to resign.

Brian Nielsen, 43, who has been with the department for about 10 years, said in an earlier interview that he flew the flag because he’s fed up with political correctness and that so many people across the country are trying to change history by taking the flag away. He said he didn’t think flying the flag would spur as much discussion as it has.

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He said neither his town nor his department had anything to do with it.

“It was my decision and I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but boy was I wrong,” Nielsen said.

He said Hartland Fire Chief Trent Wangen suspended him Sunday pending an investigation.

“More than likely I’ll probably be asked to step down,” Nielsen said. “I respect that and will do that if they want.”

The display has sparked controversy in the community, across the state and even in other states.

The controversy comes almost three weeks after nine people were killed on June 17 at a historically African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Authorities said the accused gunman had posed in photographs with the Confederate battle flag.

Since then, there has been a nationwide debate about the appropriateness of displaying the Confederate flag. The South Carolina Legislature is slated to vote on whether to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds, and other companies have announced they are removing any items from their stores that feature the flag.

While some applauded Nielsen for flying the flag, others said he crossed a line by doing so while in a government-owned vehicle.

Randy Kehr, executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, who helps organize the parade, said he hopes the actions of one firefighter do not reflect badly on Albert Lea or on all of the other firefighters in the community.

“It’s the action of one individual,” Kehr said, noting he trusts that if any further action needs to be taken, Hartland officials will handle it.

“It’s an issue for the city of Hartland,” he said. “We trust them to do what they do.”

Christy Compton of Albert Lea questioned why people want to “wipe out” history like it never existed.

“As far as I know this is still America, land of the free, and we still have freedom of speech,” Compton said. “It’s part of the United States history, which last I knew Minnesota was part of the USA. That being said, it’s part of the history of our country.”

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson of Albert Lea said she thinks the Hartland Fire Department should publicly apologize for displaying the flag.

“It’s not a matter of free speech — they were driving government property, not private property,” she said. “It’s ignorant of Minnesota history as well.”

She said Minnesota sent many volunteer regiments to fight to preserve the union in the Civil War, and of the more than 20,000 who served, about 2,500 died.

In the Battle of Gettysburg, which culminated July 3, 1863, the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment sustained heavy losses, she said.

“Think of how that flag would have been received around here when veterans of the war were still living,” she said. “It’s a disgrace to fly the Confederate flag on public property in Minnesota.”

Amanda Lester, also of Albert Lea, said she was further back in the parade with the Freeborn County DFL Party float. She first noticed the Confederate flag when all of the floats lined up at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds prior to the parade. The firetrucks usually line up along Bridge Avenue and are toward the front in the parade lineup.

Lester said she was in disbelief when she saw the Confederate flag on the back of Hartland’s fire truck.

“In years previous it would have been offensive, yes, but considering the current events that go along with the Confederate flag — whether you think it stands for that or not — makes it all the more shocking,” she said.

Lester said she is glad that people are talking about the issue on social media but wishes people could be more civil in their discussions about it. She said the responses she has received from people who are against her about the issue have been disrespectful, and she has even questioned whether Albert Lea is a community where she wants her family to live because of the insults she has witnessed. She also wishes the city could get more recognition for the positive things it does, rather than the negative.

She said though some may view the Confederate flag as a symbol of states’ rights versus the national government, that is not what it represents for ancestors of union soldiers or ancestors of slaves.

“This isn’t about erasing that part of our history,” she said. “It’s about acknowledging that that was an ugly part of our history.”

Lulu Walker, another Albert Lea resident, said she was upset to see the flag on the back of the Hartland truck after spending a majority of the day before the parade reading news about several predominantly black churches in the South being set ablaze because someone did not like the color of a person’s skin.

“For a fire department to display the symbol that these arsonists champion is sickeningly ironic, uninformed and done in bad taste,” she said. “I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe in the freedom to worship without fear of being killed.”

Nielsen said he was told the Chamber of Commerce is having a special meeting on the subject Tuesday. He said he’s willing to go and make a public apology.

“I’m sorry for what I caused my town, the Hartland Fire Department and even my family,” he said.

Nielsen, who is white, said he’s not a racist.

“I don’t see race,” he said. “Black and white are the same to me. My belief is that ‘politically correct’ is going too far.”