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Message is as clear as the flag is large

Imagine you are a visitor here, rolling into our particular piece of Florida on one of its busiest highways.

Not far off in the distance are the high-rises of downtown Tampa, and the promise of the Pinellas beaches beyond that.

And then, there it is, just off Interstate 75, all 30 feet by 50 feet of it, rising above the highway and flapping in the wind. Atop a 139-foot flagpole waves a massive Confederate battle flag.

For sure, it is a piece of our history. It is also, to many, a symbol of redneckism, racism and even hate, flying high for all to see.

"If you were traveling and were looking for a place to stop and get a hotel, I think I'd keep driving for another hundred miles," says Kevin White, the only black member of the Hillsborough County Commission. "Why not fly the American flag and just be done with it, something that symbolizes everyone?"

It is in White's district that a group of male descendants who call themselves the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected their massive and divisive flag Tuesday to commemorate Jefferson Davis' 200th birthday. It was supposed to be up only for the day, a sneak preview of sorts in the same place they are planning a Confederate memorial that will include the flag.

And there is nothing, it appears, that White or anyone else can do to stop it from becoming a dubious local landmark.

Welcome to Tampa Bay. You Are Here.

This is the sharp side of the blade when it comes to freedom of speech and the freedom to be left alone to do what you want with your property, rights that must be fiercely protected even when it involves the plans for that patch of land off the highway.

Get your permits in order, follow the rules, and you can fly a flag that is deeply offensive to a large part of the population.

(Irony of ironies: Down the road, a businessman named Frank Bates is doing battle with the selfsame county over a row of kitschy metal Airstream trailers he planted in the ground on his property along Interstate 4 as art, the vehicles on their ends and aimed skyward. Bates' "Airstream Ranch" is accused of being illegal signage because of his nearby RV dealership as well as accumulated junk, and also — I am not making this up — illegally parked vehicles, though how anyone would accomplish that sort of parking is a mystery.)

But flags are exempt from the sign ordinance for good and obvious reasons. They can do this, even if you wish we had come far enough that no one wanted to anymore.

Supporters will tell you it's all about preserving heritage. Sorry, but I don't buy that wide-eyed line, or the idea that well-intentioned people interested only in remembering their history would use a symbol so abrasive, incendiary and hurtful to so many fellow citizens. Or that there is no other way to honor family than this.

My favorite reader response to news of the controversial flag on tampabay.com — and there was plenty from both sides — was this suggestion: There are many Confederate graves in your cemeteries that are neglected and decaying. A more honorable thing to do is pay homage to THEM rather than a symbol.

No question, that flag flying high will let visitors who find their way here know something about this place. It will tell them who, and what, thrives here.

Message is as clear as the flag is large 06/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 10:16am]

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