Brooklyn Neighborhood Fights Back After Vandals Burn Flags

Along the tree-lined streets of one Brooklyn neighborhood, the American flag waves proudly from porches and cars — even from the back of a 3-year-old's red tricycle.

So when residents in Marine Park awoke last month to discover the "Stars and Stripes" had been torched outside eight homes — including one where a firefighter killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks grew up — they raised new and bigger flags.

"We don't want these cowards to win," said Regina Coyle, whose son James died at the World Trade Center. "People are angry and hurt. We're fighting back."

The American flag outside the Coyles' home was burned down to the scorched white flagpole fastened to the front of their red-brick house, where Coyle and her husband, a state court officer, raised James and two siblings. It had flown outside the home every day since the death of her son, a 26-year-old firefighter.

Coyle recalled the shock of discovering a pile of ashes flecked with red, white and blue nylon on her front stoop as she left to walk her dog on the morning of June 22.

"I lost my son, how could someone do this to us?" she wondered. On Sept. 11, her son jumped into a taxi with two other young firefighters and headed to ground zero, even though they had just finished their shift.

After the vandalism, a city council member provided new flags to residents whose flags had been destroyed. Other families who would normally have waited until July 4 to fly flags put them out the next day.

Marine Park, known for its patriotic fervor, is a blue-collar community of firefighters, police officers and transit workers. Scores of their relatives and friends were lost in the attack.

The corners of six streets are named for fallen comrades; the Coyles' corner is named for their son. A pair of fire hydrants are striped with red, white and blue paint. It's a close-knit neighborhood where block parties and garage sales are common, where World War II veterans sit on porches as kids ride past on bicycles.

"For someone to burn the flag was like a smack in the face," said Barbara Davis, a 45-year-old mother of three whose flag was set ablaze. "We were always taught to have such reverence for the flag. We wouldn't even let it touch the ground."

Her 6-year-old son Benjamin begged his father not to hang another flag for fear of a repeat attack.

"My husband said: `No son, we have to stand up for our flag,"' said Davis, standing on the sidewalk with Benjamin. The boy promptly opened his shirt to display a temporary tattoo of a flag on his chest.

"I love America," he boasted.

Police are investigating the arsons but so far have made no arrests, said police spokesman John Sweeney.

Investigators told residents they suspect the desecration was more the work of intoxicated teenagers celebrating the last day of school, or possibly a pyromaniac, rather than a war protester or someone making an anti-American statement.

"The police are not taking this lightly," said Susie Campbell. "They are keeping us very closely informed."

Residents shudder when they think that the fire could have destroyed their homes or killed someone, said Campbell, who has an infant and a toddler.

"I feel like those people who found crosses burning in their yards," Campbell said. "It hurts."

Many families in Marine Park supported the constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration that died in the Senate last week by a single vote. The proposal was drafted in response to Supreme Court rulings in 1989 and 1990 that protected flag burning as free speech.

"I know this is the land of the free, that there are different points of view, that it's a democracy, but we vote to change things here," Campbell said.

Her two neighbors agreed.

"The American flag means our country and those that died to keep us free," said Coyle. "It represents honor and respect and our values and the people. America is you and me."

Regardless of the vandals' motivation, residents do not understand why anyone would desecrate what they hold dear.

"They can smash pumpkins, steal your flowers, but burn the flag?" Coyle said. "They should be ashamed."