About 200 people watched as radical Vietnam veterans torched an American flag early Saturday, minutes after a federal law prohibiting desecration of the flag took effect.
Alternately chanting "Burn, baby, burn" and singing the national anthem, the crowd cheered as the flag was burned by members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who said the new law is an attempt to ram patriotism down their throats.
Kathleen Taylor, American Civil Liberties Union director in Seattle, said the law encourages the very action it is intended to discourage.
There were no incidents of public flag burning in Seattle until Congress enacted the prohibition, she said. "Liberty needs special protection, not its symbol, the flag."
The law went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. A veterans group member scrambled to the roof of a post office on Seattle's Capitol Hill and lowered the flag from its 20-foot pole. Another demonstrator doused the flag with a flammable substance, ignited it and raised the burning emblem up the pole.
One thousand tiny paper flags were given to protesters, who threw them into two fires burning in baking pans.
"We're burning the flag to say we will not stand by to see forced patriotism. Abridgement of the First Amendment right (of free speech) is the first infringement," said Brian Chambers, who served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.
The protesters were jeered by a small group of skinhead youths. Some punches were thrown and bottles tossed. A dozen police cars arrived and officers ended the confrontation by blocking off streets and sending the demonstrators home. No arrests were made and no injuries were reported.
Burning the flag is punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. The new law was passed by both houses of Congress earlier this month in response to a Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Texas law making it illegal to burn the flag.
Flag-burnings were conducted in other cities Friday.
In Berkeley, Calif., members of the Emergency Committee to Stop the Flag Amendment and Laws burned four cloth flags and handed out small paper flags mounted on toothpicks and asked bystanders to set them ablaze.
"As we all know, the flag is just a symbol, a piece of cloth; even the right-wing Supreme Court upheld that position," attorney Linda Fullerton, vice president of the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said at the demonstration. Fullerton did not burn any flags at the protest.
In Ft. Collins, Colo., Jeff Crank broke up a protest at Colorado State University by rubbing out the flames of a burning flag with his bare hands.
"My father served in World War II," Crank shouted after grabbing the flag. "I'm not going to let what he did go by the wayside so that you can burn this flag."