BERLIN — Due to conflicts that have arisen at political rallies at Veterans Memorial Park, the city will give the lower section of the park to VFW Post 2520 to avoid future protests on ground the veterans consider hallowed.
The city will retain most of the park, including the gazebo and the adjacent tennis courts.
The lower section contains the flags of the various armed services and a majority of the monuments honoring the city’s veterans. The proposal would relocate monuments near the gazebo to the lower section and the veterans could also move the Spanish American War monument to the park. The city would continue to mow and maintain the entire park and cover electricity cost for lights there.
The issue came before the city council Wednesday night after two veteran groups sent letters requesting that the city prohibit any future protests and rallies at the park.
“The park is considered hallowed ground by our members. The park should never be used for political party rallies, protests or advertising,” said VFW Post 2520 Cmdr. Floyd Burlock and Marine Corps League Commandant Tony Dube in a letter to the mayor and council.
“The park must remain apolitical and non-partisan in order to order to foster the solemn respect due all our veterans, living and dead,” the letter stated.
Appearing last Wednesday along with two other veteran representatives, Burlock said the VFW had a road toll scheduled for Aug. 28 when he noticed on Facebook a few days before that a group was planning a political rally at the park that same day. He posted that his group was using the park and as a non-partisan organization could not be in close proximity to a political event. He got no response.
On Aug. 28, Burlock said he spoke to some people who were setting up for the Blue Lives Matter rally at the park and suggested they move to the empty lot on Main Street across from Albert Theater.
But he said more arrived with signs and that a man he spoke with said he was a taxpayer and had a First Amendment right to be there.
When the group refused to move, Burlock said he picked up his group’s flags and left. He then contacted Mayor Paul Grenier, who asked him to write a letter about the experience.
The mayor admitted he was upset that more consideration was not shown the veterans. “This is still Berlin. We all know each other on a first-name basis, and we should allow respect for all of our fellow citizens,” said Grenier.
The mayor contacted Police Chief Peter Morency and asked if the chief could get the parties together and find a peaceful resolution. Morency said he contacted one of the organizers and asked if they could come to a mutual agreement but said that apparently did not happen.
Grenier said he was upset that at an earlier Black Lives Matter rally, children were climbing and playing on the monuments. He asked City Manager James Wheeler to see whether the city could ban political activity at the park. Wheeler said he checked with the N.H. Municipal Association and was told both the state and U.S. Constitution provide robust free speech protection and closing the park to political demonstration was unconstitutional.
That led to a suggestion by Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme that the city consolidate the monuments on the lower end of the park and give it to the VFW. Grenier said he liked the idea and wanted to present it to the council.
“I’m on the side of the veterans. That is hallowed ground to them,” he said.
Councilor Mark Eastman asked if the sidewalk would go with the land and was told that would remain public.
Councilor Peter Higbee called it a horrible thing that happened and said trying to get people talking to each other is the way to go forward.
Grenier said the city and VFW will develop an agreement and bring it to the council for approval. Councilor Lucie Remillard suggested the city and VFW get the agreement done soon before another rally is scheduled at the park.
Burlock thanked the council and said he really appreciated their support.