Trump Flag Burning

Pennsylvania political activist Gene Stilp (left) burns a Trump flag in front of the Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

EBENSBURG – A political activist and former Democratic candidate for Congress expressed his opposition to President Donald Trump on Tuesday by burning flags in front of the Cambria County Courthouse.

Gene Stilp, who has conducted similar flag-burning demonstrations in approximately 20 other counties across Pennsylvania and at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, said the action was designed to coincide with the president’s scheduled campaign stop Tuesday evening at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Richland Township.

Stilp was cited after the demonstration for violating Ebensburg’s ordinance barring open burning within borough limits. He was ordered to pay a $50 fine and associated court costs, but indicated that he intends to plead not guilty “on First Amendment grounds” – “and then we’ll end up in court, I’m sure,” he added.

A crowd of about 20 Trump supporters gathered across South Center Street from the courthouse and jeered Stilp throughout his 10-minute demonstration, waving pro-Trump banners and playing patriotic songs such as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Their shouts, music, sirens and car horns drowned out most of a speech delivered by Stilp before he set fire to the flags.

“You’re not welcome here,” one man shouted. “This is our town."

Each of the flags burned by Stilp had Trump’s campaign banner printed on one side. One of them had Nazi Germany’s swastika emblem sewn to the opposite side, another bore the Confederate battle flag and a third depicted the Soviet Union’s hammer-and-sickle logo.

Stilp said the designs were intended to highlight what he said were shared values between Trump and those past regimes.

He also criticized Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and referenced media outlets’ reports that the president referred to members of the military as “losers” and “suckers” and that he paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.

Stilp said as he headed to his car after the flag-burning that he planned to conduct a similar action later Tuesday outside the Blair County Courthouse in Hollidaysburg.

“It was very pleasant, easy and cooperative,” he said of the Ebensburg demonstration. “Everything went smoothly. We stated Trump’s horrible values in a press conference, and we’re moving on to the next site. We have, between now and the election, another 15 counties to do – (Blair) today, and move on to Carbon, Monroe (and) Lehigh counties by the end of the week.”

Stilp, 70, a resident of the Harrisburg area, was the Democratic nominee in 2012 for Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, but was defeated by then-incumbent Rep. Lou Barletta.

Stilp had previously gained public notice in 2005 for filing lawsuits in opposition to the pay raise awarded by members of the state legislature to themselves that year.

According to news reports, Stilp has also gained media attention in the past by placing a replica of the Statue of Liberty on a Harrisburg bridge and needling former Gov. Ed Rendell about his weight by begging him not to eat Punxsutawney Phil, among other stunts. A 2006 report on his activities in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was headlined “Gene Stilp, the court jester.”

Stilp was cited in December 2019 for allegedly violating Harrisburg’s ordinance against public burning by setting fire to anti-Trump flags outside the state Capitol, but a district judge later ruled that the ordinance was only meant to apply to yard waste and other rubbish and found him not guilty, according to a report from Harrisburg radio station WITF-FM.

He has filed federal lawsuits against several Pennsylvania municipalities in which he was charged for burning flags, including Harrisburg, Lewisburg and Middleburg, according to reporting in August by pennlive.com.

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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