Colchester officials said they’re grappling with how to prevent offensive imagery from being displayed at town events after a political candidate flew a flag commonly associated with fascism and included a “Pepe the Frog” image on his float at a recent Fourth of July parade.
The parade float for Mark Coester, a Westminster resident and logger running for multiple seats this election cycle, included a flag depicting a bundle of arrows commonly associated with Falangism, a 20th century political movement associated with the authoritarian dictator Francisco Franco in Spain.
A drawing of “Pepe the Frog,” a cartoon character often linked to various far-right and white nationalist groups, was also displayed on the side of the truck.
When reached by VTDigger on Friday, Coester hung up the phone when asked to discuss the meaning behind the symbols.
The parade on July 4, which ambled down Blakely Road between Colchester High School and Lavigne Road, has for 51 years brought families together for displays of marching bands, fire trucks, and candy to celebrate the national holiday.
But the sight of the images moving along the parade route provoked outrage on social media — and in calls to the Colchester town offices.
This is the first time the town is aware of such symbols being displayed at a public event and Colchester does not support the symbols and meanings behind them, said Deputy Town Manager Renae Marshall. The town’s department of Parks & Recreation hosts the event.
In the future, the town plans to be more aware of additional controversial imagery at town events, Marshall said.
“Now that we have this information, this is one more that we're going to be looking out for. We were looking out for a more obvious one, now this is added to that list,” said Marshall, referring to the symbol found on the flag that sparked the controversy.
According to Peter Teachout, a professor of law at Vermont Law School, because the parade is run by the town, Colchester has the ability — as a form of government speech under the First Amendment — to decide who participates and what messages they promote.
“If they don’t want to have people use profanity or use disparaging speech as part of the parade, they have complete discretion to decide that,” said Teachout.
Coester’s parade float and campaign materials advertise his run for U.S. Senate as an independent, but he has also filed with the Secretary of State’s Office to run as a Republican for the Vermont Senate in Windham County.
Colchester town officials said they had not reached out to Coester as of Tuesday, and had not yet determined whether they would.
In the reaction on social media, one user shared a photo from the event that quickly began to circulate. “Fascism on display at the Colchester Vermont 4th of July parade,” they wrote.
Fascism on display at the Colchester Vermont 4th of July parade 😟 pic.twitter.com/D2mY1wUPnl— Finite Capacity (@finitecapacity) July 4, 2022
According to Marshall, by choosing to display the flag associated with Falangism and the “Pepe the Frog” character, Coester broke the agreement he signed when registering for the parade, which includes a stipulation that “there shall not be any profanity or disparaging signs, flags or music displayed by participants in the parade or in the staging area.”
Marshall told VTDigger last week that the town was not aware of the symbols before or during the parade. Coester did not have the flag out in the set-up area before step-off and reportedly began flying it after the parade had begun.
Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, said the party was not backing Coester.
He called the candidate’s dual campaigns under different party labels “a very strange situation.” Dame said he does not support Coester’s campaign for the state Senate seat as a Republican.
“I'm encouraging every Republican to vote for the other two established Republicans in that primary,” Dame said.
Among his own promotional signs, Coester’s float also featured campaign materials for Republicans Gregory Thayer and Gerald Malloy. Thayer is running for lieutenant governor, while Malloy is vying for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate — the same seat Coester is campaigning for as an independent.
Thayer, who marched separately in the parade, did not respond to questions about whether he authorized the use of his campaign signs on Coester’s float.
2022 Election Briefs
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