Bitter, late-night debate in Ohio House to ban Confederate flag

In the dark of night, state lawmakers bitterly debated whether to prohibit the display and sale of the Confederate flag at county fairs across Ohio.

In the end, the GOP-controlled Ohio House opted not to ban the flag that Democrats called a “symbol of hatred, treason and racism.”

The lengthy, emotional debate started late at night and didn’t finish until 1:35 a.m.

“I imagine the reason why we’re doing this last is because you thought you were going to wear us out and we weren’t going to be ready for this fight. Listen, let me tell you I will always fight for my humanity. I will fight for the humanity of others,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron.

Democrats and state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, argued that the Confederate flag is a symbol that divides Americans and makes some feel unwelcome at county fairs. Supporters of the ban said it’s a small step that acknowledges the cries of protesters across the state.

“People are hurting. People are screaming to be heard. People don’t spend day and night protesting if they are feeling okay. Black people are not feeling okay. What we can do as legislators is listen,” Sykes said.

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State Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, who offered an amendment to an otherwise innocuous bill updating county fair governance, said “Now, Ohio might not be the leader on everything but don’t let us be the last on this one.”

Republicans, however, argued that banning the Confederate flag violates the First Amendment right to free speech and could expose the state to litigation.

“Ladies and gentlemen, either we believe in the First Amendment for all or we slide down the slippery slope of restricting its application only to those we favor today or tomorrow. I don’t think that’s what the founders had in mind,” state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati.

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The House voted 56-34 to table Brent’s amendment that would have banned the Confederate flag at county fairs. The only Miami Valley lawmakers to oppose tabling it were Antani and state Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton.

The House also voted 56-33 to table Brent’s second amendment that would have withheld state funds from county fairs that fail to ban the Confederate flag. Strahorn was the only local lawmaker to oppose tabling.

The bill eventually cleared the House on a 62-25 vote and now moves to the Senate for consideration.

The debate extended beyond the merits of the amendments and into racial equality, the Black Lives Matters protests and the House failing to take swift action on a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.

Sykes said, “I’ve been told that you all, the non black people in this body, have all of the answers to solve the problems of black people. Well, you have been in power for over 400 years and you haven’t solved them yet. Maybe you could ask us for some help because I have a few suggestions.”

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