ENCINITAS – A polarizing debate over protests involving the National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance that has gripped the nation this year recently made its way to Encinitas in one of the most unlikely places — the Traffic and Public Safety Commission.
Commissioners clashed in recent meetings when two members of the seven commissioner board refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and one of the members asked the board to eliminate the pledge as a standing item on the board’s agenda.
The act of protest has divided the commission, as some members said they support the stance taken by Commissioners Christina Simokat and Darius Degher, while others said they were offended by it.
The debate first started in October, when Simokat, a college professor who had recently been appointed to the board, declined to lead the pledge and sat during its recital.
At the Dec. 11 meeting, Simokat was joined by Degher, who had declined to recite the pledge at previous meetings since his appointment but chose to sit with Simokat.
“My first meeting I asked them to not ask me to lead the pledge, and I would stand for it and not say it,” Degher said. “But when she sat, I felt like, ‘she just did the right thing and I hadn’t. I had been weak on it, so when the following meeting came up, I decided I had to sit for it.”
Simokat, reached this week, said her reasons for sitting were personal and she did not want to disclose them. Degher said in an interview that his reasons for declining to participate in the pledge were twofold. First, he said, the origins of the pledge are rooted in nationalism, which he said paralleled what he called a “feverish nationalistic climate” in the country, which was his second issue with the pledge.
Degher asked the rest of the commission during the “commissioner corner” segment of the meeting if they would be interested in removing the standing agenda item dedicated to the pledge and do it “every six months, or not at all.”
“It’s an absurdity if you ask me,” Degher said about the pledge at the meeting. “And feeling compelled to do it is problematic.”
Chairman Charles Lisherness said he wouldn’t agree with eliminating the pledge, but said he would change his introduction of the pledge to invite people to stand, rather than saying “please rise.” “I would feel uncomfortable making a decision to dispense with it,” Lisherness said.
Co-Chairman Peter Kohl, who immigrated to the United States from Germany and served in the military before becoming a citizen, was the most vocal opponent of Simokat and Degher’s act.
He said that the two showed no respect by sitting (and Degher keeping his hat on) during the pledge.
“My feeling is that anyone is entitled to a protest, but the least thing as far as I am concerned is that they would stand, they don’t have to say the pledge or put their hands over their hearts, and that Darius should take off his hat,” Kohl said. “I feel very strongly … that we are a citizens’ commission, and if they want to protest they can do it anywhere, but not at a commission
meeting, because it makes the whole commission look bad.
“It is always a tradition at council and commission meetings that we have the pledge, and all of the sudden, people in the audience or people watching on TV are going to see this, and they are going to be wondering what the heck is going on, especially people who served in the armed
forces,” Kohl said.
Degher said that he strongly disagreed with the assertion that sitting during the pledge of allegiance was an act of disrespect toward troops.
“I think of my own father, who fought five years in World War II specifically to protect Americans from having to engage in things like hand salutes,” Degher said. “I feel strongly about the whole thing.”
The commission debate mirrors some of the debates going on in the country over similar protests, which began when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem to raise awareness of the issue of police brutality in black communities.
President Donald Trump stoked the controversial topic when he said in a speech earlier this year that players who refused to stand for the National Anthem should be fired, which sparked a series of coordinated protests in response to his words.
At least two other traffic commissioners, who said they were “on the fence” about the entire discussion, said that Degher’s explanation was thought-provoking and made them think about their own reasons for reciting the pledge.
“It gave a lot of credibility as to why we should be suggesting it rather than it being a procedural act, I don’t know, I found it very interesting,” Commissioner Christina Brady said. “Especially in today’s political climate.
“I know sometimes I don’t want to pledge allegiance, because I wouldn’t want to go war for someone who I believe is a complete (sic),” Brady said, referring to Trump. “I understand where they are coming from and value their protest.”
Commissioner Brian Grover also shared Brady’s sentiments in an interview this week.
Brady, however, said she also understood Kohl’s viewpoint about Degher’s hat.
“Peter made an extremely valuable point, that not everyone thinks of it as a political action, just a respect for our nation,” Brady said. “In the spirit of tradition and what it stands for, for Peter, it would be the respectful thing to take off the hat.
“I think they are actually arguing for the same thing, but they don’t see eye to eye on how to get there, which is why politics stink,” she said.