Upside down flag sparks July 4 dispute
By Robert Imrie - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Jul 10, 2009 14:40:27 EDT

WAUSAU, Wis. — A U.S. flag flown upside down as a protest in a northern Wisconsin village was seized by police before a Fourth of July parade and the businessman who flew it — an Iraq war veteran — claims the officers trespassed and stole his property.

A day after the parade, police returned the flag and the man’s protest — over a liquor license — continued.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is considering legal action against the village of Crivitz for violating Vito Congine Jr.’s’ First Amendment rights, Executive Director Chris Ahmuty said.

“It is not often that you see something this blatant,” Ahmuty said. “The fact that police on Independence Day of all days would come onto private property without permission and shut down his protest is very disturbing.”

In mid-June, Congine, 46, began flying the flag upside down — an accepted way to signal distress — outside the restaurant he wants to open in Crivitz, a village of about 1,000 people some 65 miles north of Green Bay.

He said his distress is likely bankruptcy because the village board refused to grant him a liquor license after he spent nearly $200,000 to buy and remodel a downtown building for an Italian supper club.

Congine’s upside-down-flag represents distress to him; to others in town, like the village president, it represents disrespect of the flag — especially when a community 20 miles away was mourning the death of a 19-year-old soldier killed in Afghanistan.

Just hours before a Fourth of July parade, four police officers went to Congine’s property and removed the flag under the advice of Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey.

Neighbor Steven Klein watched in disbelief.

“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ They said. ‘It is none of your business. Leave or you will be arrested,’ ” Klein said. “It was out-and-out theft.”

Brey declined to comment Friday.

On July 5, police returned the flag.

Marinette County Sheriff Jim Kanikula said it was not illegal to fly the flag upside down but people were upset and it was the Fourth of July.

“It is illegal to cause a disruption,” he said. “There were a lot of vets at that parade. You know how veterans react when they see that.”

The parade went on without any problems, he said.

Village President John Deschane said removing the flag was the right thing to do.

Deschane, 60, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said many people in town believe it’s disrespectful to fly the flag upside down, especially for Congine’s reason.

“Don’t disrespect the flag,” Deschane said. “If he wants to protest, let him protest, but find a different way to do it.”

Congine, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq in 2004, said he intends to keep flying the flag upside down, even though vandals removed a rope this week from the 32-foot pole it was on and another man trespassed onto his property to try to remove it.

“It is extremely scary that the police or the district attorney or a legislative body feels they can take any law and just put it aside for their own interests,” Congine said. “It is pretty bad when I go and fight a tyrannical government somewhere else and then I come home to find it right here at my front door.”