Police in a Los Angeles suburb allowed anti-war protesters to trash a patriotic 9-11 memorial, citing the vandals’ “freedom of speech.”

The protesters burned and ripped up U.S. flags, flowers and patriotic signs erected on a fence along a boulevard in La Habra, Calif. The display had been maintained since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said the local Whittier Daily News.

Tracey Chandler of Whittier displays American flag that had been burned and slashed by vandals (Photo: Bernardo Alps, Whittier Daily News).

Officers witnessed the vandalism Saturday afternoon but did not arrest three people seen damaging the memorial because they were “exercising the same freedom of speech that the people who put up the flags were,” said La Habra Police Capt. John Rees.

“For this to be vandalism, there had to be an ill-will intent,’ he said, according to the Whittier paper.

Police would take action only if the owner filed a complaint, said Rees.

Owner Jeff Collision said he might press charges.

“Their free speech stops at destruction of private property,” said Collision, who runs The RV Center of La Habra. “If they are allowed to come on my property and burn flags, does that mean I can go to City Hall or the police station and light their flags on fire because that is freedom of speech? To me, this is vandalism.”

A local resident who helped maintain the spontaneous memorial said she was shocked by the destruction.

“They trashed 87 flags, ripped 11 memorial tiles made by myself and my children out of the ground and glued the Bob Dylan song to a sign that said, ‘America, land of the brave, home of the free,'” said Tracey Chandler, a mother of four, referring to Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” an anti-war anthem of the 1960s.

“It’s unbelievable, because there were absolutely no political messages on this fence,” said Chandler, according to the Daily News. “It was all about supporting our troops, which could mean bringing them home, and about remembering 9-11.”

The paper quoted Les Howard, a sociology professor at Whittier College, who said he did not condone the destruction but believed the incident might reflect confusion among people trying to prevent a war against Iraq who are uncertain about how to express their sentiments.

“Some think [the best way to support the troops] is to not question their role,” Howard said. “Some think the best way is to pursue all means possible to avoid putting them in danger. That still does not excuse any desecration of people’s symbolic participation.”

Chandler said she is going to help rebuild the memorial, promising “it will be brighter, bigger and better than ever.”

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