San Leandro Councilmember Benny Lee

SAN LEANDRO CITY COUNCIL | A foreign banner will fly over San Leandro next month. With the approval of a controversial plan to celebrate China’s national day by flying the country’s flag over San Leandro City Hall next month, a majority of the City Council said the decision is meant to honor the people of Chinese descent and not the often oppressive government. However, the agenda item requested by Councilmember Benny Lee caught the city off guard and provided an evening of unusually combative discourse.

The City Council narrowly approved the proposal, 4-3, to raise the Chinese flag at City Hall on Oct. 1, following similar events in other Bay Area cities. Mayor Stephen Cassidy, Councilmembers Michael Gregory and Pauline Cutter voted against the flag-raising for its divisive attributes. Much of that disharmony could be heard Monday night.

“Do not honor violence and China by raising this flag,” said Giovanni Vassallo, president of Bay Area Friends of Tibet. The red and gold banner symbolizes oppression and the murder of millions of Tibetans, he told the City Council.

“Are we going to start raising the Cuba flag, too?” said San Leandro resident Dan Dillman. “As far as I know when an entity raises a flag over a country it means they conquered it.”

Mayor Cassidy and others who voted against the proposal agreed. “Symbols are important, especially when used by the government,” said Cassidy. “In this case, it’s one that is not democratically elected and has had severe violations of human rights over the years that continue to the present.”

Lee, who said the impetus for suggestion the flag raising ceremony was to honor the city’s growing Chinese population and to provide a welcome mat to potential business opportunities, added “The representation of the flag represents the people of China just as the American flag represents the people of America.”

“We don’t want to close our doors,” Lee said. “If we close our doors there is no sharing of their prosperity.” San Leandro’s Asian population is the city’s largest demographic and has continued to grow over the past two U.S. Census.

Councilmember Jim Prola admitted the contentious issue had forced him to change his mind 3-4 times. He ultimately settled on approving the plan after speaking to numerous Chinese American residents over the past few weeks. “My vote tonight is honoring the Chinese people and not the Chinese government,” said Prola. “I want to make it clear; I don’t stand for anything the Chinese government does, as far as oppression.”