Valparaiso Democratic Committee Chairperson Doug Burbank gives his statement reflecting on the Valparaiso, Indiana Popcorn Festival display by the Porter County Republicans in the 2021 parade.
"Popcorn Fest is an opportunity for Valparaiso to put its best face forward, showcasing the community we are and demonstrating the city we want to continue striving to be. The Festival should serve as a celebration of our home and what it offers. There were plenty of examples this weekend of what makes Valparaiso a great community. Unfortunately, none of that is being talked about. The face being projected for our home has made nation and international news for reasons that allow none of us to hold our heads high.
Those of us old enough to recall the events of September 11th all remember where we were when we heard the news. The images we saw won’t leave us and the way those horrendous acts made us feel will not be forgotten. We carry them with us as does our nation. It is wholly appropriate that on the twentieth anniversary, people would wish to memorialize the lives lost and honor the sacrifices of those who put themselves in danger to help. Plenty of organizations did that this weekend. The Valparaiso Fire Department took a somber respectful moment to honor the courage and sacrifice of their fellow first responders. Unfortunately, that isn’t what anyone is talking about today.
Memorials are meant to honor and remember the dead, not to relive the horrific events that have left us without them. Porter County GOP Chairman Michael Simpson said, “We were trying to honor the tragedies. If you don’t like it, there are others who do.” Maybe that’s where it went wrong. Instead of honoring the 2,977 innocent people who lost their lives or the 25,000 people injured, the Republican Float focused on the violence of the day. Judging by the subject focus of the entry and Mr. Simpson’s words, the GOP is more concerned about how the float makes them feel than whether it’s an appropriate commemoration of those who are gone.
Perhaps Mr. Simpson feels buoyed by the fact that the float inexplicably earned an honorable mention in the judging. Parade goers didn’t seem to agree as the float was often met with stunned silence and boos. The float has been featured locally in the NWI Times, nationally in TMZ, and also internationally in the London based Daily Mail. Comments have been critical on these stories, expressing disbelief and anger at the float. Conversely, the local Republican Facebook page has restricted who is allowed to join the discussion on their posts, attempting to paint a rosy picture of Saturday’s events. They’ve shared City Councilmember Evan Costa’s post featuring a picture of the float and cheering the success. Chairman Simpson’s public statement is also included, indicating they, “‘wished no disrespect and regret that our tribute...was to some perceived in bad taste.” Mr. Simpson and the GOP couldn’t even muster an apology for the insensitive depiction of 9/11 to the victims, nor to the citizens of Valparaiso for tarnishing the city’s reputation locally and abroad. Instead, they placed the responsibility on individuals for feeling justly disappointed at the crassness of the display. For all the talk of personal rights and freedoms, there is little evidence of those in charge taking personal responsibility for the consequences.
There is always a danger, when attempting to honor those lost in tragedy, violence, and war, of turning the memorial into a moment for ourselves instead of for those who are no longer here. The act of memorializing others can quickly turn to honor ourselves. It’s important to remember that the list of victims on 9/11 aren’t just names on a page. They were people who showed up to work or boarded a plane with no expectation that they were in their last moments. They left behind friends, loved ones, and unfilled dreams. The way to honor them is to remember the people behind the day, not the detailed events that took them away from us. It’s a moment to reflect. To think about what it has been like for those they left behind. To remember that we as a nation can be unified in the face of tragedy by remembering our shared humanity and how fragile our lives are.
I am disappointed by the perception of Valparaiso the float has given the world. We are a better community than that and by and large we showed that on Saturday when we gathered together to share our town, our organizations, our food, and our culture. It is a shame that isn’t what the weekend will be remembered for, but it’s a reminder that the work of building and improving is never over. We have a year to get ready for the next Popcorn Fest and I know we can give the world something wonderful to talk about."