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The Providence Journal

A Distress Signal in Westerly

Alex Kuffner

Kelly and Jason Jarvis, an unemployed couple in Westerly, grew so frustrated by their situation that they hung a flag upside down from their house last week as a sign of distress. (The Providence Journal / Kris Craig)

WESTERLY, R.I. - Jason and Kelly Jarvis are in trouble. She lost her job in September. He has been out of work since last month.

The couple, married for 16 years and with two teenage sons, are running out of money. They are behind on their mortgage payments and their lender keeps calling, asking them when they'll mail a check.

They've tried to stay positive, but a week ago, after answering several of those calls, Kelly Jarvis broke down. Her husband tried to reassure her, but he grew frustrated, too.

It was then that Jason Jarvis walked out to the front porch of their two-story Greek Revival on Beach Street and hung an American flag upside down between two posts.

Flying the flag upside down is an internationally recognized distress signal.

He did it to express despair about the state of the economy and to call attention to the plight of the 56,800 Rhode Islanders without jobs. The state's unemployment rate hit 10 percent last month, the highest in 34 years. Only Michigan has a higher percentage of jobless residents.

"I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I'm pretty desperate," Jason Jarvis said yesterday. "This was a cry that we're not alone."

But some of the Jarvises' neighbors considered the gesture unpatriotic and a desecration of the flag. The police received complaints and sent an officer to the Jarvises' house on Saturday while the couple were out.

When Kelly Jarvis arrived home, a patrol car was waiting outside. Across the street, a man who doesn't live in the neighborhood was taking photographs of the flag and yelling, "It ain't right," she said.

The officer, while telling her that some neighbors were upset, didn't ask her to remove the flag. But she grew worried that someone would vandalize the house. She took it down.

But Jason Jarvis wanted people to know why he hung the flag. He sent a letter to The Westerly Sun explaining the symbol. The newspaper ran a story two days ago that has been picked up on talk radio and local TV.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was called by a radio reporter about the flag. He defended the Jarvises' right to fly the flag upside down, saying that it is a protected form of speech. Brown said the police had no right to go to the Jarvises' home. The visit, he contended, could be interpreted as "a subtle form of intimidation."

"It's just none of the Police Department's business," Brown said in an interview. "Court decisions make clear that this is political speech. The flag is a symbol. He was making a statement and it generated discussion. That's what the First Amendment is all about."

Police Chief Edward A. Mello did not respond to a message seeking comment.


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Federal flag rules in the U.S. Code of laws forbid the flying of an American flag upside down "except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

In a 1974 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of a person to use the flag for political expression. In the case, Spence v. Washington, the court sided with a college student who had hung the flag upside down and attached peace symbols to either side of it.

Jason Jarvis learned the meaning of the upside-down flag from his late father, who worked as a master shipwright at Mystic Seaport. An upside-down flag has historically been used as a nautical symbol of distress.

He followed his father into the marine industry, working off and on for two decades on fishing boats out of Point Judith. He has also worked as a chef and as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.

For the past 10 years, he spent his summers working on monkfish boats and as first mate on a charter fishing boat in Point Judith, and his winters working for an oyster farm in Westerly and for a local construction company. The hatchery and the construction company both laid off all their workers before Christmas. And with fishing regulations tightening, the monkfish boat may not sail this year.

Kelly Jarvis lost her job last September as manager of a bead shop in Mystic, Conn. She has been searching for work since then, but has been unable to find a job.

She and her husband, both 41, live with their 14-year-old son in a modest house about a mile from Misquamicut Beach. Their older son, who is 19, is studying electrical engineering at the New England Institute of Technology.

Jason Jarvis applied online for state unemployment benefits on Dec. 1 but has yet to receive his first check. The director of the state Department of Labor and Training, which manages the unemployment benefits system, said earlier this month that the department has a backlog of 9,000 online requests for information and benefits, dating to Dec. 22.

The couple used to have a combined income of about $60,000 a year. For now, the family lives on Kelly Jarvis' unemployment checks from the benefits system in Connecticut - $334 a week - and whatever money Jason Jarvis earns from odd jobs. It's not nearly enough to cover their bills, including the $1,800 monthly mortgage payments on the house they've owned for 16 years. The couple are already two months behind on their payments.

More than 40 people responded online to The Westerly Sun story, many of them in support of the Jarvises. A half-dozen people called the couple's home expressing solidarity, according to Kelly Jarvis.

"We're just small people here," she said. "We don't expect to ever be millionaires. We just want to pay our bills, live comfortably and enjoy our house."

They know they are not the only ones who are suffering. They don't want to offend anyone, but they believe in the statement they're trying to make.

They are thinking of putting the flag back up.


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