BRECKSVILLE, Ohio — After a two-year hiatus triggered by the pandemic, the affluent suburb of Brecksville organized its traditional Memorial Day service on Monday. It included a parade and cemetery ceremony to honor the men and women who died in war.
The short procession — which featured the Brecksville-Broadview Heights marching band, members of the American Legion and military auxiliary groups —stepped off from Brecksville City Hall and ended less than a mile away at a city-owned ceremony.
Led by Jerry Hruby, Brecksville's longtime mayor, the service included the presentation of the flag and recognition of the wars fought by Americans, from the American Revolution to the Iraq War.
After the invocation from Chaplain Robert White of the American Legion Excelsior Post 196, Hruby introduced the main speaker: Garfield Heights Judge Sergio I. DiGeronimo.
DiGeronimo is Brecksville's former assistant law director and prosecutor. In December, Gov. Mike DeWine appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Garfield Heights Municipal Court.
Portions of DiGeronimo's twelve-minute speech paid tribute to those who died in battle. But it also included language used as coded attacks in politics. You can watch the unedited version of his speech below:
"We gather here today to solute the men and women of history—and today—who provide us the luxury of peace to enjoy this country’s promise," he said.
DiGeronimo said he grew up watching the war drama "Combat," which starred Vic Morrow. He acknowledged the show didn't reflect the reality of the those who fought.
"The vast majority of soldiers who fought and died in battle were only slightly older than this marching band," he said, "and they died."
Halfway through his speech, DiGeronimo said the country needs to do more to honor soldiers. He offered a short list that included references to cultural wedge issues at the center of political debate amid the midterm elections.
"First, we should not sit by and allow others to smear our beloved country by rewriting and contorting its history," he said.
Preserving the current teaching of the country's founding has become a rallying point for some politicians and school board candidates upset by the New York Times' 1619 Project, a lengthy newspaper analysis that commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans.
The project earned acclaim for examining how slavery shaped American's political and economic institutions. It also drew criticism from some scholars and politicians for what they say is a cynical view of America's founding.
Some of these same critics have attacked critical race theory, which examines how racism is institutionalized in America, though it is not part of grade school curriculums.
DiGeronimo suggested there is only one version of American history.
"True American history outlines the bravery of the people to harness resources, conquer obstacles, make things work, and make lives better," he said.
DiGeronimo then said Americans should reject "divisive political mantras spewed by those who want America to fail and reset."
"They misuse grotesque labels to shout down opposing views," he said. "Yes, these are wicked people seeking to divide and subdivide Americans, pitting one against the other. They say stupid things like 'defund the police.' They thrive and profit in chaos. They label anyone who disagrees with them a racist."
Defunding the police is a controversial concept promoted by activists after the police killing of George Floyd. The concept has been adopted by some politicians and carries varying degrees of meaning, including cutting some funding of police departments and redirecting the money to education, mental health, and housing.
DiGeronimo also touched on gender identity, which has become a political issue and one highlighted in campaign ads during the recent U.S. Senate race in Ohio. He noted people are either a man or a woman, dead or alive.
"To unify this nation, we must be critical of those who are the purveyors of division, and we must reject them and their message," he said. "On the face of the earth, throughout of all history, there have been only four true and undiluted types of humans: women, men, living and dead.”
DiGeronimo finished this portion of the speech by declaring "all lives matter." It is the politically charged counterpoint to the slogan "Black Lives Matter," which is used by those arguing for social justice. The slogan does not mean Black lives matter more than any other lives, but rather Black lives should not be overlooked.
3News asked DiGeronimo on Tuesday why such issues were referenced in his speech honoring Americans who died in war. He disputed any characterization that his speech carried political overtones, and said he's unfamiliar with the 1619 Project.
"I'm referring to anything that instead of recognizing how our country got to where it is, cast blame on those who got us here," he said. "I don't know much about the 1619 Project. I haven't read up on that. I'm familiar with the critical race theory."
He said schools are "picking and choosing" what children are being taught. As an example, he referenced the removal of controversial statues.
"They're tearing statues down," he said. "They're renaming schools. They want to do things, people want to do things to erase our history. We have to embrace our history, warts and all, good and bad."
DiGeronimo also denied knowing the phrase "all lives matter" has become a political message to pushback against the social justice group Black Lives Matter.
"I don't know where you come from," he said. "I don't know where you come from where you can't say all lives matter."
He insisted it’s not meant to provoke anything other than the "purest sense of the words all lives matter."
Asked why he included a reference to "undiluted types of humans," DiGeronimo said, "Can you write this down? Because obviously you're not going to give me a fair shot."
"My reference is that there are four humans," he said. "There are four, and they cannot be divided beyond that. We should not allow people to subdivide us. I own it."
Pressed for more clarity, DiGeronimo acknowledged it has to do with gender identity.
"Every group that wants to be hyphenated, they have to remember there are only men and women on this planet," he said.