In the wake of all the recent hullabaloo over the Confederate flag, we’ve had a spate of flag-focused protests here in Colorado. I would like to say I’ve found this tremendously moving and moral, but I’m laughing too hard to form “m” sounds.
My hands-down favorite is an incident in Bellvue, a small farming community northwest of Fort Collins. According to police, an unidentified man purchased from a thrift store an antique toy wagon decorated with a Confederate flag, then dragged it into the street and tried to run over it with his SUV. Witnesses say he then exited his vehicle with a handgun — we Coloradans believe in unholstering at the slightest provocation — and shot at the little wagon at least nine times.
No one was hurt, excepting, I assume, the wagon. Then the wagon-hater drove off.
All of this was understandably perplexing to local authorities, and also, apparently, to the headline writer of the newspaper article from which I learned of this presumed protest. The subhead reads thusly: “Man bought wagon, then tried to kill it.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad the Confederate flag has been banished from the state capitol grounds in South Carolina, as it should be on government property everywhere. Whatever its more nuanced historical significance — and it does have one — the Stars and Bars are commonly seen today as a potent and provocative symbol of racism, a bow to the worst reason rebel soldiers took up arms. If there was any doubt about that, Dylann Roof erased it when he killed nine black churchgoers after authoring an online racist manifesto that prominently featured images of the Confederate banner.
But clearly, we Americans have grown a little murky about using flags as a form of protest.
A few helpful tips:
1). The point of your protest should be clear. Buying an item at a thrift store, assaulting it with your car and a sidearm and then driving off raises more questions than this post is equipped to answer. Make a bold, unmistakable statement. Then, do not run away with your tail between your legs. Related to this,
2). An effective protest should be highly public and emotionally powerful; it should move onlookers. Tears are terrific. Anger is great. Pensive is good enough. You are not aiming for confusion. Laughter is counterproductive.
3). Know local ordinances, especially if you are going for “incendiary” in a literal way. A woman in my very own town of Manitou Springs was recently cited on suspicion of arson for organizing a Confederate flag burning at a public park pavilion. Grilling or barbecuing is not allowed under the pavilion, a police spokeswoman explained, and only gas grills can be used in the park proper.
4). Keep your flags straight. Last week, a partly burned American flag was discovered on a statue at Colorado Springs City Hall; the point of this done-in-darkness gesture (see Tip 2) was unclear (see Tip 1), especially in the current climate of Confederate flag incinerations. I’m guessing here, but Roof’s manifesto also included images of the American flag, albeit in flames. Perhaps this engendered confusion among those of our fellow citizens not inclined to trouble themselves over details.
As I may already have mentioned, we here in Colorado believe in gun rights, and the City Hall incident triggered a procession of pistol-packing volunteers determined to protect Old Glory 24/7. This may have made we the people feel safer, but it made I the person feel creeped out in a sort of “Why do I live here?” way I’ve not experienced since Colorado tried to revoke the basic rights of gay people by constitutional fiat in 1992.
But, I digress. I’m guessing again, but I am assuming our vigilantes were less upset about vandalism — the flag was taken from city property — than the flag-burning itself. Which leads to my last tip:
5). Brush up on First Amendment law. It is bad form to shoot a fellow American, or even insinuate you will do so, for exercising his or her constitutional rights. While burning someone else’s flag is vandalism, torching your own — at least, in accordance with local burning ordinances — has been a form of protected speech since the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson.
“The Government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable, even where our flag is involved,” said Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority. “We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”
The opinion is notable not only for Brennan’s well-reasoned rhetoric, but for what may be the most bloatedly jingoistic dissent in SCOTUS history, in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist quotes the Star-Spangled Banner, drapes several wars in the red, white and blue, and then castigates the majority for “a regrettably patronizing civics lecture” about the significance of the flag.
If there were an irony flag, I’d burn it. Or, maybe, run it over with my car, shoot it and then disappear.
Oh, wait: Would that be confusing?