FREE SPEECH: Symbols of Distress

By on December 13, 2016

What it means to practice patriotism and dissent at the same time.

(Photo: Maryelizabeth Pistono)

(Photo: Maryelizabeth Pistono)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In August, a Vietnam veteran in Iowa was arrested for hanging the U.S. flag upside down outside his home. The Fort Dodge Messenger reported that Homer Martz was protesting an oil pipeline being built between his land and his water well.

Martz faced a misdemeanor and a possible fine or minimum 30-day stay in jail for trying to “publicly mutilate, deface, defile or defy, trample upon, cast contempt upon, satirize, deride or burlesque, either by words or act” any flag or insignia of the United States or Iowa.

Insults to the national or state flag are also illegal in Pennsylvania, where a man was arrested in 2014 when he hung an upside down flag in protest of the Keystone Pipeline. Joshua Brubaker spray-painted the letters “AIM,” short for “American Indian Movement” on the flag before he was arrested. In his case, criminal charges were dismissed, and ACLU attorneys filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to secure damages for Brubaker and to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of desecration laws.

These stories call into question what constitutes desecration of the flag and highlights the recent coalescence of two groups that have a unique claim to American identity—American Indians and veterans—and their use of the flag.

Bartz’s arresting officer said it was “very offensive,” “disgraceful,” and “unpatriotic” to hang the flag upside down.

In contrast, a shirt with the words “Time To Get Star Spangled Hammered” does not induce the same ire. If the Boulder-based company Shinesty, home to “the most patriotic flag apparel on earth” is any indication, the flag can be used in virtually any way.

Shinesty sells everything from suits (made in China) to speedos to fanny packs, emblazoned with stars and stripes. Anyone with an extra $14.99 can own a “Freedom Tastes Like Booze Collapsible American Flag Flask.”

The embrace of an ironic-but-not-ironic, in your face patriotism creates a market for shirts that say “Not Cocky Just Better” in red white and blue, and seems worlds away from, say, those who are arrested and tortured in the Chinese-occupied Tibet just for owning a Tibetan flag.

But this jocular, consumerist relationship with the flag overshadows the fact that it remains a troubled symbol for many.

Traditionally, hanging the flag upside down is a sign of distress, a message Brubaker intentionally evoked.

“If I don’t have the right to hang that flag upside down, which means a sign of distress, which this country is in so much distress right now, then what’s the point of having it?” he asked.

Water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation also flew the American flag upside down during their resistance against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. A member of the Cass County SWAT team removed one of these flags on December 2.

“They disrespected the very symbol that gives them the right to do that, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney.

But that “right” is actually very recent. Native Americans could not vote until 1924, and myriad states blocked their votes until 1948. They did not have many rights, including that to free speech, due process, or protection against cruel and unusual punishment until the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. And until the 1996 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, many aspects of Native American religions were illegal.

It follows that the flag would be complicated for many who are not included in the values it is meant to symbolize, such as freedom and equality. The bombastic appropriation of the flag, as represented by consumerist goods with slogans such as “Back to Back World War Champs” highlights who the flag represents and who it leaves out.

About 55,000 Native Americans served in the world wars where they were hardly seen as citizens, let alone “champs.” In fact, Native Americans have the highest per-capita involvement of any population to serve in the U.S. military, but they are accused of being unpatriotic when they communicate that their disenfranchisement continues.

Disrespect to troops and veterans is often cited as a reason that the American flag should not be desecrated. However, a recent forgiveness ceremony at Standing Rock reveals that many veterans believe that it is more disrespectful to stand behind a flag whose country has never fully granted equal rights to all.

As reported by USA Today, thousands of veterans vowed their support for those at Standing Rock, and asked forgiveness for military actions that wronged indigenous peoples. Wes Clark Jr., the son of General Wesley Clark, stood in front of bowed veterans and said, “Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke.

“We stole minerals from your sacred hills,” he continued, “We blasted the faces of our presidents into your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to eliminate your language. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we have come to say that we are sorry.”

Prohibiting an upside down flag does not erase or address the human rights abuses committed in its name. Honoring the voices of those who fly that symbol of distress and disenfranchisement might. PJH

About Sarah Ross

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