Keeping the flag flying

On a Saturday morning some years ago, as part of a symposium sponsored by the Traprock Peace Center at Greenfield Community College, I participated on a panel with Frank Serpico, the retired New York City police officer who exposed corruption and bribery committed by his fellow officers. Al Pacino played him in the movie. The room was packed. Frank was the draw.

I began my remarks by apologizing for running late and not having had enough time to finish dressing, at which point I took a tie out of my suit jacket and slid it under my shirt collar. Finishing dressing in front of an audience was a bit odd, I grant you that.

But I had everyone’s attention. More accurately and importantly, the tie did. No one could miss the repeated pattern of American flags from the half-Windsor knot to my waist.

This political theater allowed me to make the point that we who believe in liberty and equality should not allow the flag to be misappropriated by those law enforcement personnel whose guns, nightsticks, teargas, handcuffs, falsified reports and jail sentences inflict pain and damage on traditionally oppressed people; nor by other government officials and functionaries who start wars; nor by those who would impoverish the poor and middle class while further enriching the rich. The symbol should be used against those oppressors, not handed over to them.

Recently that argument, if it was made, failed to carry the day at Hampshire College in Amherst. After the election, the American flag on the college’s front lawn flew at half-staff. That felt about right given the death-like feeling that descended after the election with its derogation of principles of equality and inclusion and its exultation of bigotry, misogyny, jingoism, environmental degradation, police brutality, and hatred.

But lowering the flag to half-staff, which Hampshire, of course, has a First Amendment right to do, carried a price. That symbolism is intended to honor a person who has died and not connote a political maelstrom. The potential to cause unintended offense, especially to veterans, was real.

Then, someone at Hampshire burned the flag. We don’t know who. Following the flag burning, the college decided to leave the flagpole barren. A few hundred people showed up to protest that decision. All this became national news. The criticism was intense. Then on Dec. 2, at sunrise, the college raised the flag again.

Hampshire’s biggest mistake, in my judgment, was to fail to embrace the paradigm of free speech — of more speech and better speech. Why not put up a few more flagpoles and surround the American flag with, for example, the rainbow flag and the earth flag. Why not surround the flag with the values it could and should stand for?

Yes, we face terrifying times. Trump’s election has emboldened racist and white nationalist movements. Muslims face serious threats to their safety, their ability to worship freely and their right to live free from discrimination and surveillance. The election has empowered and normalized anti-Semitism and racism. Trump has called for the imprisonment and revocation of citizenship of people who engage in First Amendment protected expression. He insists on his right to torture — international law be damned.

There’s more.

The new administration’s threats to privacy, including plans to expand domestic surveillance, are bone chilling. Trump has vowed to burden to death the right to reproductive choice and to have his Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. The president-elect also is poised to unravel protections for the LGBT community, and he has promised to roll back marriage equality

And still more. Trump has mocked the Black Lives Matter movement. He has repeatedly expressed his overt hostility to civil rights. He proposes to eviscerate the Fourth Amendment by making racist stop and frisk a national policy. He has declared his personal war against the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, the Fifth Amendment assurance of due process, the Sixth Amendment’s embodiment of fair criminal procedures, the Eighth Amendment protection of reasonable bail and prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments’ guarantees respectively of equal protection and voting rights.

This year, I spent time with Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 political novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” which tells a cautionary tale about how totalitarianism, through our own electoral processes, envelopes America. The similarities between Sinclair Lewis’ fictional America and Trump’s promised actual America are frightening. I had thought that the quote “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross” came from that book. It doesn’t, although the story itself makes that point.

This is no time for people of goodwill to hand over our most poignant and powerful symbol to those who would destroy equality, democracy and liberty. We cannot give up. We cannot acquiesce. When asked by our children or grandchildren, each one of us needs to have a personally satisfactory response to the question, “What did you do after Trump was elected?” To have an adequate answer, we will need all the strength, courage, creativity, and love that we can muster. Among our resources and as a bulwark, we need the flag.


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