It’s officially the 4th of July, America’s celebration of its independence from the British Crown. For days now, we’ve seen the flag, a symbol of the country’s liberty waving from flagpoles. We’ll see it more as the weekend unfolds. I won’t be flying it outside my house. I’m not unpatriotic, but it has been co-opted by the right, and that’s wrong.
As a liberal, mostly atheist gay 60-year-old baby boomer who lives in Los Angeles, I’m ashamed of my fellow Caucasians. They’ve hijacked a patriotic icon. I noticed their abuse of it earlier this spring. Beaches in Southern California have always epitomized freedom. I get it. Still, I was appalled to see, at rallies to re-open Orange County beaches, a mostly white crowd waving their signs along with the US flag.
Those stars and stripes appeared on caps, T-shirts, bandanas, and bikinis, too. There were plenty of MAGA hats and Trump re-election banners alongside them. It’s a disturbing indication of how this political bloc will vote in November. These were people who wanted the world re-opened even if it led to more sickness and death. Their need to walk the sandy beaches trumped anything else. I was in disbelief at their lack of compassion.
To me, it feels like the other side has stolen a symbol meant for all Americans. The flag has often appeared at right-wing rallies. An egregious use of it took place during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. On that day, our rectangle of stars and stripes was unfurled as if all Americans believed in the racism and hate being promoted. (We most certainly do not.) Recently, it waved from Live Free or Die demonstrations. One Michigan protester’s sign read, “My constitutional rights are ESSENTIAL,” a flag in the image. I take issue with the word “my” — the individual versus the collective — that pervades right now. “Our” rights, all of ours, are essential. That’s what America is supposed to be about.
There’s not as much flag-waving at liberal protests. With the recent Black Lives Matter marches, the stars and stripes rarely appear. When they do, acts of dissent are more prevalent. One BLM protest image I saw showed a marcher carrying the flag upside-down — to express opposition to President Trump. Another photo showed the words I Can’t Breathe spelled out in large black letters across the fabric. They’ve also set it on fire. While I don’t condone this act, I do support their freedom to protest in any way they choose. And if I’d attended a BLM march myself, I would not have felt comfortable carrying the stars and stripes myself — not with its current conception as a tool of the right.
I don’t believe the left is less patriotic. Protesting is a patriot’s right, an entitlement of all citizens. I haven’t waved a flag since 9/11. This doesn’t mean I don’t have patriotic feelings. I just don’t want to be seen as one of them. The conservatives have sullied something sacred to me by using it to promote their hate and isolationism. When I see a flag outside a house in our Glendale, California neighborhood, I assume the occupants are on the other side. I shouldn’t make those assumptions, but it’s the way it is in our country now — us versus them.
A disproportionate number of people of color are sick and dying from Covid-19. The flag belongs to them, too. News reports mentioned those spring anti-lockdown protesters in Orange County being “almost entirely white.” These dissenters stand up for their “constitutional” rights to leave their homes (and now, not to wear masks) — our right not to get sick and die matters too.
When I was growing up in California in the 60s, we said the pledge of allegiance in school. I may not have understood the significance of the act then. I did glean the importance of the symbol and how it stood for every American. There’s the poetic if utopian phrase at the end: “with liberty and justice for all.”
In the late 80s, during the AIDS crisis, I marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue, protesting Reagan’s non-response to that epidemic. I have walked in many protests since. The next time I do march, I guarantee I’ll wave a US flag. It will be my attempt to take it back from the right but also to share it with them. Look for me — I’ll be holding it alongside a rainbow flag, my community’s symbol of inclusiveness.
Charles G. Thompson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @cgregthompson