In high school I stitched an American flag to the seat of my pants and marched onto campus. Just before 3rd period a friend said, “You’ve gotta get out of here: the whole football team’s looking for you!”
I was beaming as I headed down the hallway, but the Vice Principal caught me on my way out. He calmly escorted me to his office, then locked the door, shoved me against his desk, and threatened my life. The pain and anger in his eyes as he described guys my age who’d died in his arms in Vietnam showed me far better than any lecture that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
That began a lifelong need to understand the American flag. All these years later I can’t say I have any real answers, but I do have a relationship with the Stars & Stripes that’s filled with regrets, worry, and growth. The last one is what I’m most proud of.
A few years went by before I chose to stay seated during the national anthem, just as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe have controversially done. When questioned, I rattled off a number of domestic and international grievances to support my protest. The incident with the Vice Principal was of course on my mind, so I also felt compelled to distinguish these issues from the men and women like him who’d lost or sacrificed something under the colors in question.
And even though my actions were still met with widespread agreement that I just didn’t “get it,” I knew I’d grown up a bit. I wasn’t anti-American: I was just resistant to blind allegiance. Weren’t most people? I felt like the statement I was making was less dismissible.
Yet almost without exception I was isolated whenever I stayed seated. So the hell with it: I began standing again, occasionally by giving a protest-adjacent groan when I rose to my feet. I spent years like that; on one hand disappointed in myself for acquiescing to mediocrity, but on the other – jump-starting arguments elsewhere in order to scratch that itch.
I do recall standing on the fire escape of Hollywood’s Palace Theater in 1990. Public Enemy was on stage, mid-encore. I had a view of the audience at the foot of the stage, Chuck D on the mic, and of the north parking lot beneath and behind me. Beyond that, rolling down the Vine Street hill, were hook-and-ladder firetrucks, next to which marched two columns of LAPD officers in what was then considered “full riot gear”.
Below me, entrance, exit, balcony, and fire escape doors had all been opened in advance of the performance’s ending and the crowd’s dispersal. The LAPD helicopter hovered low overhead, invading everything with its spotlight. The band launched into “Fight the Power” as the fire trucks lined up to funnel the soon-to-be-exiting audience directly into the police batons. Someone tossed a small American flag at Chuck D’s feet, which he picked up and showed to the audience, turning it upside down in a maritime signal of distress.
“Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!” many in the audience began to chant. But Chuck wouldn’t do it. I’ll never forget how his shoulders slumped in disappointment or watching him shake his head because they just didn’t get it. It was an important milestone for me. The man had the social, political, and certainly theatrical motivation to give in, but’d stood strong for his principles and his own interpretation of the flag’s merit and meaning.
Sometimes I wish I’d been born less demanding of flexibility from Old Glory. That night, I learned that the flag’s flexibility comes from me. It’s not the flag’s job (or America’s) to understand how I interpret my patriotism. It’s my job to explain my interpretation – and to not do so in a self-congratulating or dismissive way.
Sure, there are moments when I’m overtaken by good ‘ol fashioned sidewalk gratitude for the accomplishments the flag represents, but I’m the sort to view actions like Chuck’s that night as some of the most patriotic I’ve seen (certainly from non-vets in the public eye). I’m proud of this country when I see it catching up to the rest of the world in certain ways, but try explaining that.
We could also all stand to remember that the American flag was designed to be a big fat middle finger to the British Empire. First and foremost, it is a protest symbol. I can’t help but think that Chuck D knew this and was bummed his audience didn’t recognize the act of burning an American flag as actually redundant. Why burn it when you can use it?
What the American flag is not is a banner for jingoistic saber-rattling. It’s not an excuse to avoid making an honest effort to understand positions and beliefs other than our own. Because without that effort, you can stand up, puff out your chest, remove your hat…and your tribute to this protest symbol will be no less hollow.
Colin Kaepernick’s Protest Is Working
Critics of the quarterback dismissed his national anthem of protest and called him an idiot. Who’s the idiot now?
Tags: "Fight the Power", American flag, British Empire, Chuck D, Colin Kaepernick, high school, Hollywood, Jeremy Lane, LAPD, Megan Rapinoe, national anthem, old glory, Palace Theater, patriotism, police, power, protest, Public Enemy, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Stars & Stripes, symbol, taxpayers, United States, veterans, Vietnam