The Burning and Meaning of the American Flag

BY: MELISSA KELLEY

On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected the president of the United States of America. 

The next afternoon on November 9, a few students burned the American flag during an anti-Trump protest in front of Mary Graydon Center. This video shows two female students burning a flag with two separate instances of men attempting to grab the burning flag away from them.

The video of the students burning the flag has since been picked up by The Washington Post as well as a local DC Fox News station. The response to the flag burning has been mixed but has many feeling disdain towards the students’ actions.

While some may view flag burning as disrespectful, it is not illegal. In 1984, Gregory Johnson burned the American flag outside of the Republican National Convention in Dallas,Texas as a protest against President Ronald Reagan’s policies. He was arrested for violating a Texas statute that “prevented the desecration of a venerated object, including the American flag, if such action were likely to incite anger in others." Johnson appealed, arguing that his actions were protected by the First Amendment under "symbolic speech." The Supreme Court agreed, noting that “freedom of speech protects actions that society may find very offensive, but society's outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech.”

To many Americans, the flag is a symbol of national pride and unity. The flag is seen as a symbol of those who risked or sacrificed their lives to protect our freedoms. The flag is also seen as a symbol of opportunity for Americans. Many immigrants and families sacrificed everything to get here, and the flag is seen as a symbol of their efforts and the freedoms that they’ve earned here that may be devoid in other oppressive countries. Burning the flag isn’t just seen as burning a piece of cloth; it is seen as disrespectful and devalues the people who worked to make this country just for all. Many people feel that it is acceptable to feel disdain or even hatred for a Trump presidency, but they also feel that burning the flag blatantly disrespects those in this country who actively worked and died for this country’s freedoms.

Conversely, there are people who feel the exact opposite about the flag. They don’t see the flag as only a symbol of national pride. In the country where hundreds of unarmed black and brown citizens have been killed by police, where members of the LGBTQ+ community are still fighting for equal rights, and where immigrants are told that they don’t belong here, it can feel like the freedoms symbolized in the flag only apply to a privileged group of people.

This sentiment has been expressed by Colin Kaepernick’s protest. During football games, Kaepernick started kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. Many called his actions unpatriotic and burned his jersey in response. However, he told the NFLthat he wasn’t going to stand for a “flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” and that he would continue to sit until he feels that the flag “represents what it's supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to.”

The Trump presidency brings a new layer to the flag. Some may separate the flag from the new state of the country. They view the flag as representing freedom, justice, and what is good about America – even if this new presidency does not. Yet many feel that the flag further represents a country that isn’t just ignoring them but also actively working to disenfranchise them. Burning the flag is legal and patriotism isn’t a mandate. Whether burning the flag may seem hyperbolic to some, burning the flag is still an expression of people’s beliefs. This is just a reminder that people’s safety is always the most important concern, and the way that the two men took the flags away from the women at American University was inappropriate and dangerous. No one expressing their beliefs deserves to have their safety questioned.

Now is not the time for respectability politics. Be conscious of the privilege you have, especially if you don’t live in fear for your life under this new regime. If people are being hurt and families are being torn apart due to the increasing racism and xenophobia, then that is the problem –not the burning of the flag. While it may be easy to shame them for burning the flag, it may be better to ask what brought them to the point of burning the flag in the first place.

All photos taken and provided by AU student Shelby Moring. 

Jenna CaldwellComment