I Burned the American Flag, But Hear Me Out

Like many other folks, I have been tuned into the ongoing Colin Kaepernick narrative.

It is with great intrigue and disappointment that I have watched the focus shift from Colin Kaepernick’s message of condemnation on systemic racism and state sanctioned brutality to a metaphorical fisticuffs between National Football League players and the institution itself over the symbol that is the flag of the United States.

First, it is important to state that I do indeed understand the importance of symbolism in the American flag and why certain people with conservative views have elected to highlight divisiveness around the red, white and blue cloth rather than elevate the atrocities of injustice endured by humans–particularly people of color who have often found ourselves forced to state our very humanity–at the hands of state systems.

Now, I will tell you my story. And let it be known, that this is my story. It is in no way connected to or an attempted comparison drawn between my own actions and Colin’s actions to uplift the the cries of many onto the national stage.

I have personally burned American flags–under the protection of the First Amendment–near the steps of a Smithsonian museum in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. During the height of permeating national political rebellion which occurred after the killing of Mike Brown, I found myself exploding with pain and anger at the persistent attempts to reframe the targeted cultural genocide enacted upon humans who have effectively been used to define the dangerous power structure known as ‘race’ through inscribing fear upon our skin for the intended purpose of social and economic domination.

Having participated in many marches and actions, I met up with a few folks just hours after we decided that we would in fact use the symbolism of igniting two American flags aflame in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C. signify to the rest of the world the contention within America which is ostensibly displayed in how the United States government treats its people.

Silly enough, we purchased the flags from a souvenir shop specifically for this purpose. One may even say, we literally just burned money. In a crowd of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, we gathered around and began the ritual. Poor planning soon revealed itself as we had standard hand lighters rather than tiny flame torches, but after some hope and several attempts, the flags began to burn. And despite several folks having their faces covered, mine was available for everyone to see. I suppose I thought to myself, “Why would I hide?” As if I were staunchly unashamed but it later dawned on me that some people were afraid of personal or professional retaliation. Yet, I was then working in the area of human rights and therefore privileged enough not to assume the same risk as fellow activists who worked in the service industry or found themselves in need of employment opportunities.

As the flags burned, cameras soon sought us out. I was asked to explain why we were burning American flags and for a response to soldiers who may be offended. I am quoted in this Newsweek article as having said, “People care more about that flag than they care about us,” I went on to say in a heat of anger, “America doesn’t want me. Why would I want that flag?”

In this Scripps Howard Foundation Wire article, the author notes my response to questions as:

“The main reason people get upset about burning the flag is because of veterans” Robinson, a Huffington Post blogger, said. “This is not about veterans.

“If that flag is more important than my life, then [expletive] everyone who was offended by it.”

Yes, the above expletive I used was indeed the word ‘f**k.’

Somehow, news of my actions had made its way to my mother–there’s a good chance I told her with pride–and as I talked to her on the phone, she shared images with my 80 year old grandfather. Aghast, I sharply said, “Why?!” That shame I once previously thought didn’t exist suddenly came flooding across my existence.

My grandfather is a marine who fought in the Korean War as part of one of the nation’s first racially integrated units. As a child, I would tell people that fact boastfully and I still do. I have known pretty much all my life that my grandfather, an African American soldier indeed fought for my freedom in more ways than one. He faced not only the violence and adversity of war, but he overcame the psychological warfare and maliciousness of disgusting and overtly racist experiences. So in that moment, when my mother showed my grandad, the marine whose literal blood, sweat and tears created the opportunity for me to live, shame does not even begin to describe my emotional experience.

As I stated, I do understand the importance of symbolism within the American flag. I understand that there are individuals and communities who have had the privilege to experience unshakable patriotism because those symbols don’t trigger flashes of nooses around the necks of people who look like them. I understand that there are soldiers who have seen and been responsible for violence the likes of which is directly comparable to the low intensity warfare waged against people of color and poor people in the United States for being labeled social deviants while attempting to survive and live in unjust conditions for which they themselves are not responsible. I understand that there are veterans who have been told to be ready to lose their lives for the American flag and then found themselves in battlefields where that flag came to illustrate home, family and the breath of life to them. I understand that soldiers have been initiated into a culture where freedom is something to fight for–though to me, freedom means experiencing peace–and where those who disrespect the symbol of their home are often people identified as literal enemies.

Yes, I understand. I have not lived their lives, but I am human and, therefore, I empathize. Even if it is through the sacrifice which my grandfather paid as a Korean War veteran.

But it is still not lost on me that in this country ‘freedom’ seems to create drastically different life experiences for generations of people based on their perceived physical differences, socioeconomic status or any other qualifier that has been used to demarcate power based on de facto and de jure codified degrees of humanity.

With that being said, let us all move beyond the behavior in response to the symbol that is the American flag to discover understanding of each other in the pain which is stitched throughout the stars and stripes and echoed through the mouths of people who are truly hoping to receive compassion, healing, restoration and more sustainable ways for humanity to exist together.

Penned by Janessa Robinson


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