There has been a lively conversation going on up and down my street, in a townhouse development south of Tucson. But it isn’t the people who are talking. It is the flags.
In the aftermath of the November election, partisans of the ousted president retreated into imaginary worlds in which the election had been stolen, blue lives matter more than others, and radical socialism was on the ascendant. Some of them are my neighbors. Here in my winter home in southern Arizona, and indeed in every American city or town not irrevocably dyed solid red or blue, it was easy to know what not to talk about, but sometimes hard to talk.
In February a neighbor just a few houses down my street decided to take his stand in a way all could see by flying what is colloquially known as a “blue line flag” or, by its advocates, a “freedom flag.” In place of the traditional red, white and blue, all is rendered in black and white except for a thin blue line. Proponents of the flag say it symbolizes support for the police, who work very hard to protect us, so we should just forgive them and move on if from time to time they kill an innocent black man. (That’s not exactly how they would put it.)
To superimpose any sort of political symbol on the flag of the United States, or indeed to alter it in any way, is a violation of the Flag Code (Title 4, United States Code, Article 1), adopted by Congress in 1923. You can fly any flag you like, of course, so long as it is not an altered version of the American standard version.
My wife and I discussed whether to lodge a complaint with our homeowners’ association, but we decided that the wiser course – Matthew 18! — would be simply to drop in and tell our neighbors that we respect their political views but we wish they would respect our flag and not desecrate it by overlaying political messages.
Receiving us cordially, our neighbor told us that the flag was a gift from her husband’s friend, a retired police officer. She was not convinced by our argument that it violates flag protocol but said she would think about it. We expected that she would discuss the matter with her husband, who was out doing errands, and she did. What we did not expect was that, the next time he saw us walk past, he would berate us for abusing his wife, tell us how disgusted he is to have neighbors who don’t support the police, and urge us to find another place to live. But we have continued to wave a friendly greeting when we walk past, and most of the time, having said his piece, he returns it.
The flag kerfuffle was not over yet. On our house, until now unadorned, we mounted a flag holder a week later and began displaying an American flag, as a number of neighbors already do. Perhaps not all of them intend their display to say, “Thank goodness our Republic has a president at last who values the public good over stoking his ego and burnishing his brand!” But that’s our message and we will just go on assuming it is theirs too.
After a week, though, we replaced it temporarily with the Frisian flag, honoring my father’s place of birth in northern Netherlands. Not many recognized it, but the red lily pads stood in for hearts over Valentine’s Day.
Down the street, near the blue line flag, another so-called “freedom flag” was waving in the breeze a few days later, featuring green and red lines in addition to the blue line. Its meaning? The neighbor who put it out explained that it asks us all to support the police (dressed in blue), the firefighters and first responders (red hats and trucks), and the armed forces (lots of khaki on their jackets and weapons).
We thanked him for the explanation and for flying a flag that, while still in violation of protocol, was much more attractive. And we offered him our alternative interpretation: green for “save the wilderness,” blue for “save the whales,” and red for “solidarity forever.” He laughed and said “OK, you can read it that way.” This neighbor was a vocal Trump supporter too – just check out his bumper stickers, which he has not removed — but he has a sense of humor.
The three-stripe flag is proving highly infectious, appearing on more and more of the homes and flagpoles that we see on morning walks. And the symbolic conversation continues, up and down our street.
We replaced the Frisian with the American flag for a week and then swapped it for a Philadelphia Pride flag, a recommendation from our son who lives there. It supplements the rainbow colors of an LGBTQ banner with black and brown stripes. A few passersby asked about its meaning, and when we told them they just said, “That’s interesting.” Others asked where they could get one.
Now we are seeing a number of other flags popping up on our street – mostly ones that whose symbolism we don’t recognize, but we will ask their owners to enlighten us. None of them, thankfully, are Confederate battle flags – we see those only occasionally on the pack of pickup trucks passing through town. Let a hundred flags bloom! They are not expensive at all online, we have learned.
This morning the American flag went back up on our house, and next in line is one from South Africa. Why that one, from half a world away? Because of its rich symbolism of many colors coming together in harmony. Living for a semester in South Africa 15 years ago, we learned that even its colors speak louder than words. Green, yellow and black were the colors of the African National Congress, and you could be thrown in prison just for displaying those colors until the 1990s. Red, white and blue were carried over from the flag of Transvaal, one of the colonies that became part of South Africa, its flag incorporated into the flag of the Republic. Both the colors and the design speak clearly of coming together to overcome divisions and build unity. That is an ideal that the country hasn’t entirely achieved, but it’s come a long way since apartheid.
After all, should we not all recognize and applaud a nation that manages to throw off the paralyzing and dehumanizing grip of an authoritarian regime that enjoyed broad support from Christian pastors, despite its embrace of white supremacist ideology? A nation whose people stood in line for hours at the polls, defying the ruling party’s long history of suppressing their votes, in order to restore a government of the people and for the people?
Can you think of any other country that falls under that description? Then fly its flag too.