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Flagburning: A Confrontation

My favorite cycling socks are those of the Soviet Olympic Cycling team. I’ve got a pair: they are blood red, with a bold yellow hammer and sickle on each side. All these years after the fall of the Soviet Union, this once-powerful symbol no longer provokes the response it used to. In fact, I have worn these Commie bike socks and actually had people—educated adults, mind you—ask me what, if anything, the hammer and sickle meant.

I’m not usually deliberate when it comes to random provocation and confrontation—I’m too much the coward, even on issues I feel strongly about. I’ll hold signs at rallies, but would never, say, throw goat’s blood on a mink-clad model or chain myself to the gate outside a nuclear power plant. And yet I have been confrontational in the past. Or at least, I’ve allowed myself to be dragged into some sticky situations.

A number of years back, when the issue of flag burning had currency (as it does from time to time, and doubtless will again), I hit on a sure-fire way to provoke comment. I had no intention of going through with my little scheme—but my girlfriend Neva, who did enjoy creating confrontations, talked me into it. “We gotta do this!” she cried. It was an odd thing about Neva: her eyes, their irises, always seemed smaller when she got excited, as she was now. Her gaze was more reckless and intense. “This is going to be so cool!”

What had her so excited were these little flags I had made. It started when I bought a bag of small paper American flags in a grocery store around the Fourth of July. The flags were affixed to toothpicks. I found that with just a little twisting, the toothpicks could be removed from the flags. So I removed a few, and in their place inserted thin wooden matchsticks. The paper flags were thus attached to a means of ignition. The meaning was clear.

I got busy and made a few dozen of these American fireflags. I thought it would be funny to pass them out at random just to see what happened, but was too chicken to go through with the plan by myself. I might just hand one to a Marine in civvies and get the shit kicked out of me. I only meant the flags as satirical and ironic. Neva, however, was thrilled; she said it would be a strong political statement and was an opportunity for street theater, a trendy notion she picked up somewhere. She looked at me with beady little eyes. “This is too good an opportunity to pass up!”

So the next day we drove downtown with a bag full of flags. We stationed ourselves along a busy sidewalk and began stopping people totally at random, offering them flags. Sooner or later, we figured, someone would explode. While we had some prepared remarks for anyone who reacted strongly—dialog for Neva’s street theater—we were leaving what happened after that to chance. But when half an hour passed and nothing much had taken place, I began to think we had miscalculated. A few people accepted the fireflags, while others smiled curtly but otherwise ignored us. Nobody hit the roof.

Then these two guys came along, and I held out a fireflag. They were young guys in business suits. Both stopped abruptly; the guy nearest me could not seem to believe his eyes.

“What the hell is this?” he cried out. It wasn’t really a question.

“A flag on a matchstick.”

“You can’t burn flags.”

“Sure you can,” Neva broke in. “Just strike this end on a rough surface—”

“No, I mean you can’t—you can’t—”

“Yes you can,” Neva countered. “It’s in the Constitution. Freedom of speech.”

The guy was dumbfounded, and at a loss for words. But I could see he was doing a slow burn.

“Let it go, Jimmy,” the other guy said calmly. “It isn’t worth it.”

“The hell it isn’t! I won’t let it go!” Jimmy replied, his voice rising steadily. He turned back to Neva and me—though his focus was on me. “I’m so sick of you goddam liberals spitting on everything that’s sacred to this country—”

“I’m not spitting on the Constitution!”

“I mean the goddam flag!”

“It’s just a symbol,” Neva said.

“It’s not just a symbol! It’s our country’s symbol! People have died for it!”

I really didn’t want to provoke this guy—it was starting to look dangerous. But by this time, certain things had to be said. “Didn’t they die for the freedom it represents?”

“They died for the flag. My father died for the flag.”

“I’m sorry for that. But do you mean to say the symbol is more important than the freedom it represents?”

“You’re goddam right I do. You’re goddam right.”

He took a step toward us then. Both his fists were clenched, and I honestly thought he was going to hit me. But his buddy intervened. “Jimmy, Jimmy, wait,” the guy said. He grabbed Jimmy’s arms and pulled them behind his back and pinned them there, like a wrestling hold.

Then Jimmy really got mad. “Lemme go, Frank,” he said, wriggling his shoulders furiously from side to side. “I’m gonna kill this bastard—” He meant me. Neva, I realized suddenly, was no longer at my side; she seemed to have shrunk back from the confrontation.

“Hold on, Jimmy, wait! He isn’t worth it! This piece of shit isn’t worth it!” Jimmy struggled some more. He was a big guy, and looked very strong, but his buddy Frank was even bigger and held him fast.

Abruptly, Jimmy stopped resisting. “All right all right all right,” he said. His voice grew calm and his anger seemed to subside. Frank eased his grip. At that moment I thought: now is when he will attack. But Jimmy had regained his composure; he merely smoothed out his jacket and straightened his tie. But his eyes stayed on me, a most malevolent stare. “You’re lucky Frank was here to stop me. And that’s all I got to say to you.” He turned sharply and stalked away. Frank leveled his own hate stare at me before he, too, turned and walked off.

I looked around. Neva had backed away about twenty-five or thirty feet. She smiled guiltily. “I think that’s enough for one day,” she said.

Unfortunately my car was parked in the same direction Frank and Jimmy were walking, so we went the other way for a couple of blocks, turned a corner, and went into a used bookstore I knew of. After giving Frank and Jimmy enough time, we hoped, to be long gone, we walked back to my car and started driving home.

We didn’t say much as we sped along the freeway. For now I pushed Neva’s vanishing act to the back of my mind. Thanks to her I had nearly been beaten to a pulp, but I would deal with her treachery later.

How was it, I wondered, that something I found so amusing could trigger such fury in someone else? Well, his father—that was plain enough. But Jimmy was wrong. I don’t think anyone, in this modern world, really dies for the flag. They die because of bad foreign policy. And that is a stupdendous human tragedy; it should ignite everyone’s fury.


Copyright (c) 2008 by John Kelin

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Burning with anger

Violence is never the answer,
But I kind of agree with jimmy on this one.
Symbols are symbols for a reason.
Some group has invested their hopes, dreams, or aspirations of some kind in that flag, cross, menorah, peace sign, and book.
I fail to see why your message is worth causing that sort of pain to another.

Your essay on the event was really well written and you captured the moment so congrats. I hope next time you try provoking a kinder emotion.