On Nov. 11, 2016, we climbed the stairs in front of the anti-Trump post-election rally at Wesleyan University and painted “AMERIKKKA” on an upside down flag. A video of the event shared online has received over 20,000 views, as well as 200 comments and 100 shares, most of which express a combination of confusion and anger. The many online comments that threaten violence and refer to us as dykes, pussies, and cunts, are serious and violent. But at this moment, more than ever, we feel that it is important to move through the fear we feel and not to let it freeze us. We stand by our actions. Because most of our commentary is not shown in the video, we wrote this article to explain our motivations.
The American flag consists of 50 stars for 50 states that exist on stolen indigenous land acquired through frontier homicide and settler violence, and 13 red and white stripes for colonies founded on and still profiting off of the commodification of African and Black slaves.
Burning and defacing the flag is a critique of what American patriotism and the American flag represent. It is an acknowledgment that patriotism is inseparable from American military culture which was created to keep white Christian men and their property safe. The United States is a nation-state that enacts violence domestically and internationally, as seen through the militarization of the police force and continued U.S. imperialism. The flag and American patriotism have been the driving values behind many of our wars abroad, as well as national security measures that violate and destroy communities within the boundaries of the United States. Challenging the flag is a critique of and an opposition to the values of violent patriotism, nationalism, imperialism, and American white supremacy.
Spray painting the flag was a demonstration of political speech. The “defacement” or even burning of a flag is protected under laws of symbolic (free) speech, as put forth by the Texas v. Johnson Supreme Court case in 1989. The backlash that we have received demonstrates that arguments about freedom of speech are actually often about what is being said and who has the “authority” to say it. “Defacing a flag” is not violent, and property destruction is not violent, especially if it is property that we own under a capitalist framework.
But most importantly, we have questions for those who are angry at us. Why are you angry about this action if you are not angry about the flag being used in beer commercials or other potentially disrespectful situations? Why do you demand that free speech be protected in many cases but not in this one? What do you find so threatening about two women writing a word on a flag?
For a variety of reasons, many folks in America are scared at this moment. More than ever, it is important to lift up those who have always had to be brave, to listen to those who have known that Amerikkka is and has always been racist, sexist, and homophobic, and to challenge each other to become better organizers and community members. The word “radical” stems from the latin word for “root.” To have a radical vision for a more just world means to challenge and dismantle (and rebuild) structures in society at their roots, at where and how they were built. It is often difficult to imagine beyond what exists today, but we must push for an end to U.S. state-enacted violence, and never settle for empty unities rooted in fear or ambivalence.
Cunniff and Horowitz are members of the class of 2017.