Protestor lit flag on fire, then lit himself on fire, catching others on fire.
Flames extinguished by firefighters.
No serious injuries.
– Cleveland Police Twitter feed, 7:19pm, 20 July 2016
There is a rectangle of cloth that Americans fetishise to a degree that makes Brits like me stop and stare. The stars and stripes, that which Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom) raps about on the Broadway musical Hamilton’s "Guns and Ships" (“How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire? / Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’s flag higher?”), occupies a special place in American culture. It is both flammable and stronger than flames; held up as one of the Most Serious Things, and yet the perfect colourway for bikinis and melamine salad bowls. And hijabs. The American flag is all important, and everywhere, and means everything or nothing at all, depending who you ask.
At the RNC this week in Cleveland, I have seen the American flag in almost every iteration. I’ve seen men and women in flag shirts, flag scarves, flag hats, flag shorts, flags-as-capes, flags-as-belts, flags-as-shawls, flags-on-pins, and flags-painted-on-faces. Even flags as plain old flags, being waved happily and with some vigour. On Wednesday afternoon, a protest was supposed to culminate in a flag-burning, an activity that is not illegal – much to the chagrin of many residents of internet comment sections – but ended up something closer to farce: The flag burner accidentally lit himself on fire. I can laugh, because there were no serious injuries, but also because the burning of a flag is to me something that stirs no ire in my soul. A flag is not a child, nor is it a pet. Burn whatever inanimate thing you want, brother. But have an extinguisher close, just in case things get hairy.
Flag-waving makes me nervous. I was born and half-raised in Europe, and a direct product of a more subdued British culture (historically, of course, Brits had delighted in the mounting of flags on foreign land and claiming them, so admittedly the record is patchy). And so flag-waving was an alien concept in my life in London, where patriotism was not expressed by the size of the flag in your front garden, but things like attending the Notting Hill Carnival, loving the TV show Desmond’s, and swearing that some London-Nigerian jollof rice was better than Nigerian jollof. Flags induce a low-level hum of anxiety in my gut. One of my first newspaper jobs out of university had me covering a patch of south London called Welling – formerly the home of the headquarters of the British National Party, a collection of racists who are also expert flag-wavers. My experience with people who wear and display both the Union and St George’s Cross flags is...not pleasurable.
But not so with the American flag! Jarringly, even normal people wave them. When I lived briefly in central California in 2002, I attended a 4th of July fireworks display where my British friend and I marvelled at the abundant flag imagery with wide eyes. But my first inkling of the importance of the flag came as a child, when I watched Born on the Fourth of July, the film about Ron Kovic – the Vietnam vet who returned home from war paralysed. (Now that I think of it, that was the first time I ever saw a Republican National Convention on screen – pop culture is endlessly useful!) Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, challenges his brother, who is anti-war. “What’s the reason, Tommy?” he asks. “You wanna burn the flag? Huh? You wanna bring down this country?” That the Ron character went directly to such a specific and incendiary act as a way of illustrating the wrongness of his younger brother’s position stood out to me. The shorthand was clear: To Ron, the flag meant something. It was intrinsic to his idea of America.
The second and far more memorable moment for me came in 1995’s The American President. The president’s girlfriend is an environmental activist called Sydney Ellen Wade (played by Annette Bening) who once burned a flag at a protest. The president’s opponents seize on a photo of the incident and tar Wade as unpatriotic and borderline treasonous. “The symbol of your country cannot just be a flag,” says Michael Douglas as fictional President Andrew Shepherd in the film’s big Aaron Sorkin-scripted monologue. “The symbol also has to be one of its citizens, exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” I was a few years older when I watched this movie, and my reaction to the scene in which the flag-burning was addressed remains much the same – i.e., it’s a flag. Burning it (safely) ends no lives and harms utterly no one. And that is a basic right of any citizen. On Wednesday night, my Uber driver did not appear to fully subscribe to this view. For her, flag-burning was one step on the rickety bridge that might lead to all-out anarchy. She told me she was just glad the flag-burning had been “nipped in the bud.”
Here’s what the flag – and those wearing it so happily – signifies to me: I want you to know who I am. If you’re wearing a flag – or burning it, for that matter – you are saying something, you are for or against, you are exerting yourself, self-identifying in a way that is private but also very public. And I think there’s been a shift in the ease with which people want you to know what they’re thinking. It is no longer enough to have your political stance in your back pocket, a silent meditation between you, your deity of choice, and the ballot booth at the polling station. Now, you must proclaim your stance, whether that stance is love for America or disdain for it, on the internet, on your car, on the shirt on your back. It reminds me of a Dave Chappelle bit from his 2000 stand-up special, Killin’ Them Softly. “White people do not like to talk about their political affiliations,” he says. “It’s a secret!” Not any more, not here in Cleveland. Not when politics is a carnival, and there are so many rides to go on.
Here, the flag is an invitation, a performance, and an advertisement.