Performative Crap: The Use and Abuse of the American Flag

Flags on the 14th St Bridge

I was at a Mission BBQ when it happened. As I sat down with with a brisket sandwich, the music suddenly stopped and there was an announcement.

“Please stand for the National Anthem…”

Around me, the servers stopped their frenetic activity and stood at attention. Patrons rose from their seats, hands on their hearts, and turned to face the American flag hanging from the mock warehouse ceiling.

I remained seated. Why is this restaurant asking me to stand for the National Anthem? This is not July 4th. I am not at a sacred memorial. I am in Roanoke.

“Performative crap,” a friend of mine called it, these rote and meaningless gestures in the direction of patriotism from organizations trying capitalize on our love of country.

Mission BBQ is chain of restaurants that are all decorated the same. A half-ton Army truck is parked outside while the indoors is covered with photos of American soldiers throughout history and other military memorabilia. Walking in, I passed a picture of a pre-9/11 World Trade Center.

In the mood for barbecue, I didn’t think much about all this carefully-scripted nostalgia as I walked to the counter. But sitting there, with people around me standing and singing the National Anthem (who were they pledging allegiance to? A company?) it all seemed a little gross.

Veterans should be applauded for their service. But this wasn’t about that; it was about a company wrapping itself in the flag to sell more stuff.

The Flag of Occupation

Also, your view of the military changes when it’s used against you.

This time four years ago, during the last chaotic summer of the Trump administration, I watched military helicopters thunder by the window of my seventh floor apartment. They were so close that I could see the pilots and their American flag patches.

Trump was mad at Black Lives Matter so he sent in the military to crush their protest. And then he walked across Lafayette Park (with General Mark Milley) to hold an upside-down Bible in an ill-conceived demonstration of strength.

armed yahoos

A curfew was in effect that night as the National Guards of various states ran amok in the city, buzzing protesters with helicopters and assisting the police as they kettled students.

For weeks afterward, troops in fatigues and AR-15s garrisoned the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments (where were they on January 6th?). Men and women with guns, but no identification, stood on street corners downtown.

Staying in some of the nicest hotels in the city, they left after Mayor Bowser refused to pay their hotel bills.

This was 2020, the fucked-up year that America is determined to send down the memory hole. But I remember what I saw.

Freedom Corner Flag Wave

Right-wing fanatics have seized the flag with white-hot devotion. Trump literally fondles it.

And you see it at the nest of traitors called Freedom Corner in Washington, DC. This nightly vigil outside the DC Jail wants to free the January 6th prisoners who tried to end democracy. They begin every evening with the Pledge of Allegiance, facing the flag, before moving on to their demands for the hanging of Nancy Pelosi.

Referring to each other as patriots (we call them chuds), you get nonsense from them like, “He has evidence that January 6th was a setup. A a real patriot.”Or, “All he did was push some cops. A patriot.”

Waving flags at their lonely vigil, they use Old Glory as cover for treason.

There’s an inverse relationship to the amount of American flags displayed to actual patriotism. Real patriots don’t storm the Capitol in the name of a wannabe dictator.

Trump supporters use the American flag as a weapon. During the failed coup attempt, they beat police officers with them.  On January 7th, a rioter shoved me with a flag pole after I called him a disgrace. Earlier this year, a Freedom Corner chud assaulted local counterprotester Anarchy Princess with a flag pole outside the US Court House. He goes on trial this summer.

Unlike 2020/21, the failed Trump movement can’t attract a crowd anymore. Freedom Corner is lucky to get six people at their vigil outside the DC Jail.

Instead, they encourage their elderly YouTube followers to do flag waves.

Something anyone can do, it’s a uniquely American (and pointless) activity – standing on a busy road or highway overpass waving an American flag. The occasional driver honks, perhaps getting a glimpse of the red, white and blue at 60 mph. A patriotic response that the chuds misinterpret as support for their anti-democratic project.

The flag is held upside-down, a recent gesture made fashionable among right-wing circles by the neo-fascist Supreme Court.

“I hate that they’ve taken the flag from us,” another friend told me.

When I’m outside the Beltway, I have to recalibrate my paradigm. A cluster of American flags does not mean chuds, like it would in DC. It could just be a Memorial Day celebration.

It’s time to take back the American flag from traitors. It belongs to all of us.

But I’m not standing for the National Anthem in a restaurant. As the Star Spangled Banner played, I remained seated while everyone else stood, facing the Stars and Stripes. I’ve seen how the flag has been used and abused to justify insurrection.

And then everyone resumed eating, the moment forgotten and meaningless, a bit of patriotic kitsch in Southwest Virginia.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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