A Call to Acknowledge the Violence of the American Flag

By Ellis Maxwell

**Content warning: mention of state violence.**

On Saturday, Nov. 17, a group of right-wing demonstrators held a rally in Philadelphia at Independence Mall on 6th and Market streets. The rally was titled “We the People Rally,” with organizers calling on people who are “Patriots, Militia, 3%, constitution loving Americans, pro good cop, pro ICE, pro law and order, pro life, pro American value, pro gun and anti illegal immigration”  to attend [1]. The event attracted the “Proud Boys” and “Three Percenters,” two high-profile militia-style groups whose members embrace white nationalism and have attended and caused violence at demonstrations like 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Leading up to Saturday’s rally, Philadelphia leftist groups organized a counter-protest intended to demonstrate that the right-wing crowd was outnumbered and unwelcome in the city.

If we’re keeping score, there is no doubt that the counter-protesters won the day. The “We the People Rally” numbered no more than 50 people, while the counter-protest filled up an entire city block and then some. The counter-protesters, sensing the strength of their numbers, adopted a festive mood complete with loud chants, rousing speeches, and even a five-piece band. By all accounts, the right-wing demonstrators were defeated in Philadelphia—to the point that members of the Proud Boys were apparently denied cab rides and forced to walk home after the event.[2]     

But lurking behind the unimpressive showing by the right-wing crowd was the much larger presence of state power. For starters, the group’s uniting slogan – “We the People,” the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. constitution – is inscribed in huge letters on the face of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, directly behind where the crowd stood. The symmetry between the branding of the rally and the core values of the state behind them gave the demonstrators power and a certain credibility—precisely what the counter-protesters wanted to deny them. If the goal of the counter-protest was to make the right-wing rally seem like a fringe contingent, the ralliers’ mirroring of the state’s messaging made that goal impossible.

A further connection between the right-wing demonstrators and the state was apparent in the imagery the crowd used. When you think of a right-wing, potentially violent rally in the current American context, you might imagine confederate flags, Trump signs, and “blue lives matter” flags. But the dominant imagery of the “We the People Rally” was none of these—it was simply the American flag. Many of the demonstrators waved large American flags, again folding themselves into the dominant imagery of the state and disputing the idea that they should be viewed as outsiders or extremists. Their nationalism again aligned with the architecture of the state monument, as Independence Hall is bookended by giant American flags – forty or fifty feet high – on each side.

The motives of the “We the People Rally” amount to an embrace of white nationalism. But a second look at their agenda shows that this embrace, just like their imagery, is deeply rooted in American state power and state violence. Declaring support for ICE and police as a platform around which to rally is a violent act, but only because of the violence that these state institutions perpetuate. In recent days, border patrol agents have used tear gas and other deeply harmful measures in Tijuana, Mexico to brutalize and deter the so-called “caravan” of immigrants, mostly from Guatemala, who have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to reach the Mexico-U.S. border. [3] Many have noted the similarity between this current display of state violence and two major instances of police brutality: in December 2016, when local police sprayed high-pressure water cannons at Standing Rock Sioux water protectors, and in December 2014, when police attacked Black protesters in Ferguson, Missouri with tear gas. The point is not simply that white nationalists promote violence, but that their calls for violence are already backed by the state itself.

One could look at Saturday’s events and see a small group of right-wing extremists pushed out of Philadelphia by a much larger leftist contingent. But it is more important to recognize the ways in which state power reflects and reinforces, on a much greater scale, the white nationalism of the “We the People” ralliers. The counter-protesters understood this, as many of the chants and speeches focused not on opposing the small group across the street, but larger repressive and violent institutions like policing, capitalism, and the prison-industrial complex. One speaker noted that the “We the People” rally was merely emblematic of the ways in which white supremacy is already embedded in American myth, American culture, and, most importantly, American policy. The counter-protest went beyond the easy targets across the police line; it connected the violence of their white nationalist rhetoric to the violence of this nation. At Haverford, we need to do the same.

This is a call to acknowledge the violence of the American flag. To remove the flags that fly prominently on this campus. To stop playing the national anthem before the start of sporting events on this campus. Above all, this is a call to link white nationalist violence with the violence of American empire. In this current moment, as white nationalism is seen to be gaining more and more political power, it is crucial that opposition to white nationalism names America itself as a violent center of white nationalist ideology and practice. On Saturday, there were two sides: one embraced white nationalism, while the other spoke for coalition and community building, and strong opposition to capitalism and white nationalism. The American flags, as always, flew on the side of empire, the side of state-backed violence.

 

[1] https://www.phillymag.com/news/2018/11/16/we-the-people-rally-philadelphia/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/philadelphia-proud-boys-rally-drivers_us_5bf08c61e4b0b84243e2d0d7

[3] https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-news-san-ysidro-border-migrant-caravan-20181125-story.html