Flag-burning was popularized as a form of shock-and-awe protest during the Vietnam War era. Despite how controversial it is, the act is protected free speech, as upheld by the Supreme Court in 1989. An interesting decision, considering it’s still illegal to burn our own money.
Still, many people—including politicians who passed now-defunct anti-flag-burning laws during and after the Vietnam War—feel it’s detestable and should be punished. Others may not agree with burning the American flag, but still support the right.
This long-steeped controversy has now spread to the Occupy movement, after Occupy Oakland torched an American flag at last Saturday’s J28 march.
A group of masked protestors stood around the flag and asked the crowd, “What do you want us to do with this flag?”
“Burn it!” the crowd screamed.
To be fair, not everyone in the crowd was comfortable with burning the flag. One woman reportedly tried to stop the burning, screaming that it would hurt the movement.
And that is precisely the risk of burning the flag. Free speech or not, setting an American flag aflame sends a powerful message to people outside the movement about what Occupy stands for. It may not be the kind of message they want to send.
Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin told KTVU it was the wrong choice:
“I’m quite confident that the general view is that violence of this sort — whether it’s symbolic or otherwise — is contrary to the spirit of the movement and should be renounced.”
However, to protesters like Julion Louis-Tatman, an Oakland Occupier, it was something that needed to be said:
“I love this country to death, but burning the flag means nothing to me. We’re burning down the old system and we’re starting a new country.”