Memories from a Flag Store on the Morning of 9/11

By Michael Hale
Owner Emeritus, Elmer’s Flag & Banner

The line began forming even before our store opened on the morning of 11 September 2001.

We were still stunned by what  we’d seen on TV—the twin towers collapsing, the thousands of people who died. But we had to proceed.

We had begun sending massive orders for U.S. flags to our multiple flag manufacturers/suppliers early that fateful morning. Our experience during Operation Desert Storm told us we had better order big and hope we would get a ration of the total available.

We ordered a year’s supply of flags that morning. It would not be nearly enough…

When we opened our doors, 75 people or more poured inside—we could not move through the store.  All ten phone lines were ringing.  Every available sales clerk, two outside salesmen, the shipping clerk, the two bookkeepers, and the three sewers all came to help.  Soon the line went down the block.

There was a quiet solemnity, and every customer was patient and polite. There were some who said it was the first U.S. flag they had ever owned. Others spoke of loved ones or friends whom they could communicate with who were in the towers. My own daughter was visiting in New York and planned to visit the World Trade Center that day. I saw tears as people held their flag.

Now the line wrapped around the block. My wife tried to call the store; not getting through she left work and came to help. She stood at the door and metered the flow of people, letting in only 20 or so at a time. Who would have imagined a flag store with a bouncer, and a pretty one at that? We set  up an express line leading directly from the front door to the counter and the three cash registers. But some people didn’t want that. Some said they had waited two hours—they wanted the full experience of shopping in a flag store.

I walked the line outside several times and talked to people as the day wore on. They were making friends, some exchanging phone numbers, others leaving and buying lunch and water for those near them in line. Others, who had to leave the line to pick up kids from preschool or other errands, left money—even credit cards—so that total strangers might buy them a flag.

We limited people to one 3×5-foot flag per family, rationing the flags in the hope they would last the week. As one of the largest flag stores in America, we had a large supply. But it was dwindling quickly.

elmers
Elmer’s Flag & Banner, Portland’s iconic flag store—founded by Mike Hale’s stepfather Elmer Reider in 1963, and now owned by Dave Anchel.

On Day Two we again had a line down the block. As expected, our U.S. flag manufacturers responded that they would only ship us a  fraction of our orders.  We found a local fabric outlet with a stock of roll goods of printed U.S. flags needing to be cut, sewn, and grommeted. We set our sewers to work. But they could only make 200 a day. We needed double that number.

Then someone checked our on-line orders, forgotten in the previous day’s mêlée. Thousands of orders were still pouring in from all over the country.

Across the U.S., most flag stores had closed after that first day. Still other stores’ Internet sites crashed. We sent the roll goods to the sewing staff at Jansen Knitting Mills, who were seeing all their swimsuit orders cancelled. They could sew thousands a day! We bought broom handles for poles and air freighted in heavy metal wall brackets.

The line continued each day and would for over a week. This was patriotism, but not the kind where you wave a flag on a pole at a soccer game. It was a kind of quiet determination, a kind of solidarity, a badge of courage—that we were Americans, united, and we wanted to show our pride.

We stopped everything in the store to observe the moment of silence decreed by the president. You could have heard a pin drop if it were not for the weeping. Tears fell again. Our emotions were raw.

So it would continue for weeks on end. We sold every U.S. flag, every sticker, flag pin, flag patch, car flag, and flagpole in the store. We sold two and a half years’ supply of U.S. flags in two months.

More flags arrived in time to fill the thousands of on-line orders. Everything had been shipped in overnight air. We paid tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay and temporary help. Our phone bill was staggering.

Customers wore out the carpet, and some staffers developed foot problems from so much time on their feet. But not one staff member called in sick for two months. At year’s end we gave them bonuses and matched their 401K contributions to the maximum.

We had sold everything at normal, everyday prices. No one in Portland could have missed the news broadcasts of the lines, the groovy close-ups of the flags being made by our sewers, the interviews with customers. For a brief while, the U.S. flag was at the top of the charts, the star attraction.

One of the results of the millions of U.S. flags sold by all the flag stores across the nation was an increased awareness of the meaning and power of the flag.

Also, the next spring we saw an interesting by-product of the millions of people mounting flag brackets on their homes: many would buy and place decorative house flags on these poles.

That week a new star was born.

Mike Hale retired from Elmer’s in 2011 and remains an active member of the Portland Flag Association.

Advertisements

World Order: Imperialism

Japanese band World Order is, in their words, “a group creating a unique genre of performing arts through its original musical and physical expression”. (The group’s leader, Genki Sudo, has characterized World Order as “a new-world-order-conspiracy-theory parody group”.) Of their 2013 single Imperialism — from their album Have a Nice Day — they say:

The new single and video IMPERIALISM builds on the group’s mission to prompt reflection contemporary society, working styles, global culture, and images of modern Japan. Provocatively shot in Washington D.C. – against backdrops of American sights like the US Capitol building and Union Station. Spontaneous moments from filming are kept as is for the video – WORLD ORDER’s expressive vision.

Sync Music Japan quotes Sudo:

Usually, when I create my art, I keep in mind the following message: ‘If you change yourself, the world will change as well.’ For this video, I wanted to convey the message: ‘If America changes, the world will change as well.’ I hope everyone across the world enjoys the new song. We Are All One!

The US flag plays a prominent role in two scenes, one at the Marine Corps War Memorial’s sculptural representation of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the other at the Columbus Fountain in front of Union Station.

iwo1
World Order dances at the Marine Corps War Memorial. The sculpture (and photograph) commemorates the World War II battle of Iwo Jima in which 6,821 Americans and over 17,000 Japanese died in 1945.
columbus1
The group dances in front of the Columbus Fountain, a 1912 sculpture by Lorado Taft and Daniel Burnham “to the memory of Christopher Columbus whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind a new world”. The three flag poles represent the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. For the video, the middle flag has been inverted, an international symbol of distress.

The video begins and ends with scenes shot at the  George Washington Masonic National Memorial, which will be familiar to anyone who attended the 24th International Congress of Vexillology, held there in 2011.

 


See also:

Multinational Patriotism

You might think that multinational patriotism would involve pledging allegiance to Barclays, but Onjena Yo’s project, the Multinational Patriot Flag & Blog Series, seeks to re-imagine conventional notions of patriotism in more inclusive, multi-national ways.

This series grows from the desire to see American icons used in a way that represents the United States as the melting pot that it is. As several fellow tweeters observed, images of the U.S. flag, bald eagles and the like are often displayed in profiles throughout social media to indicate a specific brand of patriotism. Too often, many of these “patriots” lack an inclusive view of what “American” is. Unfortunately, this restrictive point of view is not limited to social media profiles… As a child, I remember watching my father, who served 20 years in the Air Force, quietly replace our flag each time it was stolen from our porch by our “neighbors.” I listened to my mother who taught us to assimilate for success but not be a “typical American.” To this day, I am still conflicted when expressing my “patriotism.”

In the blog half of her project, Patriot Survey Says!!, Yo has been collecting “stories honoring your personal multinational journeys.” The other half of the project is vexillographically fascinating: the use of circular, roundel-like combinations of national flags. Each consists of an outer ring made up of elements of a national flag, surrounding an inner disk made up of part of, or elements from, a second nation’s flag.  (Yo sells clothing using these proprietary designs on Redbubble.com.)

These circularized “flags” are organized according to the outer, surrounding ring. For example, here is part of the collection of flags with the United States surrounding other North American flags:

us

 

In cases where the non-US flag is based on a star, or stars, an alternative scheme of orbiting stars (the “hybrid header”) is offered in addition to the standard scheme (the “swirl header”). For example:

South Korea is a special case. Rather than representing the flag of South Korea surrounded by a swirl of the US, the order is reversed:

us-southkorea

In turn, this formed the basis for a set of Korean diaspora flags:southkorea

There are also designs in which the Canadian flag surrounds the other, for example:

canada-surrounds

Finally, there are designs in which the US flag swirls around non-national flags are symbols:

To purchase merchandise featuring these designs (and many more), visit Onjena Yo’s Carbon-Fibre Media Redbubble store.

 

Happy National Flag Week

Every student of the US flag knows that it was officially adopted on 14 June 1777 when the Second Continental Congress passed what is now known as the First Flag Act:

Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.

Annually commemorating 14 June as Flag Day slowly took root in the US over the course of the 19th century, beginning with an observance in Hartford, Connecticut in 1861 “praying for the success of the Federal arms and the preservation of the Union.” It wasn’t until 1916 that it was recognized at the national level by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson. In his proclamation Wilson talks about divisiveness in the American public:

Many circumstances have recently conspired to turn our thoughts to a critical examination of the conditions of our national life, of the influences which have seemed to threaten to divide us in interest and sympathy, of forces within and forces without that seemed likely to draw us away from the happy traditions of united purpose and action of which we have been so proud.

Flag Day, he says, is meant to quiet this discord and reestablish unity:

Let us on that day rededicate ourselves to the nation, “one and inseparable” from which every thought that is not worthy of our fathers’ first vows in independence, liberty, and right shall be excluded and in which we shall stand with united hearts, for an America which no man can corrupt, no influence draw away from its ideals, no force divide against itself, –a nation signally distinguished among all the nations of mankind for its clear, individual conception alike of its duties and its privileges, its obligations and its rights.

Still, it wasn’t until the advent of the Cold War that Congress acted in 1949 to establish 14 June as Flag Day, in 36 U.S. Code § 110.  Where Wilson’s proclamation was full of lofty rhetoric and concern over disunity, the Flag Day resolution itself is terse.

Section (a), Designation, states: “June 14 is Flag Day.” Section (b), Proclamation, does not itself proclaim anything, but instead asks the President to proclaim Flag Day each year.  The President is free to say anything he or she wants in these proclamations, so long the text (1) calls on “United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Flag Day”; and (2) urges “the people of the United States to observe Flag Day as the anniversary of the adoption on June 14, 1777, by the Continental Congress of the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States.”

Unlike other sections of the Patriotic and National Observances chapter of U.S. Code, section 110 doesn’t include a “Purpose” section or say anything about why observing this anniversary is important, leaving it up to each President, each year, to spin this as they see fit. In this year’s proclamation, the last in his presidency, President Obama uses a range of verbs to describe what the flag does: inspiring, representing, reminding, embodying, sustaining, persisting, and communicating.  Like Wilson, he stresses unity:

Our flag persists as a powerful representation of freedom and opportunity.  Waving high above capitol buildings and courthouses, military bases and embassies across the globe, and on the distant surface of the moon, it calls on each of us to remember our obligations to the Republic for which it stands and to carry forward the unwavering optimism that defines us.  America endures because of the courage of servicemen and women who serve under this standard, and our veterans are forever draped in the red, white, and blue when they are laid to rest.  Wherever the flag lies or flies, its message is clear:  We rise and fall together, as one Nation and one people.

Flag Day was apparently enough until 1966 when Congress passed a joint resolution:

That the President is authorized and requested to issue annually a proclamation designating the week in which June 14 occurs as National Flag Week, and calling upon all citizens to display the flag of the United States on those days.

President Johnson and his successors complied, adding additional Congressionally requested verbiage to what are now Flag Day and National Flag Week proclamations. In 1975 Congress apparently decided that one week wasn’t enough, and passed a joint resolution defining a three-week “Honor America Days” period:

That Congress declares the twenty-one days from Flag Day through Independence Day as a period to honor America, and further declares that there be public gatherings and activities at which the people of the United States can celebrate and honor their country in an appropriate manner.

Though Honor America Days does not request a presidential proclamation, and only implicitly involves the national flag, Flag Day and National Flag Week proclamations since 1977 (the bicentennial of the First Flag Act) have called upon Americans to observe this period.

Neither Flag Day, Flag Week, nor Honor America Days get much attention in contemporary America. Using Google News search results as a metric, these terms yield 82,000, 477, and 84 hits, respectively.  By comparison Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Fathers Day yield 648,000, 32.6 million, and 1.1 million hits.

 

 

Vexilloid Tabloid #58

The latest issue of the PFA newsletter is here:  The Vexilloid Tabloid #58 (June 2016). Featuring:

  • Introduction: NZ, VT, and Albany (Ted Kaye)
  • A U.S. Canton Honoring Alaska (Michael Orelove)
  • A Flag for the Other Portland (Ted Kaye)
  • Czech Municipal Flags (interview with Petr Exner by Scott Mainwaring)
  • Redesigning the U.S. Flag (Scott Mainwaring)
  • New Flags for Australia’s States? (Max Liberman)

As always, you can find notes from the last PFA meeting, a roundup of flag-related news and notes, the What’s that Flag? quiz, and Portland Flag Miscellany (flag usage in Portland and the many uses of Portland’s city flag).

And, as always, it’s free and worth every penny!

quote058

 

 

More US Flag Improvements

We announced a provocative design exercise in Vexilloid Tabloid #57, namely:

Ignoring the political near-impossibility of change…simply from a DESIGN perspective, how could the US flag be improved?

We reported earlier on two proposals emailed to us, but there have been some other ideas presented since then, on our Facebook page, in the Flags and Vexillology discussion group, and at our meeting last evening.

The main theme was simplification, but that came in strikingly different forms.  Some looked to the history of the US flag’s evolution, and proposed reinstating the original 13-star, 13-stripe flag.

Others looked to this same evolutionary history of the US flag to simplify the flag not by reducing the number of stars, but by structuring them into a simpler pattern (something perceptual psychologists might call a gestalt) — either based on circles or the 5-pointed star shape itself. Here are some historical examples, plus a couple of proposals that look ahead to Puerto Rican statehood.  (Note that before 1912 no specific star pattern was specified.)

13087634_1189194284426041_5954144911362707618_n
Nick Artimovich of the Chesapeake Bay Flag Association posted this image of a beautiful and unusual 50-star concentric circle flag from his collection.

Zoli Truskova suggested reducing the number of stars to one, and replacing the blue canton with a blue bar at the hoist.  Truskova’s design is identical to the rather obscure “Ceremonial flag of the Texas Navy Association” (texasnavy.org), which was derived sometime after 1958 from the naval ensign and de facto first flag of the Republic of Texas (1836-39). For the ceremonial flag, the union was replaced by a blue bar at the hoist in order to distinguish it from the flag of Liberia (adopted 1847).

texas-navy-ceremonial
Truskova’s proposal. Also, the Texas Navy Assn. ceremonial flag.

Truskova’s design also brings to mind a proposal to replace the canton with a wide blue bar advocated by Navy veteran Samuel J. Kapral.  Kapral kept all 50 stars but wanted to give them enough space to be seen from a distance.  He sent his design to the White House in 2014 but never heard back.

073115-l-kapraljrc-60p-cropped
Samuel J. Kapral (1925-2015) shows his redesign.

PFA member David Koski presented a radical redesign that gives the 50 stars plenty of room — the entire field — by doing away with the stripes entirely.  It still has a blue canton, with 13 stars arranged in the Hopkinson pattern.

koski-all-star-flag
David Koski’s all-star flag.

The most radical simplification came from Matthew Brawn on Facebook, who represents the 13 original states with a 13-pointed star, on a diagonally divided field of red and blue divided by a rising white stripe symbolizing “the strength of the country”.

matthew-brawn-design
Matthew Brawn’s redesign.

Rather than redesign the US flag, contrarian Scott Mainwaring proposed to de-design it by proposing that the Feds relax the flag’s specifications to explicitly encourage organizations, manufacturers, and individuals to create their own star patterns.  Any flag having 13 red and white stripes and a blue canton of 50 stars, of any sizes, shapes, colors, or patterns, would meet the revised specification. He wrote:

Annin, Valley Forge, Flag Source, Flag Zone and local flag manufacturers might compete with one another in promoting their own in-house designs.  Individual US states might also create their own variants – perhaps California could use the stars to outline a bear, and Alaska could make the Big Dipper out of a subset of large stars and relegate the rest to small stars in background constellations.  With this freedom would come responsibility: It would be up to each variant designer to make their star pattern beautiful and meaningful.

In this way, the dull uniformity of millions of identical copies of the Standard US Flag could be replaced with a rich culture of individual expression that would better represent the American ideals of individual freedom and collective diversity.

Unbeknownst to Mainwaring, Michael Orelove — who lived in Alaska for many years — had already independently created a variant US flag for Alaska, ingeniously highlighting 8 of the 50 stars to form the big dipper.  He gave away this flag at the meeting as part of an ongoing effort to downsize his belongings.

We thank everyone who submitted designs and ideas for this challenge, providing plenty of evidence that there is lots of room for creativity and debate using the US flag as a starting point.

Improving the Design of the US Flag

In the most recent Vexilloid Tabloid, we announced a design challenge:

Ignoring the political near-impossibility of change…simply from a DESIGN perspective, how could the US flag be improved?

Readers were (and still are!) encouraged to send proposals to editor@portlandflag.org, to be discussed at our next meeting.

Here are two proposals readers have sent in so far.

A Mature Union

usaflag
A proposal from Mathieu P.

I am so happy that you bring forward the question of the American flag. I have been complaining for so long about it; I believe it fails both in its symbolism and its representation. I complained to my mother as you kindly suggest in your newsletters, but she doesn’t care about it at all as she is Canadian.

First of all, the idea of representing the 13 states of New England is a poor idea. That’s way too many stripes to begin with, and it is somewhat redundant as those 13 states are also represented by a star. In order for a state to be represented twice, there has to be a really good reason, better than just being the first 13 states of the Union. I mean a REALLY GOOD reason. We will come to that in a few seconds.

Also, those 50 stars are just crazy. There are way too many of them, they are thus too small. As I also suffer from a very rare form of Vexillological Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (VOCD) which forbids 2 colors like red and blue to touch, I find that flag painful to look at because some of the red stripes touch the blue canton. It just hurts.

Fortunately, I have a solution. First of all, let’s ask ourselves WHY are the United States of America the way they are today. The answer is short and sweet: because the North kicked the a** of the South and the Confederated States were defeated at last. That is quite something, because America is supposed so stand for equality and freedom. I propose to retain only the 6 first states that never seceded and never permitted slavery: Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Those are the 6 “pure” initial States of America. The fact that the 6 bands are located at the bottom of the flag means that the country is now standing on a purer basis, a basis set up by those 6 States in particular.

As for the 50 stars, one can be a bit smarter than using one star for one State. Now that the Union has reach maturity and no new States are expected to join, a single star, made of 10 summits, can stand for 10 stars. We now only need 5 stars, they can be bigger.

This flag is much better than the current one, and I hope it will replace it in the near future.

Heresy in Blue and Gold

image001.png
A proposal from Tony B.

As this is a purely academic exercise in flag design I guess anything (within the vexillographic rules) goes.

I promised a surprise, so here goes.

In today’s inter-connected world, isolated, solipsistic, sovereignty is a luxury – and even an illusion – that means less than it did at a time of contesting empires (whose chief export was the misery of much of the last century, the effects still with us).

President Obama has warned the British about the risks of “Brexit” (leaving the EU), arousing indignation, that he has a nerve urging Brits to “yield sovereignty – something the United States would never dream of even contemplating”.

Well, let’s think outside the square.

…. At some future date, the US pragmatically seeks and is pragmatically accepted as a member of the EU (after all, if Australia can sing at Eurovision, anything is possible) – or shall we say that the US “returns to its founding matrix”. This makes it stronger (and “greater” than ever, Donald) and puts some backbone into the Transatlantic Alliance as a champion, with Europe, of values and ideas of the Great Books, religious and not, and melting pot that it is, of both East and West but which the West more than others has given the world.

In this imaginary context, a new look USA flag might be expressed in the EU colours.

The 50 states are represented by 10 stars each of 5 points while the Golden Pillar (the Pillar of Fire? Kubrick’s Sentinel?) at the hoist represents both the “united” in the United States and the glow of the Golden West. That refers, not to California and its gilded youth and other fables, but to the vigour of civic values that have evolved over 3,000 years, offered and shared with all of good will.

Heretical as the notion seems, it urges and celebrates ’s solidarity with both “old” and “new” Europe across “The Ditch” (with or without the Brits) but true to the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.

Graphically,
1. A not so tongue-in-cheek design avoids the “Crowded House” impression of the current canton in the US flag.
2. It dispenses with the stripes (it’s a long time since there were only 13 states).
3. The triangular arrangement of the 10 stars and their 50 points suggests advance towards the Light,
4. while it also evokes a flag properly folded, an oblique reference to respect for those who have given their lives for “good and brotherhood, from sea to shining sea[s]”. (Apologies to Katharine Lee Bates).

 

Teen Hopes Flags Will Help Heal Eastern Oregon Community

[Above photo of the Burns High gym by Thomas Boyd, Oregonian Staff]

The 41-day standoff between law enforcement and armed out-of-state militants who took over and vandalized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon has finally ended, but the hurt done to the communities of surrounding Harney County has only begun to heal.  The Oregonian recently published an in-depth feature on the importance of the Burns High School sports program in providing an inclusive venue for local people to come together:

[Amid] the upheaval, a weary and divided community has found common ground in supporting the Hilanders sports teams. And players from families all along the political spectrum have relished their opportunities to escape the debates and come together in a gym that during the standoff hosted both cathartic games and a pair of emotional community meetings.

[…]

“The gymnasium is their sanctuary,” [civics teacher Jake] Thomson said, and he could have meant players and spectators alike.

Andrew Greif ended his feature, As Oregon standoff raised tensions, Burns found release in the Hilanders, with the story of senior basketball player Ty Reed:

On the morning of the last occupiers’ surrender, Reid walked into the low-lit Burns gym and looked up at its arched ceiling. He pointed at a beam.

Reid hopes to hang three flags from it for his senior project. He envisions a U.S. flag as the centerpiece, flanked by smaller flags for Oregon and the Burns Paiute tribe. [For the smaller flags, he is working with fellow student Anthony Purcella from the Paiute Club at Burns High.]  He has raised a little more than 10 percent toward the $18,000 project.

Reid came up with the idea long before the occupation. But the winter’s events have added deeper meaning as the community begins the hard work of moving on.

“Our community has been kind of split by all this,” Reid said. “This could be a start.”

burns-paiute-logo
The flag of the Burns Paiute Tribe consists of this logo with the tribe’s name written above.

$18,000 may sound like a lot for three flags, but one is 12 x 18 feet and the two others 10 x 15, and they will be suspended from electrically operated rollers built by Morgan Rolling Flags so they can be ceremonially unfurled and unfurled during events at the gym.  A YouTube advertisement from the company gives a sense of scale and effect:

For more information or contribute to his project, check out Ty Reid’s GoFundMe project, All Flags United in Burns!

 

There Is No Flag Large Enough…

By Scott Mainwaring, Vexilloid Tabloid #56

This is a story about flag quote that has taken on a life of its own, thanks in part to a photo of it  written on a flag held by a soldier.

“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people” is an abridged quote from American leftist historian Howard Zinn.  It’s from his 1986 essay, “Terrorism Over Tripoli”, decrying the U.S. bombing of Libya to retaliate for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque.

howard-zinn
Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

Here is the full quote in context:

[Those] who defend this, tried to wrap their moral nakedness in the American flag.  But it dishonors the flag to wave it proudly over the killing of a college student, or a child sleeping in a crib. There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.

From the beginning, then, this quote was about the American flag, its honor and dishonor, its use and abuse.  Writing it on a U.S. flag, especially an inverted flag to show distress, makes a great deal of rhetorical sense—it raises exactly the questions that Zinn originally raised.  It also quite literally fits onto the U.S. flag, whose white stripes have encouraged people to write messages on them for over two centuries.  So in a way the flag and the quote were made for each other, and protesters—especially in the “War on Terrorism” era—have capitalized upon this.

U.S. flags inscribed with the Zinn quote make effective protest displays.  Images of these circulate on the internet, certainly; but it wasn’t until someone uploaded this photo of a US soldier in uniform holding one of these protest flags, that the quote morphed into a viral anti-war meme.

The protest message is underscored by the way the mind immediately jumps to the conclusion that the soldier in the photo not only agrees with the message on the flag, and condones it being “defaced” in this way, but is in fact posing with the flag in order to express his dissent with U.S. war policies and broadcast this over the Internet.  Thus this photo has generated and periodically continues to generate an uproar online, polarizing commenters who either praise or condemn the soldier for his ostensible act of public protest and flag modification.

It only takes a second look and a bit of thought, however, to doubt these interpretations of this image.  The setting appears to be an empty office, and judging by the poster in the window, it’s a military recruiting office.  The flag is worn and dirty.  There are no spectators, except the presumed photographer.

Now, it’s possible that this photo was taken as an act of dissent, but it’s more likely that the photograph is simply documenting a flag that had been discovered, perhaps affixed to the outside of the recruiting office.  It’s being held upside down so that the message is legible, with no other intended meaning.  As image circulates, this “documentation, not protest”   theory is raised periodically by skeptical commenters.

I have yet to locate any explanation of the photo by those involved in taking it.  An early appearance, possibly the first, was a 7 August 2006 upload entitled “truthflag” by Flickr user “fiatbrat70”.

It’s been viewed over 380,000 times and has generated 225 comments.  Metadata in the photo itself indicates it was taken by a Fujifilm FinePix S5000 digital  camera on 23 January 2003 (although such data can be faked).  Furthermore, there is a 2011 thread on the Snopes.com message board trying to determine the origin of the  photo, in which an anonymous user claimed that her friend “James” is the soldier in the picture, and this he “saved” this flag “desecrated and used by anti-war protestors in Lawrence, KS in 2007”; but there’s no way to verify this and the story provided offers no explanation of why the photo was taken in the first place, or why its metadata indicates it originated in 2003.

Whatever the circumstances of the taking (or faking) of this mysterious photo, whoever uploaded it to the Internet set into motion a perceptually powerful if contextually problematic piece of anti-war viral propaganda.

Various other photos and graphics of flags inscribed with the Zinn quote have circulated on the Internet and in the media.  Many have been from protests against U.S. wars and foreign policy, but recently it has spread to Black Lives Matter protests (on the left of the political spectrum) and Defund Planned Parenthood protests (on the right).  The music group System of a Down included a version of the phrase in a 2002 album.