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Toppled American flag becomes pro-Trump protest: NPR

An upside-down American flag is seen Friday at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

An upside-down American flag is seen Friday at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

Jose Luis Magana/AP


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Jose Luis Magana/AP

After former President Donald Trump’s historic crime conviction, many of his supporters protested the verdict by posting images of an overturned American flag on social media.

A Manhattan jury on Thursday found Trump guilty of falsifying business records to influence the 2016 presidential election. Shortly after the verdict was read, right-wing politicians and pundits, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R -Ga., Fox News contributor Guy Benson and far-right conspiracy theorist Ali Alexander shared images of an inverted American flag on social media. Alexander, organizer of the “Stop the Steal” rally that pushed false claims about the 2020 election, posted the inverted flag on Telegram with the message: “No one is coming to save us. We must.”

The phrases “RIP America” and “Civil War,” which began trending on social media platform X, were also seen alongside toppled flags and messages of outrage over the verdict.

A New York Times report last month revealed that an upside-down American flag was flown outside the Virginia home of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in January 2021. At that time, the flag had become a symbol of protest anti-Biden synonymous with the false claim that the election was stolen from Trump. Earlier that month, rioters during the siege of the U.S. Capitol carried the same flags. Justice Alito said his wife was responsible for the controversial flags flying in front of their homes.

“When a Supreme Court justice or his family uses it as a symbol of America’s plight, you know it’s become mainstream,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State. University.

The inverted American flag, originally an apolitical symbol used by sailors to signal that their ship was in trouble, has since been adopted by both the left and the right in protest. Across the political spectrum, it has been used to express dissent on a range of issues, including Gun violencethe Flint water crisis and the overthrow of the Roe v. Wade decision that protected the right to abortion.

In recent years, however, the use of the inverted American flag has given rise to a partisan shift more frequently echoed by the far right.

“You see this tip (of the upside-down American flag) used less by the left than by the right who have had this Trumpian story of ‘Make America Great Again because (they believe) it hasn’t been great in a while .,” said Bethan Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher who studies political extremism at the Initiative to Study Hate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

From distress to indignation

Before it was used in protests, sailors stranded at sea were known to have flown the American flag upside down as “the easiest way to signal distress without having a special flag,” he told the Times Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillological Association. .

The practice dates back to at least the 17th century, during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, he said, and was documented appearing in the following century on American lifeboats.

This use of the American flag was codified in the American Flag Code, first drafted in 1923, which set guidelines for the American flag, noted Paulson of the Free Speech Center. The code, which does not have the force of law, states that the flag should never be displayed upside down “except as a signal of extreme distress in cases of extreme danger to life or property.”

There is also a long history of toppling the American flag during political protests.

At a July 4, 1854, anti-slavery rally in Massachusetts, abolitionist speakers William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau took the stage under “an inverted American flag draped in black crepe,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Society . .

In the 1960s and 1970s, the inverted American flag became a means of protest against the Vietnam War.

A student’s display of an upside-down American flag with a peace sign plastered on it – a protest against the killing of four Vietnamese protesters by an Ohio National Guardsman at Kent State University – was the subject of a 1974 Supreme Court case that ruled he had the constitutional right. right to do so.

In 1972, Vietnam veteran John Kerry was running for Congress when he faced backlash for publishing a book whose cover showed veterans raising an upside-down American flag. His congressional campaign at the time promoted the image as an international distress signal.

In 2021, Justice Alito’s wife also explained the toppled flag on her lawn as “an international distress signal,” the Washington Post reported.

As a form of protest, the flag signals not so much distress as anger over a perceived deterioration of promised American principles, according to political extremism researcher Johnson.

“We describe this upside-down flag a lot as being a symbol of distress,” she said. “What happened is we moved from that to an expression of outrage – a signal to say, ‘America has abrogated its own principles and values ​​and I’m sending a signal that I’m not disagree’ or ‘I consider this a violation of American values.’ ‘ »

That’s how it was used in protests against Black Lives Matter and for abortion rights, she said.

A partisan shift

It was only during the Obama administration that right-wing fringe groups began visibly adopting the inverted American flag, according to Johnson. After President Obama’s reelection, conservative Tea Party supporters expressed their disappointment by waving upturned flags.

Holding upside-down American flags, protesters from the white supremacist group known as Patriot Front chanted the phrase

Holding upside-down American flags, protesters from the white supremacist group known as Patriot Front chanted the phrase “take America back” near the U.S. Capitol on May 13, 2023.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/AP


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Jacquelyn Martin/AP/AP

“In a lot of other protest movements, it’s a one-off event where someone carries a flag upside down to express their personal belief,” she said. “It’s not like if you showed up to a ‘pro-choice’ rally you would see hundreds of flags toppled.”

However, far-right movements, historically invested in the culture and symbology of the flag, have in recent years begun to use the inverted flag more consistently.

The white nationalist group Patriot Front, for example, is known for showing up to protests in droves waving upside-down American flags.

Within far-right groups, Johnson said there is a distinction between those who might take down their American flags and those who would not.

“There are people who consider themselves ultra-patriotic – who see themselves as defending American principles and institutions against corruption. There are also those who seek to completely overthrow the American democratic system because they do not believe in democracy,” she said. “This second sect generally does not use flags upside down, but the first sect, which considers itself like the ultra-patriots, does.

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