Fascist Flag Amendment That Won't Go Away

New Push in Congress

Revolutionary Worker #966, July 19, 1998

Like the corpses that keep on rising from the grave in Night of the Living Dead, the fascist flag amendment is once again up for consideration in the U.S. Congress. Officially known as the Flag Consecration Amendment, this proposed restriction on the First Amendment of the Constitution will make the U.S. flag a sacred icon by giving Congress the power to punish anyone who commits "physical desecration" of the flag through burning or other means. This is the fourth time since 1989 that the flag amendment has come before Congress.

On June 24 the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the Flag Consecration Amendment to the full Senate for a vote, with a recommendation that it pass. The House of Representatives already voted for the amendment earlier in the current session of Congress. If two-thirds of the Senators approve the amendment, it is then sent to the 50 states. Ratification by three-fourths of the states will make the amendment part of the Constitution.

The Senate has until November to vote on the amendment. If the Senate does not pass the amendment by then, its backers would need to restart the process in Congress next year.

In the landmark Texas v. Johnson decision in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flagburning is a protected form of political expression under the Constitution. The flag amendment is aimed at overturning this decision by making the ban on "flag desecration" a specific part of the Constitution.

Joey Johnson, RCP supporter and the defendant in the Texas v. Johnson case, pointed out why this amendment is so dangerous for the people: "The backers of this amendment say it is about maintaining respect for the flag. Senator Orrin Hatch has said: `We have no king. We have no state religion. We have the American flag.' But what this is really about is giving the government the power to attach one permissible meaning to the flag--and anyone who, through dramatic or expressive forms of protest, says the flag means something else...well, they can go to jail. In the name of `protecting' a `national symbol,' the powers-that-be want to muzzle protest and criticism, to impose a `my country, right or wrong' mindset, and to create an atmosphere of intimidation against those who would speak out and act against this system's crimes.

"This proposed flag amendment is an attempt to both limit the scope of political opposition and to enforce patriotism. It must be seen for what it is: a fascistic move to shut people up and shut people down under the cover of `respecting' the flag. The amendment's backers call it a tiny incidental restriction on the First Amendment. But I think the `flag amendment' establishes a dangerous precedent: how far is it from saying people can't criticize or express contempt for a symbol of the government, to saying people can't criticize the government at all?"

On July 8 the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Flag Consecration Amendment--so that the amendment's backers could put more witnesses on record. One "star" witnesses was former baseball manager Tommy Lasorda--known to millions as the guy who pitched a weight-reducing product on TV, until he gained back all his pounds with pasta binges. Another was John Schneider--star of the '80s TV series Dukes of Hazzard, which prominently featured the Confederate flag of slavery. Schneider recently recorded a song written by Orrin Hatch titled "I Love Old Glory." The hearing was a ridiculous spectacle. But the threat posed by the flag amendment to people's political rights is very real.

Edward Hasbrouck, a long-time activist against the flag amendment, wrote after the June 24 Judiciary Committee vote: "The Flag Consecration Amendment is significantly closer to passage today--and the First Amendment is closer to partial repeal--than at any time before, including when it was voted on in 1989, 1990, and 1995." The flag amendment proposal has 60 sponsors in the Senate--only seven more votes are needed for passage. In 1995 the amendment failed to pass the Senate by only three votes. According to Hasbrouck, "Everyone counting prospective votes agrees that the vote will be close and that the amendment is at least within one or two votes of passage by the requisite two-thirds of the Senate."

Amendments to the Constitution do not require presidential approval, and they cannot be vetoed by the President. Since 1989 the legislatures of 49 states have passed resolutions calling on Congress to pass a flag amendment. So once the amendment gets past the Senate, there is a good chance that it will be ratified by the states and become part of the Constitution.

There is debate within the power structure about this amendment. In 1995 the White House spokesperson said that Clinton strongly supported laws banning flagburning--but was against amending the Constitution. (Clinton has not made an official statement on the current amendment proposal.) Some ruling class forces fear that the flag amendment's restriction on the First Amendment would touch off outrage among a broad section of people and draw millions into struggle and opposition against the system.

There was a taste of this around the time of Texas v. Johnson and another Supreme Court flagburning case in 1990. Art shows in many cities featured provocative works using the flag; perhaps the most well-known was the exhibit in Chicago by Dread Scott titled "What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?" which invited people to step on the flag. Flag laws and amendments were debated in law schools around the country and ridiculed by political cartoonists. Many people protested the flag laws--including those who believe that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are what makes the U.S. a "model of democracy," as well as those who see the flag as a bloody symbol of U.S. imperialism. After the 1989 Supreme Court decision further restricting abortion, protesters--especially women--in over a dozen cities burned the U.S. flag to express their outrage.

But clearly, significant ruling class forces see the flag amendment as a necessary part of the whole reactionary agenda that the power structure is carrying out today. As Joey Johnson pointed out: "Forced reverence for the flag is part of the whole chauvinistic and scapegoating climate being whipped up in the U.S. today: whites first, traditional values first, English only. And all must worship the flag. Powerful political forces are worked up over what they describe as the `fragmentation' of America. They worry that immigrants are causing America to lose its `national identity.' They bemoan the decline in respect for what Newt Gingrich has called the `values of American civilization.' They complain about those who don't fit it: the immigrants, the welfare mothers, the Black youth, the alien `them's' out there threatening the decent `us.' And what they are saying is that those who don't look, talk, or act like `us' are fair game for demonization and criminalization."

All those who oppose injustice must take a stand against this serious move to straitjacket dissent and resistance.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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