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Flag waving on this Fourth of July carries a different meaning

Navy veteran and poet Gill Sotu reflects on July 3, 2020, on his most recent poem titled, I Pledge the Allegiance.

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By JOHN WILKENS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: July 4, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Almost a century separates the first American flag from the first federal holiday celebrating the country's founding, but the two are joined now at the patriotic hip like triumphal twins.

The Fourth of July, more than any other date on the calendar, brings widespread waving of the red, white and blue — not just on front-porch poles, but on clothing and tableware and all manner of decorations large and small.

This year, there are Stars and Stripes face masks, too.

That's not the only change. The novel coronavirus has upended the usual activities. Fireworks, parades, concerts — most have been cancelled. Public health officials are urging people to stay close to home and away from crowds.

If that causes the holiday to be quieter, more about reflection than celebration, that seems fitting. It arrives amid a national reckoning — prompted by protests over police killings of Black men and women — that asks whether America is living up to the ideals adopted as the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Whose equality? Whose rights? Whose lives?

"We may not say this publicly, but for a lot of African Americans, it's a super-ironic holiday," said Gill Sotu, a San Diego poet, playwright and Navy veteran.

"Don't get me wrong — we love this country, and we all appreciate getting a day off. But we also know we weren't free when the holiday was established. To this day, we still don't enjoy the same equity our White brothers enjoy."

Sotu, 41, was asked this year by the Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce to write a poem reflecting on what Independence Day means for Black Americans.

Called "I Pledge Allegiance," it starts with his school-age memories of reciting that flag-facing, hand-over-heart patriotic oath before he understood what all the words meant. But not before he could see the racial differences in the world around him.

The poem urges people to go beyond saying "Black Lives Matter" and support Black businesses, which have been hit hard by the pandemic. It talks about discrimination in housing and education, about economic injustice and systemic racism.

"All come with strings attached to a frayed flag people are still afraid in 2020 to admit needs to be fixed," the poem reads.

"Betsy Ross was not done, Washington was not done ...

"Don't you get it? We are a country unfinished."

A powerful imageIn his 2017 book, "A Flag Worth Dying For," British journalist Tim Marshall looks at the national banners of several countries, including the U.S., and notes one thing they all have in common.

"The meaning is in the eye of the beholder."

Or, as he quotes rock musician Bruce Springsteen telling a Rolling Stone interviewer: "The flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don't know what's gonna be done with it."

The power of the flag, the emotions it stirs, is why it's been carried by people participating in the protests calling for police reforms. It's why some participants have burned the flag, or written slogans on it.

At recent demonstrations by those denouncing coronavirus-related government rules and restrictions, people have been even more awash in red, white and blue, some literally wrapping themselves in the flag.

Police officers on hand for protests in various cities across the country have sometimes worn face masks or affixed stickers to their helmets bearing their own version of Old Glory, a black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe — a nod to the "thin blue line," a symbol of law enforcement solidarity to some and divisiveness to others.

"The flag these days carries particular meanings that become problematic," said Bryon Garner, a longtime San Diegan who lives now in Virginia and is studying patriotism as part of his doctorate degree. "It becomes this symbol, very narrowly defined."

He doesn't remember it always being that way.

Garner, 54, is Black and comes from a military family, which includes a cousin who splashed ashore with the U.S. Army at Normandy during World War II and an uncle who fought with the U.S. Marines in Korea. Garner spent 10 years in the Navy.

He grew up in Gary, Ind., a steel town, where the Fourth of July meant a parade and a barbecue. "Fond memories," he said. "It was a celebration."

But as he got older, as he spent 30 years in San Diego —  in the Navy, working for the post office, studying at Cal State San Marcos — he began to see how symbols of patriotism are sometimes used as weapons. How they become political, a way to separate us from them.

"The underlying values the American flag represents have been contorted, conflated and obfuscated to only represent a narrow perspective of what it means to be free in this country," he writes on his website, The Heritage Phenomenon.

Now working for the federal government in contract administration, Garner is pursing a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies through Union Institute & University, an online college. His research is focused on this question: What does it mean to be Black and patriotic in 21st century America?

"I always hold out hope that the aspirational space around the Fourth of July will come to its full meaning," he said. "I'm glad there are conversations going on now that seem to be moving the needle. But we have a long, long way to go."

A flag on the goDave Walker has a well-traveled American flag.

It's been to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and under the sea in a nuclear submarine. It's been held by Medal of Honor recipients and Judge Judy. It's crossed the country in a bicycle race.

This Fourth of July, he feels a bit like flying it upside down — the universal signal that there is a problem or an emergency.

"We are in such distress as a country," he said. "I wish I could do something to help heal the wounds that many people feel."

Walker, 59, is White. He's co-founder, president and CEO of a San Marcos company that provides supplies and services for water-treatment systems.

Born and raised in San Diego, he's been "quietly patriotic" most of his life. To him, the flag isn't political. It's about what unites the country, not what divides it.

"I'm sad that people feel like they are taking a stance when they wave the flag, that you have to be coming at it from one angle or another," Walker said. "That's not what the flag is supposed to be about. It's not supposed to be this oppressive thing. It celebrates all of our lives. Every single American."

His flag project started in 2008, when he was sending a care package to Camp Pendleton Marines at Al Asad air base in Iraq. He purchased a 5-by-8-foot U.S. flag and tucked it inside with a request that it be flown above the base and then sent back to him.

When he got the flag, though, he didn't know what to do with it. Other people who have flags like that — flown above the U.S. Capitol building, flown at the North Pole — often fold them into shadow boxes and put them on a wall or a fireplace mantle.

That didn't feel right to him. So he flew it at a youth baseball game here. He took it on an Honor Flight, which ferries World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the various monuments. He began to see the flag as a kind of goodwill ambassador, connecting people to each other and to their shared national identity.

Soon friends were helping out, escorting the flag on other trips. It was parachuted into stadiums during football games. It flew on a U-2 spy plane.

The coronavirus outbreak limited the options for the flag to go anywhere special on this Fourth of July, but Walker said that isn't usually when he worries much about the Stars and Stripes getting public attention. American flags are everywhere that day.

"What are we doing on the other 364 days?" he said. "Are we being consistent? We should be thinking about what it means on a daily basis."

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