For Which It Stands

In Hillary Clinton’s quest to broaden her constituency, she has been attempting to moderate her position on issues ranging from reproductive rights to the war in Iraq, and she has now signed on to co-sponsor a bill in the Senate that would ban desecration of the United States flag. Obviously, she needs to take a course in elementary semantics in order to learn such basic principles as “The menu is not the meal” and “The map is not the territory.” In desperately trying to appeal to such an irrational mindset by criminalizing an act that harms no one, Clinton is simultaneously placing the First Amendment on the back burner.

In 1967, at an antiwar rally in Central Park, I observed a hippie wandering around with a loaf of whole grain bread, looking for others to share it with, when he was approached by somebody with an American flag in one hand and a can of lighter fluid in the other. “Would you hold this?” he asked. The hippie held the flag while the stranger set it on fire. This public destruction of a symbol became the impetus for a *pro*war march. Ironically, the American flags carried by flower children in that prowar parade were torn to pieces by would-be patriots, along with the punching, stomping, and tarring-and-feathering of a bypasser because his hair happened to be too long for their taste.

During speeches in Grant Park at the August 1968 demonstrations protesting the Democratic National Convention, the *Chicago Tribune* reported that Bob Pierson--a police provocateur disguised as a biker and acting as Rubin’s bodyguard--was “in the group which lowered an American flag,” the incident which set off what the *Walker Report* would describe as “a police riot.” In *Official Detective* magazine, Pierson wrote:

“One thing we were to do was defile the flag. The American flag in the park was taken down, then re-hung upside down. After this had been photographed, a group of us, including me, were ordered to pull it down and destroy it, then to run up the black flag of the Viet Cong. I joined in the chants and taunts against the police and provoked them into hitting me with their clubs. They didn’t know who I was, but they did know that I had called them names and struck them with one or more weapons.”

What is perceived as desecration of a flag depends on the subjectivity of the beholder. In 1970, Abbie Hoffman--co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party) with Jerry Rubin and myself--wore a red-white-and-blue shirt resembling the American flag (made in France) when he was a guest on *The Merv Griffin Show.* At the taping, Griffin had asked him, “How can you claim that there’s so much repression in America if you’re allowed on my show?”

But CBS censors blacked out Hoffman’s image prior to broadcasting the program, which began with an apology: “It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation, the network executives have decided to mask out all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand.” Hoffman’s disembodied voice could be heard clearly, however. On that same show, there was a fast-food commercial in which Roy Rogers wore a similar shirt.