On July 9, the Rockland Police Department posted a video on their Facebook timeline. This video showed a person getting out of a car, tearing a Confederate flag off a pole attached to the back of a parked pick-up truck, and then getting back into the car, flag in hand.
I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I encourage everyone to be as safe as possible, especially when risking confrontation with probable extremists. But I believe the person in the video did the right thing.
First, I want to clear up a common misconception: Slavery was not just people working without pay. Among many other crimes, slavery also included the rape and murder of black children. This is undeniably part of what the Confederacy stood for. Like many black Americans, when I see the Confederate flag, one of the things I see represented is the celebration of the historical rape and murder of children.
The assholes win.
Now, before you start thinking about that link your weird uncle sent you, the one about which flag represents which aspect of Confederate history and so on, let me tell you that I already know. I know there were different flags. I also know that the majority of southerners who fought in the Civil War were not slave owners. I know that, to many Confederate soldiers, the war was about fighting an attempted occupation. I know that, to their descendants, that flag could be a symbol of pride in their heritage, or an iconoclastic symbol of rebellion.
But I also know that’s all entirely irrelevant, because assholes always win when it comes to symbolism. The squared-off style of facial hair on the upper lip is not called the “Charlie Chaplin mustache.” No one sees a swastika tattoo and assumes the wearer is a Hindu or Buddhist. I mean, if you saw a guy in white robes and a white hood carrying a swastika flag in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other, I guess you could assume he was an interesting type of rebellious Hindu druid, but you’d probably be disappointed by the conversation that followed.
My point is that the assholes have the Confederate flag right now, so all other points are moot. We can discuss your weird uncle’s unfortunate historical priorities later.
“Stealing is stealing” is the most common response I’ve seen condemning the Rockland video, but stealing the flag from the back of a truck is not the same as stealing the truck. Stealing food when you’re starving is not the same as Wall Street stealing your 401(k). Stealing is never just stealing.
When people talk about this alleged theft, they are talking about two completely separate things: legally defined theft and theft as defined by common morality.
You cannot tell from the video alone whether or not the taking of that flag was legally defined theft. The flag could actually belong to the person who took it. Or the person could have been acting under duress. Even if the person took the flag deliberately, there are cases in which lawyers have successfully used the defense theory of “intoxication.” While we’re at it, let’s throw in prosecutorial discretion, by which the D.A. could decide not to spend tax dollars to prosecute the alleged theft of an item that only costs $7 via too many sites online.
Then there’s theft as defined by common morality, but this situation doesn’t allow a moral argument. Common morality doesn’t suggest outrage that someone would steal a $7 item that celebrates the rape and murder of children. Common morality suggests outrage at that item’s existence. Common morality suggests the removal and destruction of that item. The problem is that those murdered and raped children were black, and common morality often doesn’t include them, especially in the context of white heritage.
If the Rockland video were, instead, a German video showing a person tearing down a swastika flag, we would all be deafened by the global applause. But that can’t happen. That can’t happen because contemporary German Nazis aren’t legally allowed to display the swastika flag.
Can you guess what they’ve replaced it with? Yes, good guess! Today’s German Nazis, who are just as proud of their heritage as anybody else, now fly the Confederate flag.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker and Videoport employee. He lives in Portland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.