Outside the Donald Trump rally last Friday, protesters and supporters alike clashed verbally, and, in some cases, physically. I was there and saw it all. At the center of the protests was a young man wearing a red Guy Fawkes mask standing on the American flag.
The act of standing on the flag infuriated the Trump supporters. Several had to be detained for physically engaging the protestor and trying to take the flag from underneath him. I saw one supporter in a trench coat walk up to the young man and call him a “scumbag, traitor, piece of trash.”
I have been witness to this argument many times in the past: “patriotic” people decrying and condemning those that would desecrate the American flag, often using the service of American military personnel to support their position. In fact, injured military personnel are commonly used as martyrs for this specific argument. In the minds of these “patriots,” any disrespect to America is a personal attack on veterans. As a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I disagree with their assertions.
What those people fail to understand is that those military personnel they prop up as heroes signed up to defend all parts of the Constitution. This includes the First Amendment which states “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The social paradigm of conservatives being more traditionally patriotic than liberals is well documented. A 2014 Pew Research survey found 46 percent of conservatives believed the United States stands above all other countries compared to 11 percent of liberals. In the same poll, 72 percent of those identifying as conservative said they are proud to be American; only 40 percent of liberals felt the same way.
Despite this, cherry-picking parts of the Constitution you support because of your own brand of patriotism is not patriotism at all. Whether you like it or not, the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning is protected free speech. That decision means you cannot claim to support free speech while trying to attack someone exercising their own.
That is not to say that people who get in verbal altercations with protesters are wrong, but some confrontations go beyond verbal. Everyone in this country is afforded free speech and the right to peacefully demonstrate those rights. What the people at the Donald Trump rally did was generally much more physical. Multiple people were pushing the young man with the flag, trying to move him and snatch the flag from underneath him.
What they did to him was assault no matter the cause you claim to stand behind, and nobody has the right to physically attack someone for their beliefs. That is not free speech, but rather a sick and hypocritical perversion of it. They should have realized that when police officers used their own bodies to protect someone wearing a “f*ck the police” shirt.
I personally am not a fan of people burning, stomping on or otherwise desecrating the American flag. I love this country and hold great respect for the flag. I have fought for it. Does that make me any more patriotic than those who protest by standing on the flag? Not in the slightest. The typically conservative people who rail against protesters like to claim those people are un-American, freedom-hating communists. They do this because they are so invested in American exceptionalism that any attempt to point out its flaws is akin to heresy. I believe those who protest care so deeply about the state of this country that they are willing to become vilified for pointing out its flaws while attempting to fix them.
I love this country, its history and the morals we stand for. Most importantly, I love the freedom I am afforded as a citizen of this country. When I enlisted I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Whether I agree with their personal approach at exercising free speech is irrelevant, because I stand behind our Constitution and our freedoms.