Man who won SCOTUS flag-burning case visits Portland protests

2020 Protests

Spectators' reactions to flag burning largely hinge on whether they think it represents freedom, or imperialism

A flag burns in downtown Portland on June 24, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Flaming American flags have been a frequent sight at downtown Portland’s protests, with people using everything from lighter fluid to hand sanitizer to try to accelerate the blaze. Now, like a moth to a star-spangled flame, one of the most famous flag burners of all time has come to join Portland’s demonstrations.

“I was so inspired by what the people of Portland were doing here, the resilience you know coming back day after day, night after night for now more than 60 days,” Gregory Johnson told KOIN 6 News Sunday afternoon, standing in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. “Standing up against police terrorism and standing up against the federal agents coming into your city.”

Johnson earned a place in the history books when he burned an American flag outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas to protest the policies of President Ronald Reagan. He was convicted of violating a venerated object and appealed, arguing his actions were symbolic speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. In 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed.

Gregory Johnson, defendant in the 1989 SCOTUS flag burning case, stands in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Portland on Aug. 2, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Johnson can’t remember how many flags he has burned since then. He and other members of the Revolutionary Communist Party have been in Portland for a week now, bringing their message of, “Revolution – Nothing less!” Johnson views the stars and stripes as a “brand logo” for everything that’s wrong with America: International plunder and murder, oppression and empire, secret prisons and ICE detention centers.

“That’s what it’s a symbol of,” he said. “And no one should be proud of it.”

But of course, many people are proud of what the flag represents to them: Freedom and opportunity. People with military backgrounds often feel the most impacted when they see the flag on fire.

“It’s the ultimate sign of freedom,” Clark County resident Steve Irving said. “People who literally give the biggest sacrifice they can give, which is giving their life, for just an idea of freedom.”

Irving said he served in the Army and had family members who served during the Vietnam War. Now, he participates in and organizes flag-waving events around the Portland and Vancouver area as a way to show support for law enforcement. He believes Black Lives Matter protesters should be trying to find common ground and unity, not doing something as alienating as burning flags.

“Burning the flag is completely detracting from that and it’s causing division at a time when people are claiming that they want to bring the masses together,” he said.

Johnson says those who have a negative reaction to seeing flags burned need to be “ideologically challenged.”

“People have been indoctrinated … have been brainwashed from kindergarten to boot camp,” he said. “The indoctrination needs to be challenged.”

But Irving hopes prospective flag burners will also challenge their ideologies.

“Do your research on the flag and the people who died to protect your freedom to burn it before you burn it,” he said, adding that protesters often talk about how words and actions can be harmful. “They don’t really practice what they preach.”

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