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In midst of national reckoning on race, the American flag embodies cultural divide

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 7/3/2020 By Margo Snipe and Natalie Weber, Tampa Bay Times
a person holding an umbrella: Jabaar Edmond, during a protest in front of St. Petersburg City Hall June 5. © John Pendygraft/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Jabaar Edmond, during a protest in front of St. Petersburg City Hall June 5.

Blood. Prison bars. Beatings. That’s what flashes through Jabaar Edmond’s mind when he thinks of the American flag.

What most see as red, Edmond sees as the color of blood coating the backs of Africans mistreated during the Atlantic slave trade or flowing from victims of police brutality. The lines appear less like stripes to Edmond. They strike him as prison bars — a representation of a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. And the stars, well they resemble the dizziness Black people endure after beatings throughout their history in America.

a group of items on display: A Blue Lives Matter flag for sale hangs near the entrance of Head s Flags on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Tampa. © Jonah Hinebaugh/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS A Blue Lives Matter flag for sale hangs near the entrance of Head s Flags on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Tampa.

The American flag drips with painful metaphors of the African American experience for Edmond, the 40-year-old vice president of Child’s Park Neighborhood Association who has been an active participant in St. Petersburg protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd in May.

a bunch of food on a table: Rows of small flags for countries line the shelves of Head s Flags on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Tampa. © Jonah Hinebaugh/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Rows of small flags for countries line the shelves of Head s Flags on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Tampa.

“Freedom hasn’t reached the Black community yet,” said Edmond.

As the nation grapples with discussions of racial injustice, the American flag marks a cultural divide this Fourth of July.

Local activists and protesters say the holiday and flag represent the work still needed to realize freedom for every American regardless of skin color. They said their demonstrations are grounded in hope.

For local flag shop owners, the holiday and flag instead represent the roots of American history — a sense of freedom attained long ago and continuously protected by our troops.

When Tony Clayton sees the flag, he sees freedom that has been earned. The 48-year-old owner of Head’s Flags in Tampa added that the Fourth of July is “the birthday of our country.”

Recently, he’s seen debates over the Fourth of July and the American flag in the news but is skeptical of how far the divisions go considering those discussions have yet to arrive at his flag shop.

“I haven’t seen it personally,” he said.

In Clearwater, Ron Willis — who owns the Flag Company — said many of his customers are veterans and he often gets requests to dispose of American flags properly.

If a customer asked to buy an American flag to burn in protest, the 60-year-old, who served in the Navy for four years, would refuse. But he said he supports protests for racial equality, so long as they’re peaceful.

a group of people walking down the street: Denzel Johnson-Green, 25, leads marchers as they protest along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg June. 9 in St. Petersburg. © Martha Asencio-Rhine/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Denzel Johnson-Green, 25, leads marchers as they protest along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg June. 9 in St. Petersburg.

“Something’s got to be done,” he said.

Willis enjoys celebrating the Fourth of July. But he understands not everyone may share his feelings when it comes to the national holiday.

a person standing in a kitchen preparing food: Ron Willis, owner of the Flag Company in Clearwater, loads more material into one of his printers on Monday. Willis said he receives orders from across the state. © Jonah Hinebaugh/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Ron Willis, owner of the Flag Company in Clearwater, loads more material into one of his printers on Monday. Willis said he receives orders from across the state.

“The Fourth of July, you still want to celebrate our independence,” he said. “But I can see where people would say, ‘Hey, you know, we don’t have independence.’”

Both Willis and Clayton avoid talking politics with their customers, who come from all walks of life and political backgrounds. Recently, Clayton’s sold Blue Lives Matter flags and Pan-African flags, Trump flags and Biden flags.

“We try to have every flag for everyone,” said Clayton, who purchased Head’s Flags from his grandfather in 2000. “We do our best to accommodate that.”

a man sitting in front of a computer: Tony Clayton, owner of Head s Flags in Tampa, said Tuesday that the American flag is what binds U.S. citizens together. © Jonah Hinebaugh/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Tony Clayton, owner of Head s Flags in Tampa, said Tuesday that the American flag is what binds U.S. citizens together.

Among those sold is the Confederate flag, which Clayton views as a symbol of “Southern heritage.” However, he said, NASCAR, which recently banned the rebel flag at its venues, “has the right to run their business how they see fit.”

Willis said his company will make Confederate flags upon request, but doesn’t sell them otherwise. He said it’s best not to advertise that given the current political climate.

While the nationwide reckoning on race has led to the tearing down of Confederate memorials across the country, the rejection of threatening symbols is nothing new, said Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida whose research focuses on African American politics.

Austin said the phenomenon permeates history. Civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were often perceived as “unpatriotic” and “un-American” as a result of their criticisms of American democratic institutions, Austin said. Although the recent Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t seen the emergence of individual leaders in the same way, she said she sees similar parallels to today as the nation’s leaders project a similar narrative by calling for “law and order” among demonstrations.

For some St. Petersburg protesters, Fourth of July represents an opportunity to reflect on American democracy in a way they believe to be truly patriotic — by using the power of the people to fight against oppressive systems that they say undermine the ideals upon which the country was founded.

“I think (the protesters) are very loving of this country and they really respect it, but they want to see it respect them,” said Denzel Johnson-Green, a 25-year-old poet. “We want to see (America) better and work for us as Black and brown people.”

In some ways, for protesters, the symbolism of the American flag is interwoven with the symbolism of the Confederate flag. For many activists, the classic emblems of America can’t be separated from discussions of oppression, particularly systemic discrimination of African Americans.

According to the many young activists in St. Petersburg, the imagery of the American flag and upcoming Fourth of July holiday present an opportunity to address the country’s shortcomings, but also celebrate their freedom to protest.

St. Petersburg protesters interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said they feel as though the freedom to protest, vocalize grievances, and demand justice has been respected compared to other incidents across the country where police and protesters have collided — sometimes violently.

They chant Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!

“I am in no way against America,” said Victoria Hinckley, an 18-year-old marcher. “I am against the ideals that the previous foundation has been set upon.”

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

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©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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