Better question: Who’s up for another political Rorschach test? If you see this as defending Old Glory from dishonorable treatment, check Box 1. If you see this as theft and an affront to private property rights, check Box 2. And if you see this as a manifestation of “white privilege,” as some of the protesters did, check Box 3.
I’m somewhere between boxes 1 and 2 myself:
If those choices aren’t nuanced enough for you, allow the Washington Post to fill in some of the details. The woman arrested served in the Air Force (yay, America), but she left the service last decade to pose nude for Playboy (boo, culture war):
Police in Georgia arrested a U.S. veteran on Friday after she took an American flag away from students who were trampling it. Michelle Manhart, a former Air Force staff sergeant who left the military after posing nude for Playboy, took the flag from a group of African American students at Valdosta State University who were demonstrating against racism. Manhart, who is white, was handcuffed but has not been charged with a crime.
A video of the confrontation, recorded by Manhart’s daughter, shows a strange three-way standoff between students, Manhart and VSU police. The spat could hardly have been more symbolic, with both sides claiming ownership of the American flag and expressing outrage.
“This flag belongs to the entire United States,” Manhart says on camera while clutching the stars and stripes.
“Is that not theft?” a student says moments later. “I swear to God, if this had been in the ‘hood, you’d have had me in handcuffs already.”
As Michael Miller writes, the only winners in this conflict are the pundits:
In just six minutes and 23 seconds, the YouTube video touches on many of the most tender issues in America today: race, war, white privilege, public education, police conduct, freedom of expression, constitutional rights, even pornography and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In other words, it’s a perfect storm for political punditry.
Yeah, well … The two sides have their merits, assuming we can dispense with the nonsensical “white privilege and PETA positions. The flag is a powerful symbol, especially to our nation’s veterans, and it is an intentional sign of tremendous disrespect to both the nation and those who fought to defend it to trample on it (or burn it) in protest. Manhart’s anger is understandable, perhaps more so since she tried unsuccessfully to have the school put an end to that aspect of the demonstration through protests of her own.
On the other hand, as we’ve seen in other contexts where government intervenes against unpopular speech, the cure will almost always turn out to be worse than the disease. Those bad outcomes aren’t much better when they come as mob actions. And the flag may represent the nation as a whole, but that particular flag belonged to the protesters. Finally, Manhart had the opportunity to walk away without getting arrested for her actions, but seemed determined to go out in handcuffs.
Even after all that, I’m still a little conflicted on the point. Ask yourselves this: how does this incident compare with this more famous theft of Old Glory? Saturday marks 39 years since Rick Monday made himself into a national hero, and eventually one of the more beloved members of the Dodgers organization … even though Monday played with the Cubs at the time: