The widespread protests across the United States in the wake of George Floyd's killing have brought an old debate back to the forefront. Flag burning is protected under the first amendment of the constitution. Since the beginning of the protest, there have been a few instances where people have burnt the flag in protest, the most visible being in front of CNN Center in Atlanta.
But there could be a new contender out of Atlanta in the wake of another police slaying, this time of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot. While many view flag burning as an angry practice, a video shared this weekend shows a lone protester with a burning flag in hand, peacefully walking while singing America the Beautiful. She also has the flag oriented upside down, which, according to the United States Flag Code, is a sign of distress or an instance of extreme danger to life or property.
The Black Lives Matter movement holds tight to the idea that Black people in the United States and elsewhere are held to a separate standard when it comes to interactions with police. According to the NAACP, Black people are put behind bars far more frequently than White people. Males see five times the rate, while females stand at three times the rate of their White counterparts. And with the deaths at the hands of police, distress isn't a foreign concept for many.
While flag burning is a controversial form of protest, it is a protected form of protest under the constitution. The Supreme Court decision from 1989 in the case of Texas v Johnson set a precedent for this protection as "symbolic protest."
"The majority of the Court, according to Justice William Brennan, agreed with Johnson and held that flag burning constitutes a form of 'symbolic speech' that is protected by the FirstAmendment. The majority noted that freedom of speech protects actions that society may find very offensive, but society's outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech," a summary of the case on the U.S. Courts website stated.
The video came around the same time that President Donald Trump spoke in Tulsa at his first rally since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. During the rally, Trump addressed the Supreme Court decision and said that he would push to have the decision re-examined by the current SCOTUS judges, echoing comments he had reportedly told governors on a phone call according to Forbes.
"We have a different court and I think that it's time that we review that again. Because when I see flags being burned — they wanted to crawl up flag poles in Washington and try and burn flags but we stopped them," Trump reportedly said on the call. His comments Saturday supported this, calling for new legislation against it with a year in jail as the penalty.
Trump claims he is "a big believer in freedom of speech" but he felt that flag burning is crossing a line. At the same time, he has remained silent on calls to remove offensive and racist statues or imagery from around the nation. It also brings back thoughts for many on his response to past incidents, like Charlottesville.
No matter what, for now the act is protected and people are using it to express their anger toward the nation.