Media

The Old Confederate-Flag Canard

A man passes out flags during a demonstration protesting the state’s extended stay-at-home order at the Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., April 15, 2020.  (Seth Herald/Reuters)
The Michigan anti-lockdown protest was a sea of American flags.

It feels like 2009 redux, with spontaneous anti-government protests, once again, getting smeared.

Of course, the proximate cause of the protests this time is the coronavirus lockdowns rather than Obamacare, although the feel of the demonstrations — expressing populist anger at government overreach — is the same, and so is the reaction of the critics.

The line of attack is the familiar one of using a few isolated idiots or kooks to tar the entire enterprise. To this end, if there’s one thing Democrats (and the media) want you to know about the anti-lockdown protest at the Michigan state capitol in Lansing last week, it’s that people were flying Confederate flags.

“What happened yesterday was inexcusable,” Representative Debbie Dingell (D., Mich.) said. “People did not have masks. They didn’t have gloves. They did not distance themselves. They had Confederate flags, swastikas.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer scolded, “When people are flying the Confederate flag and untold numbers who gassed up on the way here or grabbed a bite on the way home — we know that this rally endangered people.”

The idea that they “had swastikas,” as Dingell said, is meant to mislead. A few protesters, in particular a widely photographed woman with a “Heil Witmer” (sic) sign, used swastikas to depict the governor as a fascist (obviously, a ridiculously over-the-top charge), not to identify themselves as Nazis.

More broadly, any political protest will draw its share of nuts and fringe types. But that a couple of zealots displayed Confederate flags at this event involving as many as 4,000 people isn’t the first, second, or third thing to know about the protest, which can be more accurately described as lavishly star-spangled.

You can watch long stretches of footage of the protests and see only a panorama of American flags — people flying them from their cars, waving them, draping themselves in them, displaying them on their wheelchairs. Many of the protesters are decked out in red-white-and-blue regalia.

This long-form local news report doesn’t capture any Confederate flags at all.

This drone footage is from an altitude that makes it difficult to see anything in detail, but gives an idea of the scale of the protest. Only the stars-and-stripes and “Don’t Tread On Me” yellow are readily evident.

This long video of someone from their car also captures no Confederate flags.

This nearly hourlong video from the Detroit Free Press is dotted with American flags throughout, from beginning to end.

Trump flags and “Don’t Tread On Me” flags are also notable.

Near the beginning, the Detroit Free Press video does show one Confederate flag, a man with the Stars-and-Bars emblazoned with a rifle and the words “come and get it.” That’s it. One idiot. Despite the video capturing hundreds of people in their cars and on the street and capitol grounds at the height of the protest.

All of this suggests that you could have spent hours at this protest and have seen no Confederate flags whatsoever.

What you would see is myriad signs saying things like “Land of the free,” “Proud health care worker / Social distancing? Yes / Tyranny? No,” “Balance the risk!,” “Give us back our freedom” (displayed on the back of a wheelchair), “Free Michigan,” “My rights are essential,” and in a big banner planted in the ground outside the capitol building, “Security without freedom is prison.”

In interviews with protesters, you’ll hear some crackpot theories, but largely people saying we’ve got to get back to work.

This woman holding a “Small business is essential” sign at 30:40 expresses the basic point of view quite well:

Yet the Confederate flag featured prominently in news coverage. “Fox News host defended anti-lockdown protesters carrying Confederate flags and falsely accused Michigan’s governor of calling them Nazis” read a (misleading) headline in Business Insider.

The subhead of a Times of Israel article was “Some compare Gretchen Whitmer to Hitler, wave Confederate flags; governor accuses protesters of endangering themselves and the community.” (The word “some” is doing a lot of work there.)

“They flew Confederate flags hundreds of miles north of the Mason-Dixon,” complained The Independent.

An NBC News report put it most precisely: “At least two Confederate flags were spotted.”

I’d amend that to say at least two and a half Confederate flags, maybe three and a half, were spotted.

This Michigan reporter noted photos of two more Confederate flags, one displayed out on a green pick-up truck, another a hybrid American / “Don’t Tread on Me”/ Confederate flag.

 

There also is a fleeting glimpse of a Confederate flag that looks different from the others behind the NBC News reporter in the video at the top of this report.

Perhaps there were more, and perhaps you can find more that I missed. The point, though, is you have to go out of your way to scour the record in painstaking detail to find them amid a vast sea of American flags.

It’s entirely legitimate, obviously, to disagree with the anti-lockdown protests and to think they are wrong to want to open up now. But, please, don’t depict them all as a bunch of neo-Confederates. It’s tiresome, and not true.

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