For more than 11 years, a Gadsden flag, a yellow banner with a coiled rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” hung on the wall of my Olympia Press House office.
It came down recently as I vacated the office. It won’t go back up anywhere. After the assault on the U.S. Capitol, I’m packing it away.
The flag sometimes showed up in the background for Facebook Live events or Skype interviews in the office, and visitors sometimes asked if I had acquired it at a tea party gathering.
But the flag is a family memento that predates the tea party movement by several decades. It was purchased by my father in the late 1980s, when he and some neighbors were fighting an effort to expand the runways at the nearby St. Louis Airport, which would wipe out the homes in the neighborhood where I grew up.
Benjamin Franklin first proposed the rattlesnake and the motto for the American Colonies, where the residents, like rattlesnakes, were apt to mind their own business but can get nasty when stepped on or threatened. The flag’s design dates to the start of the American Revolution, and is named for Christopher Gadsden, a colonel tasked with raising the first company of Continental Marines.
Those early Marines carried the flag, and it flew on some ships for the Continental Navy. It didn’t make the cut to be the new nation’s flag, but has been popular as a symbol of protest over the centuries.
Although my father knew the history of the flag – he may have been the one to urge everyone to order one – most people in my old neighborhood didn’t, and many hadn’t ever seen one.
The neighborhood flew it from the poles attached to their homes that usually held the Stars and Stripes and devised other acts of protest, which ultimately did not keep the City of St. Louis from condemning their properties some 15 years later, forcing them to move and bulldozing perfectly good houses that were built in the 1960s.
This is not to say they weren’t compensated – they were – but for people like my parents who bought a brand new home built to their specifications in the 1960s, raised a family there and planned to live out their days in it, money wasn’t everything. Plus, the new runway, which took down 2,000 homes, four schools and six churches – including the one where my wife and I were married – turned out to be a billion-dollar boondoggle.
When my father died about 15 years ago, it was among the things the family sorted. My siblings didn’t want it, so I took the flag, which stayed in a box with some other mementos for a few years. When I moved to Olympia in 2009, the box was unpacked and I took it to the office and hung it up, partly as a reminder of my father and partly because there was a big, empty wall that was badly in need of painting that the state, as the Press House landlord, wasn’t going to do.
Sometimes when people asked if I was a member of the tea party or some other right-wing group, I’d explain the flag’s history. Other times I’d just laugh and point out they usually consider me part of the liberal media.
My granddaughter Kendall liked it because her favorite color is yellow, although she wasn’t crazy about the snake. It was pulled off the wall but left behind when the office was burglarized last summer, and put back up because the wall still hasn’t been painted.
So the Gadsden flag in general, and mine in particular, had a noble history that has been wiped out by an ignoble present.
On Jan. 6, people carrying the Gadsden flag and other banners stormed the U.S. Capitol, rampaged through the hallways, vandalized the seat of American democracy, interrupted a constitutional process to certify the will of the nation’s voters, stole things and threatened to do violence to a Republican vice president and a Democratic speaker of the House. Five people died, including a Capitol police officer, and many others were injured.
Along with the Confederate Battle Flag, which was also paraded through the Capitol – something the Confederate Army never accomplished during the Civil War – the Gadsden flag is now a symbol of insurrection and sedition.
I have argued with relatives who live in the South that displaying the Confederate flag in public is wrong, full stop.
The argument they are honoring a heritage of upholding state’s rights doesn’t cut it when the main right those states were upholding was the ability of people with one skin color to own people with another skin color.
If your great-great-great grandfather was a member of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, survived Gettysburg and was at his side at the Appomattox Courthouse, you can make an argument to hang the flag in your home along with his musket and saber. But what the flag means to people now overrides what it means to you as a family heirloom when you fly it from a flagpole, or use it as a bumper sticker or license plate.
The connotation of the Gadsden flag has slowly evolved also in recent years. I’ve seen it at gun-rights rallies at the Washington Capitol. It was prominent at a Proud Boys demonstration at Evergreen State College and at recent protests of the state’s restrictions to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whatever one thinks of those events, they fell (mostly) within the bounds of the First Amendment right to “peaceably assemble for redress of grievances.”
But on Jan. 6, people with the Gadsden flag didn’t just cross that line. They obliterated the line and carried the flag into the abyss.
So my father’s Gadsden flag is being put away. Maybe for good, or maybe until my grandchildren come across it in a box or drawer and ask where it came from.
I’ll have to tell them the full story.
Editor’s note: Five people died as a result of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol; an earlier version of the story incorrectly described those casualties.