SAN DIEGO — You have to be careful with flags. They’re not just harmless pieces of cloth meant to inspire patriotism and national pride. Those seemingly innocent sheets of fabric can lead to all sorts of trouble.
And sometimes, that is the idea. Let’s not be naive. Flags aren’t always about simply declaring one’s love of country. Waving them is also a good way to express defiance, antagonize others, divide people or pick a fight.
In some places, flags are still a positive symbol. In Ukraine and Venezuela, scores of brave protesters, who are willing to stand up to oppressive governments, gain strength from waving their country’s flag. It’s as if they’re saying: “This is what we’re fighting for, something bigger than ourselves.”
It’s a different story in the United States, where, in the messy culture wars, flags are sometimes used as weapons. Waving them can be a sign of protest, a demonstration that you’re not going to be pushed around or told where your loyalties should lie. It’s as if some Americans use the flag to declare: “This is how we fight back, even if it makes us seem small.”
The word “small” aptly describes the five students who, on May 5, 2010, while attending Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., apparently decided to use the American flag, specifically T-shirts with the flag on them, to taunt Latino students. It wasn’t about being patriotic. It was about being provocative.
You see, May 5 is Cinco de Mayo, which in truth isn’t a real holiday in Mexico. But it does seem to help bars and restaurants sell a lot of beer.
No matter. The school was planning a celebration. Bigger people would have delved right in, and shown some respect for a foreign culture. Maybe they would have learned something fun and interesting.
Not these five. That would have been too easy. These students were specifically told beforehand by school administrators — who didn’t want any trouble in a school that had been described by the San Francisco Chronicle as having an “ethnically charged atmosphere” and where 20 percent of the 1,300-student body were English-language learners — not to wear flag clothing on that day because it might cause a ruckus. The warning conformed to the high-school dress code, which prohibited “any clothing or decoration which detracts from the learning environment.”
The five students violated that code, and disobeyed the administrators’ directive, when they wore the T-shirts anyway.
I guess these five geniuses didn’t consider the possibility that most of those Latino students they were trying to rile up were also Americans. In fact, many of them were probably born in the United States. So, ironically, T-shirts adorned with the American flag might not have had the intended effect. Or, they might have riled up some of the students. We’ll never know.
Anyway, the effect is irrelevant. The point is that the intent was malicious. Those five picked Cinco de Mayo, of all days, to show their patriotism? They were obviously up to no good.
That was the conclusion of Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez who, fearing that the boys’ fashion choices might cause a ruckus, confronted the youths that day and told them to either turn their T-shirts inside out or go home. They chose to go home. And within hours, they went from being disobedient, disruptive and disrespectful brats to a group of patriotic martyrs for the First Amendment.
Of course, young people don’t veer this far off course on their own. Their parents excused the boys’ bad behavior when they hired lawyers and sued the school district, alleging a violation of the lads’ constitutional right to free speech. Talk about teaching kids the wrong lesson.
Free expression is important all right. It just isn’t as important as ensuring the safety of students in a climate of racial and ethnic tension. That was the finding recently of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges ruled that the school administrators had not violated the Constitution. In fact, they said, by enforcing the dress-code ban on the T-shirts, the school had “presciently avoided an altercation.”
The parents say they’re prepared to appeal this case all the way to the Supreme Court. Naturally.
It turns out that flags aren’t the problem after all. The real problem is the people who misuse them — and their accomplices.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.