The Confederate battle flag, that unmistakable symbol of white supremacy and anti-government leanings intrinsically linked to the South, paraded Wednesday through the U.S. Capitol.
Robert E. Lee’s soldiers never did that. Jefferson Davis never walked the Capitol hallways with that reprehensible flag. But in one afternoon, the domestic terrorists egged on by President Trump’s strongman rhetoric and Rudy Giuliani’s public call to arms — “Let’s have trial by combat” — accomplished what they could not.
They brought the preeminent Confederate visual to the heart of American government.
In no way was that the worst of Wednesday. Heavens, no. On a godawful afternoon when Trump-backed insurrectionists attacked police, stormed into the Capitol and threatened lawmakers, when the very fabric of American democracy seemed at risk, the sight of a handful of rioters waving the Confederate flag wasn’t the day’s most horrific headline.
But those images — inside the Capitol, on the steps outside, scattered throughout the thousands that surrounded the House and Senate chambers — aren’t going away. They’re forever joined to the final days of Trump’s presidency.
That flag is toxic not merely because an army fighting against U.S. troops flew it in battle, or because of its unbreakable link to slavery. It’s toxic because white supremacists, anarchists and revolutionaries have co-opted it, turning a divisive military relic into an undisputed symbol of hate. It’s toxic and can’t be rehabilitated.
People try, though, but they can’t succeed, no matter how often they praise Confederate heritage and decry the removal of Confederate monuments from public parks and government buildings. Lost Cause adherents view that flag through a lens of American holiness, a belief that it beckons bravery and honor and a heroic defense of homeland, not racism and hate.
If only that were true.
Dylann Roof posed with that flag before murdering nine Black people in 2015 in Charleston. Racist marchers in the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville two years later toted that flag, chanting epithets against Blacks and Jews and inciting violence that led to a woman’s death.
The flag is so toxic that states have banned it from public spaces and removed it from official displays. NASCAR has banned it from its facilities. Anniston’s City Council outlawed the flag from Quintard Avenue’s median and other public spaces nearly a decade ago. The Pentagon this year essentially banned it from all U.S. military properties, a precursor to bleaching the names of Confederate generals off of U.S. military posts.
Still, the flag bled long ago outside our borders. Jordan Brasher, an assistant professor at Columbus (Ga.) State University, has documented its use throughout Europe, notably in Ireland (by a right-wing paramilitary group, the Red Hand Defenders) and in Germany (by neo-Nazis who fly it as a stand-in for the swastika). There, it represents hate and totalitarianism, the flag’s defenders long ago losing control of its meaning.
And in the U.S. Capitol? What did it mean there?
On Tuesday, Georgians elected a Black pastor, Raphael Warnock, and a Jewish man, Jon Ossoff, to the U.S. Senate — men whose race, religion and ethnicity fall under that flag’s historic condemnation. Forget the direct political result for Democrats and Republicans. Their victories recast the political realities for minorities in the South, a sign that the deepest of the former Confederate states are no longer beholden to their exclusionary pasts.
A day later, rioters carried that flag to the Capitol grounds, into the Capitol hallways, into the heart of our national government, displayed prominently alongside flags bearing Trump’s name. The flag of sedition, of treason, of racial and ethnic hatred, of European fascists had reached the most sacred of American buildings.
The nadir of Trump’s presidency has left us battered and ashamed; we’re universally angry, the reasons as varied as we are. There is so much to do, so much to repair, in the coming days. That damnable flag is but a sidenote in all of it.
But on it there is clarity nonetheless. Wednesday, godawful as it was, provided it. No longer is there doubt about that flag’s modern meaning. No longer should you wonder what, or whom, it represents.