My MC5 band mates and I worked hard to reflect the world we inhabited. Not only in our music, but in every aspect of our performances. Living with the then-current and devastating murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, we were always pushing to present the music with power in the times we were living. We would write and perform agitprop as part of our rock show. One night, this involved destroying an American flag as a comment on political assassination.
In those times, our idea was a powerful one, and evidently one that prompted J. Edgar Hoover to reiterate, in his letters to Gerald Ford, that we were a rock band “who breathe revolution.” Yeah, you right.
At the close of our set, we would launch into a free-form improvisation climaxing in lead singer Rob Tyner setting the flag on fire. Then, with the music digging into a disturbing feedback drone, an assassin would run onto the stage and shoot him at close range. In the ensuing chaos, we would remove Tyner to the dressing room while the crowd dealt with what they had just witnessed.
Our promoter Russ Gibb got wind of our street-theater intentions and absolutely forbid a flag burning. Russ was also our sometime benefactor, so it was a heated argument. We ultimately negotiated a flag tearing for later that night. As planned, our “assassin” approached Tyner to fire the starter pistol. The gun jammed. Tyner stood inert, packet of fake blood in hand and the whole thing collapsed, leaving the theatre piece to depart the stage ingloriously.
The audience’s memory of the event was a witless “The MC5 Tore Up A Flag!” sound bite. Not the deeper headline we were hoping for. But in that process, something more important about whom we are as a culture was revealed. Turns out it was never the feigned assassination that upset our critics. It was messing with that flag that really got to them.
Now the President-Elect tweets that citizens who exercise their Constitutional right to express themselves should go to jail and be stripped of their citizenship. If it weren’t obvious that this is another meaningless, self-promoting provocation by a skilled media manipulator, and his willing and malleable media, it would be something to be concerned about. But I don’t believe it is.
In this country, the Constitutionally protected right to tear, burn, or otherwise destroy a flag might just be your best way to make a point. After all, it’s not a sacred object, per se, by its physical existence. It is a symbol of those very protections, an artifact that represents the spirit of this country. The flag is a representation of the democratic principles and aspirations the framers constructed for the governmental system of the nation we inherited.
It’s what the flag represents in the hearts, minds, and laws of the citizens of this country that is the issue, not the object itself. And if you think this is the best way for you to express your feelings about your government’s actions, you have the right to burn it. It’s a colorful cloth. It’s not a church, or a school, or a person’s home, or a human being. Those burnings are something to get upset about, and should – and do – have serious lawful consequences. There is a big difference.
Destroying a flag to protest the millions of lives lost in the Vietnam War was one way to express the immorality that many of us felt was being carried out on our behalf by our government. It was a strong gesture and, in my mind, not inappropriate because I operate as if Democracy is a verb. It is participatory, and I am participating. Together, we must, as is our protected right, express our dissatisfaction. How else will the republic continue to refine “a more perfect union”? By docilely consenting to policies that are unjust, unfair, or corrupt? No way.
A better America is an admirable and worthy aspiration. It’s also one that is often messy and uncomfortable, and one that requires its citizens to engage on every level. That none of us, and all of us, own the flag is an issue that has been fiercely litigated, so to have our new “chief executive” toss it out so flippantly into our national dialogue is an insult to our intelligence; an unsophisticated attempt at distraction to shift our eyes from the litany of conflicts and ethics challenges that accompany him.
I’m with Molly Ivins on this one: “I prefer someone who burns the flag and then wraps themselves up in the Constitution over someone who burns the Constitution and wraps themselves up in the flag.”
Today and every day, breathe revolution.
Los Angeles, CA
Wayne Kramer is a founding member of MC5, whose mélange of protopunk and anti-establishment politics influenced countless artists and activists. Their 1969 debut Kick Out of the Jams is frequented listed as one of the greatest albums of all time.