Commentary

Extremists have co-opted patriotic symbols and words. It’s time to reclaim them.

August 11, 2021 12:30 pm

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My friend Kathy has always been a proud patriot. A passionate supporter of veterans and first responders. Someone who volunteered countless hours in her community and teared up when the National Anthem played.

Kathy’s never considered herself a partisan. She’s a registered independent.

But she recently confided she’s not feeling so patriotic anymore and is angry that extremists have stolen part of what made her proud to be an American, turning patriotic symbols and phrases into dog whistles for white nationalism.

We need to reclaim those patriotic symbols and norms, not relinquish them to the authoritarians and conspiracy theorists.

– Julie Erfle

I’ve heard similar stories from other friends who no longer fly the American flag or use the word “patriot,” fearing people will assume they’re members of the MAGA crowd or QAnon cult — radicals who want to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

I understand the frustration. And the sadness.

It wasn’t long ago that I proudly wore my Thin Blue Line baseball cap and flew the Thin Blue Line flag outside my home.

As the surviving spouse of a police officer killed in the line of duty, I viewed this symbol as unifying, a sign of support for the difficult work police officers do every single day.

But like so many other emblems, the Thin Blue Line has been co-opted, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed.

As my sons and I drove past a Trump rally last summer, one of them pointed to a Thin Blue Line flag perched alongside a Confederate flag in the back of a pickup truck. 

It wasn’t the first time my son saw these symbols displayed side-by-side, and he voiced his disgust, knowing the pro-police flag had become yet another symbol of white supremacy.

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A few months later, we’d watch videos of the Trump mob flying this flag while beating police officers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. And while I cannot think of anything more antithetical than using a pro-police flag to strike an officer, I see similar contradictions every day in our politics.

Like the candidates who supposedly “back the blue” but are still vying for the endorsement of an ex-president who said of his supporters — the ones who crushed and battered police officers — ”We love you. You’re very special” and has attempted to make a martyr of the woman who was killed as she attempted to breach the Capitol, while using slurs to describe the police officers injured and killed by the Trump-inspired attack.

Or the legislators who toss out phrases like “we the people” and “freedom of speech” while limiting dissenting opinions in committee hearings and doing everything in their power to undermine the measures that voters passed into law.

Or the governor who claims Arizona is a “model” for elections while signing legislation meant to disenfranchise minority voters and remaining silent while fellow Republicans spread bogus fraud claims to seed doubts about the legitimacy of the last election and set the stage for more violence.

I empathize with friends like Kathy because I, too, am furious at the number of elected officials who knowingly spread disinformation and lies. I’m tired of campaigns that center on division. And I’ve lost patience with my compatriots who cannot muster enough selflessness to wear a simple piece of cloth over their mouths to save the lives of their neighbors.

But if we want to turn this dark period in our history around, we need to reclaim those patriotic symbols and norms, not relinquish them to the authoritarians and conspiracy theorists.

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Let’s start by being candid about who’s endangering our values. Take Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who praises Confederate generals and bigoted symbols, proudly (and repeatedly) appears on antisemitic right-wing programs, amplifies white nationalist talking points, and spouts baseless lies about the election and vaccines. She and her campaign contributors promote racism and hate and should be known as the real traitors among us.  

And on the flip-side, when Republican members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and County Recorder Stephen Richer refuse to lie about or manipulate the results of an election — knowing the truth will cost them their political careers — we should call them what they are: patriots.

Let’s prop up the elected officials fighting for democracy and the rule of law as well as the professional journalists who, despite constant trolling and threats, continue to report facts and expose falsehoods.

So, fly your American flag, wear your red, white and blue, volunteer on a campaign and VOTE. That’s how we reclaim the patriotic symbols and phrases from those who try to sully them.

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.

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