What It Means To Fly American Flag Upside Down

February 13, 2024
What It Means To Fly American Flag Upside Down
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When an disgruntled voter decided to flip the American flag on her front porch upside down after the 2016 election, she viewed it as the patriotic thing to do. The 70-year-old Illinois resident turned Old Glory over as a signal - we’re in distress and heading down a risky path.

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While officially flying the flag inverted on land signals dire distress requiring immediate attention, these days it’s become a familiar form of protest for U.S. citizens across the political spectrum. Americans have flown upside down Stars and Stripes to dissent ever since Vietnam era demonstrations, even as others view it as disrespectful. Looking back, when did this symbolic act begin and why does turning flags groundward still flare tensions today?

The Upside Down American Flag’s Maritime Origins

Long before sparking quarrels in the U.S., the upside down flag custom began at sea. Maritime tradition for centuries held that ships could invert their national flag to signal danger or the need for rescue. Hanging flags upside down evolved as universal seafaring shorthand implying, “we’re in trouble, come save us!” This code was formalized in the 20th century. The United States Flag Code officially stated flying the American flag upside down on land conveys the nation is in distress - think SOS levels of emergency and urgency. These technical guidelines transformed an intuitive custom into law after the advent of air travel increased flying flags beyond naval contexts.

Vietnam Era Protests Flip Script on Flag Code

Yet by the 1960s, Americans seized onto this codified meaning as symbolic protest. With Vietnam antiwar dissent escalating, some dissidents, especially students and activists, began flying American flags upside down at marches and rallies by 1967-1968. Though few in numbers initially, it signified growing exasperation.

They aimed to signal America itself was imperiled by questionable involvement in Vietnam, like a distressed ship in trouble reciprocal to the maritime roots. This defiant borrowing of nautical convention marked early traces of upside down flags protest symbolism taking hold domestically.

One frequently cited example occurred in 1970 when an attorney turned his flag upside down in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Earth Day. He’d inverted in solidarity with youth activists’ calls to right environmental policy wrongs. When arrested, he sued and ultimately won on free speech grounds - marking a key precedent protecting flag alteration dissent.

He reflected after his court victory, "Displaying our flag upside down on Earth Day represented the planetary distress call...Tragically, our nation was asleep at the helm - sailing recklessly toward climate and environmental catastrophe.”

From Anti-Reagan to Anti-Bush Protests

Sporadic instances persisted through the 1970s, but the symbolic act didn’t gain steam again til later decades. We saw revival with anti-Reagan administration nuclear policy protests in the 80s, primarily on the left. Then during post-9-11 War on Terror years, some inverted flags to critique foreign policy, surveillance overreach, economics and more under Bush.

During this era, flying the flag upside down provoked stronger outrage from those viewing it as anti-American. Some incidents turned violent, necessitating Supreme Court rulings reinforcing First Amendment protections in the early 90s. Though not without backlash, upside down flags became an entrenched form of political dissent by the late 20th century.

Tea Party Conservatives Invert Under Obama

Come the Obama administration, the script flipped on who brandished inverted flags. Groups like the Tea Party along with militia and libertarian factions tilted flags to signal conservative distress. They aimed to symbolize America was endangered by Obamacare, gun legislation attempts, expanded executive power and liberal policies overall. Race anxieties and xenophobic fears also fueled conservative distress tied to the nation’s first Black president for some fringe elements.

Surveys found over 60 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters saw the U.S. under Obama as imperiled. Hence upside down flags featured prominently at Tax Day protests and other Tea Party, libertarian and militia gatherings after 2008 as shorthand for Obama-centered angst and fury.

Progressives Invert Post-Trump

When President Donald Trump assumed office in 2016, the performance repeated with reversed roles. This time, left-leaning Americans flew inverted flags at rallies, protests and demonstrations against Trump administration priorities.

A disgruntled democrat voter's front porch flag flipping exemplified early distress displays by liberals disenchanted with Trumpism. Over time, upside down flags became familiar sights from Women’s Marches to science advocacy gatherings to protests of immigration orders, reproductive rights rollbacks and more. Flag inversion prevailed as visceral protest symbol through 2020’s racial justice uprisings after George Floyd’s murder by police as well.

Whereas conservatives used to condemn inverted flags as unpatriotic during Bush era wars, more have embraced it under Biden to express rightwing consternation around vaccines, election integrity worries, immigration and cultural change perceived as threats.

Pandemic Inversions Across Ideologies

This bipartisan borrowing became especially prominent amidst COVID-19 pandemic turmoil. Both liberal and conservative Americans flew inverted flags to signal pandemic policies and economic impacts induced national turmoil.

You saw people across worldviews hoisting inverted flags early in lockdowns over job losses, market uncertainty, conflicts around masks and mandates plus general crisis footage seeming ‘apocalyptic.’ Americans of all stripes have continued displaying upside down flags well into 2023 as shorthand for compounding crises and dissatisfaction with responses.

Why Inverted Flag Visual Rhetoric Persists

No matter administration or era, both liberal and conservative Americans have now seized onto the inverted flag as resonant visual shorthand when alarmed about national conditions. Why did this symbolism ignite imagination unlike technical etiquette breaches like wearing flag apparel?

It’s become such a persuasive gesture because it conveys visceral crisis - the attention-grabbing sight sums up ‘the state of the nation is dire!’ more vividly than words can. Upending flags outwardly materializes internal fear and turmoil with efficient elegance. Just glimpse an inverted American flag and your mind goes straight to: something menacing endangers our home requiring immediate rescue. No phrases necessary; dire symbolism does the work instantly with painful patriotic familiarity.

Ongoing divisions will likely keep inverted flags as lasting political protest vernacular. It offers cathartic visual theater letting citizens signal when American reality falls desperately short of ideals. Flipping flags won’t fix undercurrents ripping at the republic’s fabric. But this enduring symbolic dissent stands testament to just how broken at the mast so many still feel America remains.

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1 comment

Sad for whatever reason fly the flag the right way

Jerry brennan

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