The Universal Notebook: It’s a grand old flag

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A District Court judge has dismissed the request of the Freeport Flag Ladies, a trio of women who have been waving American flags on Main Street in Freeport since 9/11, for a protection order against a young man they claimed was harassing them, a young man whose father was aboard one of the hijacked airliners that terrorists flew into the Twin Towers.

I must say I am perplexed by the whole flag-waving kerfuffle.

If the young man showed up at their home to harass them, as alleged, I’m surprised they couldn’t get a protection order. If it’s just that they don’t like competition and criticism, that’s another story. If you’re not for freedom of speech for all, then you’re not for freedom of speech at all and, by extension, don’t fully comprehend what the American flag stands for.

Frankly, I’m not really sure what the Freeport Flag Ladies stand for, other than standing on the sidewalk every Tuesday morning waving flags. They started out demonstrating in support of 9/11 heroes and victims, but 15 years of mission creep seems to have taken them into the deeper waters of supporting our troops, thanking veterans, expressing general patriotism, championing freedom and embracing the American Spirit, whatever that is.

Seems to me if you’re out to support victims of 9/11, and the son and wife of a victim of 9/11 are troubled by your flag-waving, maybe you’d want to reconsider what you’re doing. The victim’s family seemed to feel that the Flag Ladies’ patriotic flag-waving had morphed into a nationalistic statement against Muslims and refugees, which I assume it is not.

The only folks who seemed to get it right in Freeport were a group of Freeport High School students who demonstrated across the street when the Flag Ladies were joined by a few dozen supporters in a show of flag-waving solidarity that ended with one of their number getting hit by a passing car.

“I’m not against the flag ladies at all,” said high school student Lindsay Cartmell, “but I don’t think there is a clean line here. Why can’t you support troops and veterans and be welcoming to refugees, too?”


As with the South Portland High School students who last year took a stand against mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Freeport students got it just right.

The American flag does provoke strong emotional and political responses. In 2006, a proposed flag desecration amendment that would have made it illegal to burn or otherwise desecrate the flag failed by a single vote in the U.S. Senate. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted for it. In the House, where the bill passed easily, Second District Rep. Mike Michaud voted yes, while First District Rep. Tom Allen voted no.

You have to wonder whether, had the amendment passed, the Freeport Flag Ladies might have run afoul of the law by wearing their American flag blouses and driving their American flag truck. Both practices are entirely legal, of course, but they are also clear violations of American flag etiquette.

As spelled out in the U. S. Code, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery,” “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform” and “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.”

I’m old enough to remember when art student Tim Sample (ayuh, that Timmy) got cited by the police for painting his ’56 Chevy like an American flag with white stars on the blue hood and front fenders and the rest of the Bel-Air red and white stripes.

Of course, flag etiquette went by the board years ago. Heck, Sarah Palin had a campaign bus painted like Old Glory, and George and Laura Bush stood on an American flag rug at Ground Zero. The flag is supposed to be raised in the morning and lowered at night, but you see flags flying all night all the time and in all kinds of weather these days. Still, if you’re running for office, better get yourself an American flag lapel pin or you’re not a patriot.

Personally, I find outward displays of patriotism meaningless. A person who waves a flag or wears a lapel pin is no more patriotic than a person who doesn’t. A flag is not the country, it’s a piece of cloth. Yes, the American flag is a symbol of America, but these days it’s hard to know which America it stands for: the give-me-your-huddled-masses-yearning-to-breathe-free America, or the build-a-wall America.

I own two American flags. They are the flags presented to our family when my grandfather and father, both veterans, were laid to rest. I salute them – my heroes, not the flags.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • LTR_2003

    Edgar, you don’t even know what you don’t know. That is a dangerous quality to possess.

    Have you actually reviewed 36 U.S.C. 173-178? Have you seen what the ladies wear? I have. They aren’t American flags.

    You have opted to share personal stories on the loss of your father in prior columns. I am sorry for your loss, just as I am sorry for James Roux’s loss. But thousands lose parents every year. I lost both of mine at a young age. Deep down inside yourself, I think you know James’ behavior is more than some kind of heart-felt visceral response stemming from his loss. The reality is he has some serious psychological issues going on. I think the same is true for his mother. Perhaps they stem from post-9/11 trauma. Who knows. What I do know is that their loss is not an excuse for acting like jerks.

    I fully support everyone’s right to free speech and assembly. But when you’re doing it solely to be an jerk, I’m sorry, you’re a jerk. They specifically targeted these senior citizens. See: Westboro Baptist Church

    What’s sad is that you, Edgar, freely admit that you can’t understand “American Spirit.” It seems as though you are stuck in the 60’s and long for the days of flag burning, patchouli, and fighting “the man.” You don’t seem to believe in personal responsibility and personal accountability. You look like a real champion of freedom by coming to James Roux’s defense, and hurling accusations of propaganda towards some ladies who just want to show pride in their country, pay tribute to those who serve, and spend time with like-minded people.

    You volunteered information about your flags and veteran family members. Do you ever consider how veterans feel when they see flags being burned? I think it’s kind of disgusting to throw that little story out there as though you have some “skin” in “the game.” You haven’t seen war, Edgar. You haven’t lost a battle buddy, let alone multiple men you served with. You haven’t had to raise a family after losing a spouse in battle. You don’t know what patriotism is because it’s something bigger than loving your self and your self-aggrandizing, anti-American agenda. When I salute our flag, it’s not only for my family members who were vets. It’s also not just for those who served with me who made the ultimate sacrifice. Hmm. I wonder what else it could be.

    If you want to champion the rights of the offended, guess what? Your liberal lack-of-logic and attacks on my freedom offend me. Smart immigration restrictions and border security are bad? Back to the 60’s, hippy! Be gone! Your white guilt, anti-American schtick is tired and more and more Americans are distancing themselves from this bovine excrement.

    Way to avoid naming him, by the way. Clever girl.

    • EABeem

      Didn’t name anyone other than the high school student who made the essential point in the column. I also did not criticize anyone. I said that if the young man did what he is alleged to have done, I was surprised the judge didn’t issue a protection order. I admitted I do not understand what the Freeport Flag Ladies are all about as they seem to have changed their purpose over the years. I specifically did not say what a lot of people have said, which is that the Freeport Flag Ladies are mostly interested in themselves. I also specifically said that I do not think the flag ladies are supporters of the xenophobic LePage-Trump anti-immigrant agenda. At least I sure hope not. Your argument that a blouse is not a flag doesn’t make sense. Tim Sample’s car wasn’t a flag either. And one of reasons the 2006 flag desecration amendment didn’t pass was that people feared it would apply to American flag décor and decorations, which are considered bad form under the U.S. Code. In short, you don’t seem to understand what I wrote at all. Maybe that’s my fault. But at least I didn’t call anyone names or get personal the way you have.

      • EABeem

        p.s. Perhaps had I not edited out a section of the column for length, my point would have been clearer. First Lady Ann LePage, who sometimes stands with the Freeport Flag Ladies, was quoted as saying about the controversy, “These are just people who love this country. It’s anything but political.” These days EVERYTHING is political. Mrs. LePage makes it political by her mere presence. To suggest otherwise is either naïve or disingenuous. As I wrote in the column, there is more than one America, more than one American Spirit. The America I love and believe in is the America that is inclusive and welcoming, it is not the Let’s Build a Fence, It’ll be Huge America of Donald trump and most of the GOP candidates. Even something as supposedly straightforward as “Support Our Troops” is provocative. Does it mean “My Country Right or Wrong?” Or does it mean “Don’t send our troops into harm’s way without a damn good reason?” Standing on the sidewalk for 15 years waving American flags is a profoundly political activity. Some people don’t seem to understand that, or want to pretend they don’t.

      • LTR_2003

        Name calling? “Hippy”? Or “acting like a jerk makes one a jerk”?

        Personal? You publish personal stories in a column. That they may evoke personal opinions and reactions should not be a surprise.

        It’s 2016. The Tim Sample story was decades ago…

        … like the 60’s.

        • EABeem

          Anti-American? That’s the conservative b.s. that I detest and the reason I feel compelled to question when someone waves the flag a little too long and too hard. I love this country and want it to reach it’s true potential. I don’t want it backsliding into the ignorance and prejudice we see becoming so acceptable on the right where the real anti-Americans live in their parallel universe, the bizarre world where a bunch of armed cowboys can claim to be taking back public lands from the public, where a corporate fat cat can masquerade as a populist and where the largest military the world has ever seen is too small and too weak for people who want to cut the budget. Had I wanted to criticize the flag ladies, believe me there’s a lot of stuff there that I gave a pass.

          • LTR_2003

            I did not call you an anti-American. I described your agenda as such.

            Between North Korea, China, and— actually never mind. I’ve wasted enough of my time.

            Best wishes.

            Trump 2016

          • EABeem

            Okay, thanks. You may have noticed that I am one of very few columnists who wastes time responding to anonymous critics. But if you’re such a big fan of anti-American agendas, you must love Trump.

    • Jamie Roux

      You don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know me and you have no first hand knowledge of the events that transpired.

  • Lucy Ball

    True colors were shown in this column and they aren’t Red, White and Blue.

    • EABeem

      That’s no way to talk about the Freeport Flag Ladies!

  • Darren Jensen

    Edgar, I believe that you are way off base with your opinion of the flag ladies and the American flag for that matter. They are proud of their country and I am sure they enjoy the tradition that they have together. It is obvious that the mother and son tried to disturb theses ladies. Freeport Main Street has an abundance of sidewalk, they had to choose that particular spot? Give me a break. It amazes me that you are such a liberal democrat and your father and grandfather served their country. I bet they were proud of their flag, patriots that should be commended. If you can’t stand this country why are you here? I imagine you are going to vote for Hillary. People like you are destroying this country! Darren Jensen

    • EABeem

      I love my country and do whatever I can to help it live up to its great promise. You have no idea what I think of the flag ladies, because I don’t know myself. That’s what this column is about, questioning. As I am sure you will understand, I believe bigoted, ignorant people are destroying this country, people like Paul LePage and Donald Trump.

  • Chew H Bird

    I think the real pont has nothing to do with the Freeport Flag ladies. First, standing on a public sidewalk, whether it is with American Flags or flags with a marijuana leaf is making a political statement regardless of the message.

    Second, while certain activities may be viewed as patriotic, harmless, and with good intent the actions taken by those individuals, whether noble of questionable should all have the same protections as long as no harm is involved.

    If people making a public statement through a non-violent and non-threatening public action, such as the Flag Ladies, they should be free from harassment and protected from those who threaten their safety.

    When I was a child our country was all about freedom. Now (it seems) it is more about “rights”. In my opinion there is a huge difference. Flag etiquette is well documented and my Dad taught me how to handle, display, care for, and retire the American Flag. In today’s world I suspect fewer people actually know, understand, and follow the “rules”. Maybe we have become a bot more lax in our interpretation of the rules (roll through a stop sign anyone?), but in my opinion public displays should follow the rules we have and those of us witnessing such displays should respect them. While such public displays are political by virtual of being public, countering those displays through threats, whether perceived or real, turns a public display into a public protest and controversy which is often to the detriment of all.