History in Focus: Signs, Symbols, and Angels
Our small sagebrush desert town is usually insulated from the seemingly intractable ills of urban America. From our comfortable isolation we quietly go about our business, but last Friday (June 5), the national trauma of the riots and unrest over the death of George Floyd arrived in Craig, and we suddenly and forcefully experienced the long history of race, protests, powerful symbols, and divisive national politics.
As people converged on Alice Pleasant Park, a variety of conflicting signs and symbols were displayed, each one using a slice of history for their argument. Many of them conjured ideas and emotions from bygone eras and events in order to make a statement about recent events. On a sunny, warm, and pleasant afternoon, my wife and I quietly observed the many sides of the protest.
Before the start of the protest, a white truck abruptly parked on Yampa Street flying two large flags. The first was the old Confederate battle flag. For the owner’s it may have represented simple southern pride (In Craig? I doubt it), a statement on the philosophy of state’s rights (Possibly, in light of the COVID-19 restrictions), or just maybe it was a purposeful move to provoke during this distressing national crisis.
The second flag was a unique combination of ½ American flag and ½ Rebel Flag overlaid with a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase, Don’t Tread on Me. This flag pulled me in many different directions. I love my country and its representation in the stars and stripes. But as a Yankee, the Rebel Flag is an idea that was thankfully crushed by Lincoln and Grant. In fact, My Dad and I once smoked a cigar on the porch of the McLean house in Appomattox, VA in honor of General Grant. Don’t Tread on Me is from the famous Gadsden flag of our Revolutionary War, but these days it’s used to protest expanding government power.
There were more than a few openly holstered weapons on the hips of dudes wandering the edges of the protest. It wasn’t too hard to understand that message, as was the friendly contact Sheriff Hume made with these folks and many others. Thank you, Sheriff.
Protestors commemorating the death of George Floyd congregated in the center of Alice Pleasant Park. Black Lives Matter signs were abundant which created honest questions about a hierarchy on the value of life. Even more interesting was a homemade cardboard and sharpie marker placard that screamed, 400 Yrs of Brutality Must End, clearly linking Floyd’s death to the long shadow of the sin of slavery.
At one point the protestors laid face down for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the neck of George Floyd, in order to highlight the problem of police brutality. At the same time, counter protestors walked Yampa Street with black, blue, and white American flags signifying Blue Lives Matter.
All these signs and symbols of history came together quickly and forcefully to create an uncomfortable tension in downtown Craig. It was a palpable and unusually eery feeling. I saw family members, my students, members of my church, colleagues from work, old hockey buddies, and others from across my 22 years in this town…on both sides of the demonstration. Yet, there was no violence.
While our nation has scattered itself into statistical categories, identity politics, and political voting blocks to be wooed and won in elections, rural Craig still values the individual. We’ve avoided pigeon-holing each other which helps us remain civil and good neighbors.
Still, the nation’s problems are our problems even if they seem to belong to some other place, but Craig proved itself to be a small ray of hope in America…right now and last Friday. It wasn’t on the national news; we don’t fit the narrative.
America is struggling to put its ideals into practice, but the heart of America will be touched again, as Abraham Lincoln put it, by “the better angels of our nature” and we will continue toward the dream envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr.
James Neton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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