Take down flag: Action as obvious as a gun in your face

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

In the choppy wake of every sickening American mass shooting, promises follow.

Promises to stop the violence, as if “the violence” was a tangible something, a monster you could see, touch, smell and then vanquish. As if “the violence” was something you could trap with a giant net or blow away with a .50 caliber weapon. As if being upset in the aftermath of nine innocent churchgoers being executed could or would stop the next puerile young man drunk on the twin thrills of a birthday gift gun and a toxic, racist idea.

The political promises are empty because we are still sitting around talking about talking.

The insincerity is manifest: Our nation had a conversation about race, using guns, 155 years ago. We called it the Civil War, a five-year bloodbath that left as many as 725,000 soldiers dead and more than a million people wounded. It was a war that led to the violent death of our greatest president. So, at the very least, you would think that war also sealed the Confederacy’s fate as a failed enterprise, as a confederacy of shame.

But the value of the Confederate flag is still politely debated, as if “heritage” has two equal sides, when the South’s historical foundation was, quite literally, built on the backs of suffering people who were legally regarded as property. “Everyone who lived through that era understood that slavery was ‘somehow’ the cause of the war,” the historian Eric Foner has written. Have we forgotten? The war ended slavery but that flag of a vanquished time — and the distorted, corrupt dream it symbolized — still waved.

An array of Republican presidential candidates last week shied from acknowledging even this obvious symbolic problem: The flag of defeated plantation-owners and slave traders isn’t comforting to African-Americans or — I believe — to most of the rest of us.

But that flag offered succor to a hollow-eyed 21-year-old waif-man, an assassin looking to signs and symbols as bolsters for his racist beliefs. Dylann Storm Roof didn’t need an interpreter to explain what the Confederate flag means: He got it. It means what it means.

There is a point where conversation is meaningless, and appropriate action — a starting place — is staring at us full-force.

“Take down the #Confederate Flag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred.” That was Mitt Romney’s brave tweet the other day. It was brave because he said it in public. It was brave because he didn’t wait for others to speak first.

If we can’t agree that 300 million guns is too many (and we can’t) and we can’t agree that a slender, lost young man trying to start an extremist movement by executing innocent churchgoers is a terrorist (and we can’t), and we can’t begin to stop the violence in Detroit that is our biggest shame, we still need to start somewhere.

Take down the Confederate flag everywhere — from state buildings and T-shirts, from the official flags of seven states, from the state house of Columbia, S.C., where it flies in the breeze as if South Carolina enjoys dual citizenship in two nations.

Let’s have a conversation about race that ends with action, folding the “stars and bars” in memory of nine innocent women and men who died in a Charleston church. Their deaths — brutal and tragic and unnecessary — are history now, history worthy of remembrance.

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