The Eric Sheppard Challenge, or Why America Is Finished

The Eric Sheppard challenge, if you haven’t heard (and I didn’t either until, like, today) is a viral protest movement started on behalf of New Black Panther Party member Eric Sheppard, who is now wanted in connection with a victimless, nonviolent crime. If you want to participate, it goes like this:

  1. Get yourself an American flag.
  2. Throw it on the floor and stomp all over it.

To put it in Sheppard’s own words, “The meaning of the stepping on the flag, is that flag represents white supremacy, racism, which is plaguing the entire earth. So when we step on that flag, we’re stepping on racism and white supremacy.” And Sheppard is correct. Of course, what the flag represents is subjective and interpreted differently by each individual. But it is a fact, objectively, that the United States was founded upon white supremacy, that it was built upon racism, that it was hoisted upon the backs of enslaved Africans. This was written into the founding documents of the United States; it was the consensus of a solid majority of the much-revered American “Founding Fathers.”

So the Eric Sheppard challenge is a good thing. Fuck that flag and everything it represents.

Fine, fuck that flag, you might say, isn’t it going a little far to say America is finished? And that part is not a statement about Sheppard, nor about leaving a big smelly doo on the flag. It’s about how the American right (and this includes American “liberals” and Democrats) responds. To illustrate, here’s a FOX News clip:

As you can see, FOX found itself a “former Navy SEAL” to share his opinions on this. There’s no attempt to present the story in a neutral way, despite the journalistic facade of “balance.” It’s open condemnation all around. The former SEAL says this is an example of the “devolution” of America and that it is a “growing problem” for his generation. Problematically, according to this man, his generation doesn’t “respect authority” or the “rights and privileges” Americans supposedly have.

In Orwellian fashion, our former SEAL asserts one thing – that he is a “small government guy” – but immediately follows up by saying the exact opposite: “it’s time for our legislators to introduce something to make it illegal to disrespect the flag and maybe even treat it like a citizen.” Yes, he really said that. He wants to treat the flag like it is a citizen.

If Americans want to treat the flag like a citizen, perhaps they should beat it with clubs, pepper-spray it, shoot it with handguns and then imprison it for a few decades.

To the former SEAL, “this is the problem” because “we tolerate it.” Social media is a “problem” to this man, because it allows “one dumb person” to propagate a popular message. Many people would say that social media, because of that very fact, is a technological aide for real democracy. That said technology allows individuals to compete on a level playing field alongside corporate and state-financed monopolies. In short, that it allows people like Eric Sheppard to be heard. Because it isn’t as if the mainstream media – as we can see from this very clip – is presenting both sides.

The former SEAL goes on to say, “If you are a citizen and you see this happening, stop it. I don’t care what the ramifications are, you need to stop it.” To stop someone from stomping on an American flag would, of course, be illegal. And the “ramifications” this former SEAL refers to are legal ramifications. The person who tried to stop it, by doing something like taking the flag away or physically confronting the person, could be arrested. Like this woman right here was.

It’s important to understand that this former SEAL is advocating that the American right-wing, specifically American nationalists (“patriots”), break the law. That they need to break the law, in fact, regardless of the consequences. Now, this is fine. I have no problem with breaking the law. In fact, in principle, I agree: we do need to break laws, in many circumstances, regardless of the consequences.

I would especially like to see people stop police brutality, using physical force if necessary, regardless of the legal ramifications.

What’s interesting is that the American right has always cultivated the image of being law-abiding. It has cultivated this both as an external image and an internal value. In fact, respect for the so-called “rule of law” is a defining characteristic of American conservatives. This is in contrast to the American left, which has overwhelmingly supported and been involved in illegal protest movements in the form of civil disobedience. (The entire civil rights movement is a testimony to this.) What we’re now beginning to see is the American right shirking its association with law, and the rule of law, for direct action to nationalist goals.

And this isn’t the fringe. We’re not talking Bundy facing off with the Feds. This is someone hand picked, by the largest conservative mouthpiece and the largest media outlet in the United States, to represent the mainstream American right.

Now, if you ask most people (who are not members of this nationalist camp), they will say that stepping on the flag, burning it, and so on are forms of protected speech. However, this was not always the case. It wasn’t until 1989 that the “right” to destroy an American flag was confirmed. People were arrested and convicted for destroying American flags before that: throughout the civil rights movement, throughout Vietnam-era protests. The “desecration of a venerated object” was one statute, among many, that prohibited it. Most of these statutes are still on the books, but go unenforced.

The America that you know, then, is a new America. It isn’t the America created by the “Founding Fathers.” This shouldn’t be a surprise – people who didn’t care about enslaving black men and women also didn’t emphasize absolutist freedom of expression to the extent we do today. That women are allowed to vote, that people are not imprisoned for private debts, or that children don’t work in mines are also new developments. The America that you know, what “America” probably means to you, is a new invention.

And when we say “America is finished,” it is not a statement about some political body known as the United States. It is inevitable, of course, that the United States will not last forever as a political body. We as a species have run through countless states, countless political experiments, in our thousands of years of human development. To think that the United States is special, to think it will last longer or fare better, is naïve. In fact, we should want it to end, hopefully as a result of human advancement and its natural obsolescence.

The United States is probably also on its last legs in this respect, too, but that is for a different discussion.

“America is finished,” then, refers to the America that you know. No one alive is familiar with first-hand experiences of American chattel slavery. That America died. It was finished long ago. (Slavery, however, did continue and still exists in many forms.) To say that past “America” is the same “America” that exists today – as if there is an actual, contiguous reality linking the two – is wrong. This perception is due to an illusion. The America that was formed as a result of the civil rights movement, or the abolition of the draft, will also be apparently distant and removed. But only in retrospect.

This former SEAL, expressing his woes at Americans who don’t give a fuck about the flag, is unintentionally expressing the same sentiment: America, at least the America that he knows, that America defined by people giving a fuck about him, as a soldier, and the flag, whatever it is supposed to represent, is dying. Daily, more and more people are not buying it. Every day the mindless salutes, songs, pledges and hero-worship decrease. When performed, they are performed only as hollow gestures. And for those to whom these traditions are valuable, only reaction is left.

“We need to make a law” is reaction. And “do whatever it takes, regardless of the law,” in this case, is also reaction. The former the domain of law-abiding conservatives, the latter the domain of the law-shirking right. We see the latter, especially, as a state, a society or a portion of the public moves toward authoritarian or totalitarian forms of rule. The gangs that made up internal enforcement of fascist states – the right-wing militias in Francoist Spain, the Gestapo in Hitler’s Germany – are salient examples of the latter. The rule of law, a center-right belief, is made submissive to the ideology of far-right movements.

(The negation of the law by law enforcement – the fact that police officers routinely break the law to further an authoritarian political agenda – is an example of how American police act as the vanguard for the American right. Just as much as any militia tasked with enforcement in Francoist Spain.)

Meanwhile, there are those of us who care not for the rule of law, nor the political right. We would burn the flag, legal or illegal. This is the tradition of civil disobedience. It’s the tradition of those who fought the draft, who protested Vietnam, who didn’t go to the back of the bus. We already come into conflict with the law-abiding center-right; the conflict will be more intense with individuals such as this former SEAL, those who represent the new law-shirking right-wing. And it is this conflict that signals another death of America.

America is finished. Not because of people, like myself or Sheppard, who would finish it intentionally. We don’t kill America unilaterally. It’s finished because of the way the American right chooses to respond. They’ve been successfully baited into dropping the facade of so-called “American values,” such as the freedom of expression or protest, and showing their true colors: authoritarianism and nationalism.

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