• JT Street

How the "Upside Down" Flag Could Begin to Heal a Divided Nation

The first time white Americans see an image of the U.S. Flag upside down, it is a shock to our programming.

"That's not right - the stars should be in the top left!" flashes through our minds.

It can be tempting for some Americans (particularly veterans) to perceive the upside down flag as yet another slight to patriotism - another way to tarnish and mock the flag to which they have pledged allegiance. But I see it as quite the opposite. Not only is flying the flag upside down appropriate and patriotic in our current political climate, but the symbolism of what I call the "Blood and Stars" could be a catalyst for change, healing and unity with regard to the racism and brutality of our nation's past - and the systemic inequality that persists to this day because of it.


The reason many Americans view the display of the "union down" flag as something amiss is because the action is meant to convey exactly that - that something is deeply wrong. In fact, it's written into the U.S. code.

4 U.S. Code § 8.Respect for flag(a)

The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.

Displaying the flag upside down is a tactic often used by those protesting the status quo - as a way to say "we are in dire distress!" Any American with a pulse likely realizes that we are in such a moment. Some of us have been in that moment for 400 years.

Flying the flag upside down does not undermine the sacrifices made by Americans for this country. If anything, it is a lawful, patriotic use of the flag to continue the fight to better the nation they sacrificed so much to preserve.


It is long past time that this nation acknowledges that the traditional U.S. flag does not mean freedom to black/brown/native people. How could it? It has flown proudly for hundreds of years while they were subjected to conquest, slavery, subjugation and brutality (and still are, in many respects).

By flying the flag upside down, we are acknowledging that shameful part of our past. But we are also doing something more....


The beauty and curse of a symbol is that it means what we say it means. If we see the U.S. flag and think "freedom!", then that's what it means to us. If we see it and think "imperialism and oppression!", then that's what it means. A swastika can be a symbol of good luck or a symbol of genocide. It means whatever society deems it to mean.

The wonderful part about the "Blood and Stars" flag is that it has symbolic visual cues to honor many of the struggles and the histories of people who may not feel represented by the Stars and Stripes, while at the same time honoring those who do. The red and white stripes above the stars could symbolize that many of us who bled for this country did so behind bars; whether those bars were slavery, incarceration, prejudice, or other denial of basic human rights. By placing the red and white stripes above the field of blue stars, we acknowledge that we all bleed red, and that no one star is above our collective sacrifice. It shows that although we are different colors, we form this field of stars together through that sacrifice.

The bloody stripes also symbolize a weight on the states. Much like Atlas carrying the globe on his shoulders, placing the stripes on top of the stars honors the notion that only by acknowledging the burdens of our history and our shared obligation to each other can we ever be united. It is also a declaration that we are dependent on the people and the states to shoulder the collective burdens of this nation, and that we should respect that history and sacrifice when making policy.

The fact that we can make all these statements by simply moving the union from the top left to the bottom left of the flag is rather beautiful, don't you think? It both preserves the nation's most enduring symbol - and enhances it.

Our flag has always meant different things to different people. By uniting behind the upside down flag ("Blood and Stars") AS A SYMBOLIC ACCEPTANCE OF MAJOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE, we can forge a new contract with all Americans; one built on honesty, unity, equality, and *actual* freedom and justice for all.


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