Cops and Confederate Flags

One time, a police officer in South Carolina put on some Confederate battle flag underwear. We probably would never have known this, except he took a picture of himself in said underwear and posted it online. And if there is one thing social media is good for, it’s conveying the power of identity politics to folks who push buttons. He was fired, sued and later settled. The upshot is that the Confederate flag is so divisive, it is considered grounds for legal decisions. That is, if an agent of the government performs his or her duties and also displays the flag, their official actions can be questioned for racial bias.

Knowing this, let us consider a recent case at home, in the forested Pacific Northwest. Far from keeping his Confederate flag hidden beneath the uniform, a Washington State Patrol trooper based near Silverdale hung the flag in his driveway. Then, incredibly, he parked his state-issued interceptor underneath it. The result was an investigation — not by the Patrol, but by the local newspaper, the Kitsap Sun, which had the practical sense to get a picture of the vehicle and the flag above it before filing a related public records request. After the request went in, the flag came down.

What was a PNW officer doing with a Confederate flag? All we have is what was reported, quoting Lt. Dan Sharp: “he was told the trooper removed the flag because he did not want to offend anyone. He said that an ancestor of his had fought in the Civil War. ‘To him he was honoring his family and history, he had no ill intent,’ Sharp said.”

It’s plausible. Certainly we’ve become acquainted with a number of groups that honor family that served in the Confederate armies. Just recently, the United Daughters of the Confederacy recognized a U.S. veteran who descended from a member of the 11th Virginia Infantry. And, given how truly public the Silverdale display was — front yard, full view, over cruiser — it seems like perhaps the trooper really had not thought it was going to cause a fuss.

But, but. Given the very well publicized controversies over all things Confederate over the past few years, one wonders why a trooper with 16 years experience thought his flag would not arouse a few bad feelings with the neighbors. The sort of legitimate historical ties to the Confederate States of America that many Southerners can claim have been irradiated by the toxic associations between the Confederate flag and violent racism. Indeed, many would say the CSA was violently racist and therefore not worth being publically tied to, ancestors or no. Like so many statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the flag has been pulled out of the public square. Here’s a quote from a local attorney:

“If I ever have a trial with this trooper that involves a minority defendant, I will move to admit the photograph as a racist act under rules that allow defendants to explore bias of those that testify against them,” attorney Adrian Pimentel wrote in an email to the Kitsap Sun. “There is considerable persuasive authority for admission of this photograph. Courts have consistently held that the Confederate flag is legitimately viewed as a symbol of white supremacy.”

Was our local trooper simply unaware of the controversial nature of the flag, or was he dismissive of it? Increasingly, the controversy over the flag seems to be about daring people to do something about it. From Alaska to Michigan, non-southern high school students have brought down the wrath of principals for displaying the flag on school property.

It’s been nearly a year since we embarked on the Confederate Identity Project. We’ve learned a lot about American history, where Confederate thinking came from and the North’s role in shaping it. We’ve kept our eyes open for the symbols of Confederate identity and become more attuned to the issues facing communities across the nation as they confront the still-powerful effects of the Civil War.

In that time, we’ve also seen the battle flag pop up locally a couple times and get headlines. We’ve spotted it on cars on I-5 and on tattooed shoulders at Costco. Confederate identity may be atypical in the Pacific Northwest, but we wouldn’t go so far as to call it extraordinary. Nevertheless, as we see in Kitsap, it can have serious repercussions.

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