Last May, the conservative group Michigan United for Liberty organized protests in the state capitol against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. While the group, composed of roughly 8,000 members, had already formalized its complaint against the orders in a law suit, the protest provided a forum for a defiant public expression against what the group sees as a gross violation of people’s constitutional freedoms.
One protester summed up the point of the protest and call for freedom, according to Reuters, in these words: “Open your business now. Open the restaurants. Open the bars. Open the movie theaters. Michigan, wake up America.”
In reporting on the character of and attendance at the rally, Allan Smith reported for NBC News:
Several militia members were present at the rally, where a large banner reading “FREEDOM” was spread at the entrance to the Capitol. Some demonstrators waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and wore President Donald Trump’s campaign gear.
There it is! That “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, also called the Gadsden flag, after its designer Christopher Gadsden, a brigadier-general in the American army during the revolutionary war era.
The flag famously features a rattlesnake that Gadsden’s friend Ben Franklin served as an apt symbol for a colonized people under siege seeking an independent nation. The snake was indigenous to the nascent nation, struck only when threatened, and after giving due warning attacked its threat surgically and quickly, but fatally.
While the flag was created to express revolutionary fervor against the British government, as with any symbol, Rob Walker explains in The Atlantic, the meanings of symbols can shift over time.
In this contemporary moment, the flag has picked up other connotations, according to Walker, particularly a “strident anti-government sentiment.”
Don’t the recent mass uprisings against government violence against the people, particularly against Black people, seem like the perfect cause with which these freedom-seeking, Gadsden flag-waving folks would be eager and enthusiastic to ally?
The Black Lives Matter movement and the masses who have taken to the streets in general sympathy with cause of stopping state-sponsored violence and racism against Americans, most especially against Black lives and those of people of color in the U.S., in some sense could find their politically urgent message and demand summed up in the expression, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
George Floyd asked for an agent of the state to not tread with his knee on the back of his neck, to honor the seemingly simple request of letting him breathe. Breonna Taylor, had she had the chance, would have asked the police to not invasively break into her private home and fatally tread on her life. One could go on.
Like the rattlesnake Franklin described, these protests and movements did not strike until threatened, indeed met with fatal force.
And the demand, sometimes a desperate plea, is clear:
Please, Don’t Tread on Us.
So, the recent protests and the Black Lives Matter movement seem like the perfect causes with which these militias and “liberty”-seeking groups would want to ally in the quest for “freedom.”
Why haven’t we seen these Gadsden flag-waving folks prominently present and active in these rallies?
Why aren’t they calling for the abolition of police departments, if they are so anti-government and so in favor of freedom of government?
It’s important to explore and answer this question, if for no other reason than to begin to figure out what freedom means for America. If the goal of our political culture is to achieve our nation’s stated ideal of freedom—and that might be a big “if”—we should try to be as clear as possible about what freedom is for us, what the content of that goal is.
For those who currently wave the Gadsen flag and don’t want to be tread on, freedom seems not so much to be freedom from government but the “freedom” to assert white supremacy and deny non-white people freedom.
The politics of “Don’t Tread on Me” don’t translate from these conservative groups, militias, and white supremacist organizations for an obvious reason. They aren’t really interested in freedom and democracy; they aren’t in dominance, oppression, and tyranny.
“Don’t Tread on Me” doesn’t mean “Don’t Tread on All of Us.” It means “don’t tread on we white people and take away the power, endowed on us through white supremacy, to rule over others and deprive them of their constitutional freedoms.
As Walker more fully elaborates the evolution of the Gadsden’s flag meaning:
Along the way, it picked up other connotations: strident anti-government sentiment, often directed with particular vehemence at the first African-American President. As the E.E.O.C. gingerly suggested, the symbol is now “sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts,” citing the flag’s removal from a New Haven fire station after a black firefighter complained, and a 2014 incident in which two Las Vegas police officers were killed and their bodies covered by the flag. (The officers were white, but the shooters reportedly “spoke of white supremacy” and “the start of a revolution,” and were presumably sending that message with the flag.)
“Don’t Tread on Me” is a powerful message. It’s exactly, at least in part, what the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies are asking for.
Donald Trump urged Governor Whitmer to make a deal with the Michigan United for Liberty group and others protesting the stay-at-home orders. He even encouraged these protestors without threatening to call in the U.S. military to suppress them.
Don’t tread on them. Listen to them. Negotiate with them. They’re beautiful. These are Trump’s sentiments.
Obviously, Trump did not encourage the protests against ongoing racial violence and racism in America and the state’s complicity in it. And he did not encourage governors to negotiate with Black Lives Matter leaders.
When white supremacists wave the flag, we need to see the racist contradictions informing their definitions of freedom. They aren’t really saying “Don’t Tread on Me,” they are saying give them the right to tread on others violently and fatally, to deprive others of their constitutional rights.
Really want freedom? Eradicate racism and these racial contradictions infesting the expression and content of the nation’s putative ideals.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.