The Burning of the American Flag by Joey Johnson and the Revolution Club at the RNC in Cleveland
July 25, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
On Wednesday, July 20, in the face of the toxic chauvinism and reactionary ideas of all stripes coming out of the Republican National Convention, and surrounded by scores of cops and a whole zoo’s worth of fascist lunatics, some of them openly brandishing weapons, something fresh and positive happened. Joey Johnson, backed up by members of the Revolution Club, set aflame the American flag.
The Revolution Club had announced earlier Joey’s intent to do this as the only fitting response to the madness going on inside the convention hall. In response, hundreds of cops and reactionaries gathered to stop it.
They did not succeed. Suddenly, the Revolution Club seemed to materialize out of nowhere, a large circle—a safe space—formed, and Joey got up in the middle to speak:
”1, 2, 3, 4—Slavery, Genocide, and War! 5, 6, 7, 8—America Was NEVER Great! We’re here today to stand with people of the world! We’re taking a stand against this imperialist Republican National Convention. Donald Trump is an open fascist. Hillary Clinton is a proven war criminal. We’re not following either one of their leaders. Donald Trump’s message of ‘America first’ is a fascist message of control over people of the world to wage unending war, to exploit people all over the planet. America No. 1? America first? It always has been first: at genocide, at slavery, at exploitation, of destruction of the environment, of torture, of coup d’etats, of invasions. We’re standing here with the people of the world today... Donald Trump says America first...”
Suddenly, the flag went up in flames.
Pigs Strike Back
And just as suddenly, a mob of police assaulted the protective perimeter of Revolution Club members, attempting to extinguish the flames with water and spraying chemical flame retardant in people’s eyes. Half a dozen of these pigs piled on top of Joey, and then brought him to the ground in a chokehold.
At least 17 people were arrested, including Johnson and 15 other members of the Revolution Club. They were charged with multiple misdemeanors and two with outrageous felonies. The pigs quickly called a press conference to claim that Joey had burned himself and they were trying to save him—a lie that has now been exposed, but formed the pretext for the whole attack.
Even as this outrageous assault went on, Revolution Club members defiantly chanted “1, 2, 3, 4—Slavery, Genocide, and War! 5, 6, 7, 8—America Was NEVER Great!” and “What’s the problem? The whole damn system! What’s the solution? Revolution! Who’s our leader? Bob Avakian!” People held up posters—”Overthrow, Don’t Vote For, This System!” and images of Bob Avakian. After their comrades had been seized, the remaining members of the Revolution Club and others regrouped and continued to march, agitating about the need for revolution.
The police then proceeded to hold 15 of the comrades for more than the legally allowable 24 hours until late the next day, claiming all sorts of excuses, and kept two more until the day after. Note that the Cleveland pigs had claimed the ability to handle thousands of arrests a day, and had tons of personnel there doing nothing until 11 pm that night, and even promised the National Lawyers Guild that they would release people by 1 pm the next day—and then continued to do nothing and held them till that evening! Further, the authorities put people in solitary for singing, withheld medicines from people, and did not feed one woman the whole time she was in there. The outrageous and openly repressive character of this was described in an article inThe Nation (see “Why Are People Arrested at the RNC Still in Jail?“). Despite this and through all this, spirits were high, with people continuing to chant and sing almost the entire time, and then they marched out with heads high into the night when they were finally released. When Revolution Club members rallied Friday in the projects, people had heard all about it and were highly supportive.
Joey Johnson (wearing torn shirt), Revolution Club members, and other flag-burning defendants, just released from jail, rallied in front of the Justice Center, with supporters and Revcoms, who had marched from Public Square chanting "burn that flag!" Photo: Special to revcom.us
This fight is far from over. The defendants have vowed to fight the charges, and a great deal is at stake.
First, burning the flag at the Republican National Convention was extremely timely and necessary. The speeches and chants at this convention, reaching a peak with Trump’s speech on Thursday night, were nothing if not Hitlerian. Yet here he is, treated by the media and by the Democrats themselves, as a legitimate candidate. To treat Trump as legitimate, to give him billions of dollars’ worth of free publicity and allow him to set the terms of debate, means that this system itself is ILlegitimate. Yet where were the political forces ready to say how extreme this was and put something on the line to sound the alarm? The Revolution Club stepped up to fill this need.
Second, the assault on and arrest of Joey Johnson and the Revolution Club members, as well as a bystander, were themselves evidence of the repression that is here and bound to intensify if it is not resisted. The right to burn a flag in protest is a right ironically won by Johnson himself, from a conviction and one-year sentence stemming from the 1984 Republican National Convention. Well, if you can’t burn the flag in protest at THIS Republican convention, and in a setting where the locked arms of supporters gathered around prevented any possible accident, then this right is meaningless. And if in suppressing this right, as the police did, brutality is used and people are denied rights and put in preventive detention until nearly the end of the convention, this is all the more outrageous. These injustices and this repression have to be brought to light, fought, and defeated.
Third, and ultimately most important, Joey and the Revolution Club were there in Cleveland fighting for a whole different future. Everywhere they went, they distributed the Message from the Central Committee of the RCP, USA, “Time To Get Organized for an ACTUAL Revolution,” clearly posing the need for revolution; the problems humanity faces and the solution to those problems; the leadership for that revolution in Bob Avakian; and what people need to do now to make that happen. Everywhere they went—including in the Public Square of Cleveland that Wednesday—they modeled a conscious and disciplined force, a force made courageous by their understanding of what was needed and the morality that grounds the Club (which is also put forth in the RCP Central Committee Message they distributed). Everywhere they went, they put forward the stand: America Was NEVER Great, We Need to Overthrow This System. Everywhere they went—including last Wednesday as the flag went up in flames—they fought for the stand put forth by BA: “American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People’s Lives.”
These revolutionaries must be defended. We’ll be covering this fight and giving readers ways to support this. (To contribute urgently needed funds for the bail and legal expenses for Joey and the Cleveland 17 and to support the work of the Revolution Club at the Republican National Convention and at the Democratic National Convention protests this week, click here.)
DROP THE CHARGES AGAINST JOEY JOHNSON AND THE CLEVELAND 17!