This week’s political news cycle has been about the beef between Donald Trump and John McCain, who died last weekend. Trump’s administration put the flag at half-staff for McCain but quickly restored the flag back to its regular position, violating an unwritten rule that it should stay lowered until a senator is buried.
There’s been a lot of back-and-forth and debate around what a half-staff flag represents and its importance, but for me, and so many other Black Americans, a half-staff flag is just a reminder of who matters in this country and who is seen as an acceptable casualty. I feel pain and immense sadness when I look at half-staff flags – sometimes for who the flags represent, but mostly for who they omit.
I’ve felt this way for the past 13 years. Ever since Hurricane Katrina.
I drove a lot in the days following Hurricane Katrina. I was a sophomore in college in North Carolina, hundreds of miles away from my family. Alone. Alone because I could barely get in contact with my family – most of them in Jackson, Mississippi, without power or reliable cell phone service after the storm. Most of the rest of my family didn’t have much time to talk as they were either scrambling to get back home to New Orleans, adjust to a new life in Houston or find loved ones who had gone missing. Alone because so few of my classmates were from the Gulf Coast area and the news was so focused on reporting black “looters” and white “scavengers” that the true impact of the storm was lost on so many people who didn’t have direct contact to those affected. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, anyone who seemed to understand. Hell, I could barely understand what was happening. So I drove. Alone.
Every day, I’d just get in my car and drive around by myself to process my sadness, fear and rage. One day in early September, just a few days after Katrina made landfall, I was sitting in a Bojangles parking lot, drinking a sweet tea, staring out of my window, and trying to wrap my brain around the fact that the Katrina death toll was reaching more than a 1,000 – it would eventually settle around 1,800.
Then I saw it: a flag in front of the post office, flying at half-staff – a long-standing signal of a nation mourning. But the flag wasn’t flying at half-staff to mourn the lives lost in Katrina. It was at half-staff because Supreme Court Judge William Renquist had just died.
At that moment, the flag and its placement only represented a clear understanding about who the country actually chooses to mourn and who is seen as expendable. Those hundreds of mostly-black bodies washed away by a storm of government malpractice didn’t matter. Of course, I already knew this, but seeing the flag at that moment flying to honor one single man and not those lives lost, crystallized what it means to be cared about in America.
Flying flags at half-staff have been an American tradition for centuries and there aren’t too many solid rules about when to utilize the practice. The Department of Veterans Affairs says the flag should be at half-staff “when the whole nation is in mourning. These periods of mourning are proclaimed either by the president of the United States, for national remembrance.” There weren’t any policies on the subject until 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower laid down a few rules, including that flags should stay at half-staff for 30 days after a former president dies, 10 days after a vice president dies and events of that nature. However, beyond those rules, issues of half-staff flags are up to the discretion of the people in charge. We’ve seen flags at half-staff for mass shootings, deaths of prominent figures like Neil Armstrong and Rosa Parks, and terrorist attacks like 9/11.
The Obama administration was tattered with controversies over when he put the flag at half-staff, as the gesture was politicized near the end of his presidency. In 2015, President Barack Obama faced scrutiny for waiting several days before ordering flags at half-staff for five soldiers killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during a mass shooting. Social media was flooded with fakes stories and memes that Obama had the flag at half-staff for Whitney Houston and not the five soldiers. Of course, this became a racially charged rallying cry for the right as Glen Beck and Donald Trump ordered flags to be at half-staff on their personal and business properties to teach the then-president a lesson.
President Obama never ordered the flags at half-staff for the nine black men and women murdered in the Charleston church massacre. However, he ordered flags at half-staff for the Boston Marathon bombing.
Flags at half-staff have always represented the recognition of American tragedies, but Black death has never been perceived as an American tragedy. Black people have always had to find our own ways to honor our dead – museums made out of the sites of our dead heroes, our own holidays and traditions – that fall outside of government-sanctioned remembrance. So I have a real hard time finding any anger over the length of time allotted for John McCain’s half-staff flag. The gesture was never meant for us and I doubt it ever will be.