Boy blocked from school over Gadsden flag badge prompts debate over its meaning

The yellow ‘don’t tread on me’ flag is up for debate again centuries after it arose in the American Revolution

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 30 August 2023 15:59 BST
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A video screenshot shows the Gadsden flag on the bottom right of the boy’s backpack
A video screenshot shows the Gadsden flag on the bottom right of the boy’s backpack (Screenshot / X/Twitter / Connor Boyack)

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A Colorado school’s move to block a 12-year-old boy from displaying a Gadsden flag patch on his backpack has sparked a contentious debate over what the symbol actually means.

The debate over the flag, otherwise known as the yellow “don’t tread on me”-flag, arose after conservative author Connor Boyak shared a video of a school meeting where the young student was confronted about having one on his bag.

“The reason we do not want the flag displayed is due to its origins with slavery and the slave trade,” a school official says in the video.

The meeting took place at The Vanguard School, a charter school located in Colorado Springs, according to Colorado Public Radio (CPR).

The news of the student’s removal from class went viral, prompting Democratic Governor Jared Polis to defend the student and the use of the flag patch.

Mr Polis instead argued that the flag is not a symbol of racism and hate, but of patriotism, with its roots in the American Revolution.

“The Gadsden flag is a proud symbol of the American revolution and (an) iconic warning to Britain or any government not to violate the liberties of Americans,” the governor wrote on X, the social media platform previously called Twitter. “It appears on popular American medallions and challenge coins through today and Ben Franklin also adopted it to symbolize the union of the 13 colonies. It’s a great teaching moment for a history lesson!”

Conservative firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene also defended the flag on X, calling it “a symbol of freedom against a tyrannical government”.

“It was used to represent unity against an oppressive ruler during the Revolutionary War...similar to the Biden regime,” she wrote.

The yellow Gadsden flag includes a coiled rattlesnake and was a symbol of unity between the colonies fighting the British, Britannica notes.

It could be seen flying above the USS Alfred during the Revolutionary War.

In the video, a woman can be heard saying, “It has nothing to do with slavery. It’s the Revolutionary War patch”.

“The Founding Fathers stood up for what they believed in, against unjust laws. This is unjust,” she added.

The Harrison School District 2 said in a statement to the press that “The patch in question was part of half a dozen other patches of semi-automatic weapons”.

Mike Claudio, assistant superintendent of student support, said in an email that “The student has removed the semi-automatic patches,” CPR reported.

The “student returned to class without incident after removing the patches of semi-automatic weapons from the backpack. The Vanguard School and Harrison School District 2 worked in collaboration to resolve this matter,” the statement said.

In the video, the backpack also bears the message “J-Rod 4 VP Revolution” – a message seemingly connected to the presidential campaign branding of Ron Paul.

Mr Paul, 88, the father of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, spent decades in and out of the US House as a representative for Texas between 1976 and 2013. He was the presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party in 1988 and ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012.

The backpack also has patches featuring Saint Michel and the “doge” meme.

While the flag was introduced during the Revolutionary War, it became a symbol used by some supporters of the Confederacy, as reported by The Washington Post.

The imagery has appeared on license plates, bumper stickers, and US Soccer jerseys made by Nike in 2006.

Rightwingers have used the symbol, such as libertarians in the 1970s as well as conservatives following the establishment of the Tea Party, The New Yorker noted in 2016.

In 2014, two attackers placed a swastika and a Gadsden flag on two murdered police officers in Las Vegas, Nevada, according to NBC News.

The alleged police-killers were known for “spouting racist, anti-government views,” The Las Vegas Sun noted.

The flag was also seen during the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

In 2014, a Black postal worker filed a complaint about a co-worker wearing a hat featuring the Gadsden flag. The complaint was rejected, with the postal service saying the flag does “not have racial connotations” and linking it to Mr Franklin’s use of the rattlesnake as a symbol for the US, according to CPR.

But the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated: “After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military. However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.”

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