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Gregory Lee Johnsons Political Protest March Essay

Some citizens write stern letters to their congressmen, some post signs in their front yard, others gather signatures on a petition to voice their opinions. However, Gregory Lee Johnson decided to set the American flag ablaze to allow his opinion to be heard. In 1984, a political protest march was occurring through the streets of Dallas, Texas consisting of a diverse group of civilians who were against the policies of the current Reagan Administration.

Johnson, in the middle of the crowd, was handed an American Flag and some kerosene by an unknown protestor outside the Dallas City Hall; Johnson decided to throw the American flag onto the ground, pour the kerosene on it and set it on fire. Many protesters around Johnson began to chant, “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you! ” (Greenhouse). Johnson was then arrested and charged with, “desecration of a venerated object. (Volokh), he was found guilty and faced a sentence of a one-year term in prison and a $2,000 fine. Johnson appealed his case to the Fifth District of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals where they found Johnson to be innocent on account of his expressive conduct being protected by the First Amendment. Some would say Johnson’s actions were un-American, but to Johnson, what is more American than exercising the very rights the country has given him.

In Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” he boldly talks about Americans who constantly criticize and gripe about the decisions being made by our government, yet they sit back and do nothing about it to make any changes: “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; (Thoreau).

At this time in American history the nation was split into two different groups of citizens, those who sat back and watched, as described by Thoreau, and those who stood up and fought against the government, also known as The Man, and if you were not part of the solution, then you were part of the problem. When Johnson was very unsatisfied with Regan’s policies, instead of sticking to the norm, he decided to voice his opinion by joining a political protest march. In order to be as effective as possible he knew that he needed something to make himself stand out, something to grab the attention of millions, a “wow factor” of some sorts.

Many protestors before Johnson had tried to get their voices heard, only to have them fall upon deaf ears. Even famous songwriters and musicians wrote songs in protest that were often misinterpreted by the very government it was singing about. The well-known American musician Bruce Springsteen, for example, expressed his critical beliefs of President Regan in a big way by releasing his hit song, “Born in the USA” in 1984 (the same year Johnson was arrested). Springfield’s intentions for this song were to protest Regan’s policies also known as “Reganomics”.

Unfortunately, Springfield’s intentions were misinterpreted into a sort of anthem from Ronald Regan himself as he mentioned the song during his campaigning for reelection stating, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about. ” (Molloy). Sadly, the President did not have a clue that Springsteen and his song were actually anti-Regan.

If someone as well-known as this famous singer could not get thru to congress, then what chance had Johnson to? He knew that if one wanted something done then they would have to do it themselves, desperate times call for desperate measures and that meant doing something as extreme as burning the flag. In just a matter of minutes Johnson’s swift thinking gained the attention of the whole nation, something that was nearly impossible to do at the time. After his exploits, Johnson was arrested and charged with the bogus accusation of: “desecration of a venerated object. (Volokh).

However, you cannot claim that a person is guilty of breaking a law that does not exist. At the time of the incident it was not illegal to desecrate the American flag in any way, shape or form. The State of Texas did not put in to affect any such ordinances until September 1st, 1984, two months after Johnson’s actions. Sticking to the ever popular legal concept of “innocent until proven guilty” one cannot prove that anyone is guilty of doing something that is technically not considered illegal, let alone punish them for it either.

Under the protection of the “freedom of speech” portion that the First Amendment guarantees, the idea of “speech” has a wider range than what is commonly known. “The freedom of speech also applies to symbolic expression, such as displaying flags, burning flags, wearing armbands, burning crosses, and the like. ” (Stone, Volokh). This may have been the first time that an issue such as this had come to the attention of the State of Texas and they may have not been fully prepared to address it at the time.

Unfortunately for them, laws are usually created and put in place after a need for them has risen up and no sooner. Fortunately for Johnson, no matter how offensive his deed may have been, he was still well within his legal rights. Those who strongly oppose Johnson’s actions always try to use the most commonly heard argument that the burning of the American flag is an Un-American tactic and that many Veterans died defending the very freedoms that it represents. Unfavorably put for these people, this is not a matter of opinion or feelings.

In a court of law, the jury is not asked to reach a verdict according to what they think is right or wrong, they are presented with facts and expected to determine whether or not an actual crime has been committed. It is black and white, guilty or not guilty, either one way or the other, there is no room for a grey area. In this particular case there was no previous law in the State of Texas that prohibited the burning of an American flag. The word venerated refers to something that is considered sacred or holy, such as the beloved American flag.

Yet if it were as sacred to congressmen as they would have led you to believe then there should have always been a law in place to protect the defecation of it. In the end, there wasn’t. Our heroic veterans faithfully fought wars that were not their own in order to protect the very rights that Johnson wisely decided to invoke. As an American citizen, he had just as much of the right to express his disapproval toward the very country who granted him his rights as does any other citizen has to proudly display their flags up high on flagpoles.

The law (or lack of) is the law and there is no room for any biased in it. Another reason why nationalists may disagree with Johnson’s actions is that they feel he risked causing a bigger and more devastating commotion then what had ultimately taken place. Even though the protest stayed relatively peaceful, safe for Johnsons display, they would argue that given the atmosphere of the situation, throw in the addition of two unstable entities such as an impromptu wild fire and a mob mentality and you have the perfect recipe for disaster waiting to happen.

Anything could have easily and quickly gotten out of hand and participants (whether they were directly or indirectly partaking) could have been seriously injured. Johnson placed everyone within his radios in harm’s way. Nevertheless, the protest remained peaceful and contrary to the beliefs of skeptics, no one was harmed or injured safe for a bit of patriotism. It is common knowledge that when a protest is being held, local officials have the authority to command the protestors to disperse if they feel there is any danger at risk to those involved, fellow officers or the community.

In this case the police did not feel the protest was in anyway a threat to any of the aforementioned as the protest was not shut down until Johnson’s display of rebellion. Johnson, of course, was singled out from all of the other people there that day. If the government were truly concerned with a crowd of protestors getting too carried away, then the First Amendment would have had far more prohibitions and regulations to it then it currently does in order to prevent any catastrophes. Johnson could have written a letter to Regan, or put up protesting signs in his lawn or get one hundred signatures, but he did not.

Johnson set the American flag on fire because he did not want to be silent. Johnson, along with other civilian’s, felt very strongly the need to express their political protest against the policies of the Reagan Administration. Johnson took the lead and made the decision that the only way to get their point across and have their voices be heard would be to take the tools he was handed and make something happen, to take matters into his own hands. It just so happens that those tools happened to be an American flag and kerosene.

As rebellious, disrespectful, defiant and un-American as some would like to say that his actions were, there is no argument to the fact that they were still completely legal, not to mention protected by his First Amendment rights; the very rights that our soldiers fight so vigorously to preserve. We do not get to pick and choose which parts of the law we want to uphold and which we do not. Nor do we get to pick and choose at what point we want to enforce them and at other times let them slide, in the end Johnson was proven not guilty.

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