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A Flag-Waving Fourth : Old Glory Fires Emotions as Protest Continues Against Supreme Court Ruling on Burning

Times Staff Writer

At Annin, the nation’s largest flag maker, founded in 1847 and made famous for 15 minutes by George Bush with his presidential campaign visit, people are joking these days about making a non-burnable U.S. flag.

“We’ve thrown that around here,” said Annin’s Bill Emmons in a telephone interview from the company’s Verona, N.J., headquarters, “but for the number of flags that are burned, it would drive the cost (of flags) way out of sight. It’s the public that would be burned.”

He added, “Besides, that’s not the issue. The issue is that people should not be allowed to burn the flag. It’s just part of America.”

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Meanwhile, Annin’s Bloomfield, N.J., plant is cranking out 3-by-5-feet flags to replenish dealer stocks depleted by escalating demand from customers who figure that this Fourth of July, in particular, is the time “to show what you stand for,” as Emmons put it.

Colleen McHale, a 61-year-old widow living on a quiet residential street in Silver Lake, is doing just that. At her house, the flag is being flown upside down as a symbol of dissent in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling June 21 that burning the U.S. flag as a political protest is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.

Flying the flag upside down, she explained, is “an international signal of distress” and, in this instance, it is Old Glory that is in danger.

A semiretired antiques dealer, McHale has canvassed her neighborhood with a petition in support of “whatever Congress can do” to protect the flag from desecration, including a Constitutional amendment “if it is necessary.” For two days she sat at a card table on her corner, collecting, she estimated, a total of about 300 signatures.

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Late last week, bearing a “Save Our Flag” sign, McHale moved her base of operations to the Glendale Galleria where, she said, she was gathering “about 100 to 150 signatures per hour,” working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. On Saturday, she was taking her crusade to Ventura.

McHale, a registered Democrat who votes Republican, doesn’t take desecration of America’s flag lightly. “To me,” she said, “it represents 213 years of history, good, bad and indifferent, mistakes and all.” And, she added, “I want my country back from the wackos and weirdos” who place their individual rights above those of society.

So, she said, she will continue her petition crusade. And her flag will fly upside down this Fourth of July, and every day, until Congress “raps (the Supreme Court) on the knuckles and says you’ve been bad boys,” or there is a Constitutional amendment barring desecration of the flag, “or until I die, whichever comes first.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling caught the ultra-conservative John Birch Society in the middle of a move, its files not yet unpacked at its new Appleton, Wisc., headquarters and its fight-back strategy not yet formulated.

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“We are not pleased with the decision” and “we intend” to take action, Tom Gow, the chief administrative officer, said Friday afternoon, “but the last truck unloaded only a couple of hours ago. It’s been rather a difficult time to respond to an issue that certainly got the notice of our members.”

While some conservative groups are advocating a Constitutional amendment as called for last week by Bush, Gow said, “We are very much reluctant to support the amendment process because we feel that the solution is not in changing the language. It’s being grossly violated anyway. The federal government has grossly exceeded the authority granted to it under the Constitution, and the Supreme Court as well. If men refuse to obey their own charter, then changing the charter isn’t the solution.”

Down in South Gate at Post 1732, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Commander Ed Hekeler said “we’re 100%" against the Supreme Court decision and will join VFW posts statewide in sending petitions to members of Congress.

But, said Hekeler, an Army veteran who served in the European Theater during World War II, his post would not be staging any public protest. Taking a jab at the Supreme Court, he said, “We’re not going to go out there and try to make a fool of ourselves, like they are.”

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If flag sales are any indication, a number of people in Los Angeles are standing up for the red, white and blue this Fourth of July.

Howard Furst, owner of AAA Flag and Banner, said, “My manager in Sherman Oaks put out a frame sign on the sidewalk. The first day, where normally we’d sell two or three flags, we sold 18.” The sign pointed out that the flags, $17.50 for a 3-by-5 with hardware, are American made.

As he sees it, “You don’t burn the Bible and you don’t burn the American flag. I wonder what would happen if the Supreme Court came up with a judgment that it was all right to burn the Bible?”

In 18 years in the flag business, Furst has observed, “Any time we have a national crisis, sales pick up.” He estimates that his pre-Fourth of July sales are “at least double” last year’s.

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At the Flag Shop in Whittier, owner Jan Mericle said a lot of customers have mentioned the flag-burning issue and are “very upset. They’re very protective of the flag. It’s an emotional issue.”

At the James Perry company in Hollywood, president Roz Cannon said it was too early to assess the Supreme Court’s impact on holiday sales, as most orders from wholesalers and retailers already had been filled. But, she said, “I haven’t heard anybody say they were in favor of burning the flag.”

Personally, she said, she is “outraged,” but she has mixed feelings about a Constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag--"I don’t think we want to start banning, like they started in some of the Fascist countries . . . we don’t want to lose what we have.”

Atop Kelbo’s restaurant in West Los Angeles, the marquee, clearly visible to motorists passing by on Pico Boulevard, carries this message: “Don’t You Dare Burn Our Flag. Honk If ‘U’ Agree.”

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“I am hot. I am mad,” explained owner Thomas P. Kelley, who’s operated Kelbo’s on the same site for 42 years.

“I was born on Flag Day (77 years ago) but that has nothing to do with it. It’s just drivin’ me nuts to think that the Supreme Court would tell us citizens who have lived with that flag all of our lives, and all of our relations, way back in history . . . why, this is absolutely insane. . . .”

As for that sign, have there been many honkers?

Well, Kelley said, “The first day I put the sign up I heard one guy honk. But I looked down from the top of the restaurant and the guy honkin’ was honkin’ at the guy who was lookin’ at the sign, so I can’t count him.

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“But we’ve had a lot of people goin’ by honking and waving and really putting on quite a display. I think it’s gettin’ to them. . . . If I saw somebody put a match to that flag, I think I’d go after the guy. I think if he got it burning, I’d set him on top of it.”

If it takes a Constitutional amendment to reverse the high court’s flag-burning decision, Kelley is for it.

Today, he said, “It’s gotten so every guy who’s got some crazy idea, he thinks he can do it because of the First Amendment. It’s just not right.”


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