Interview with Joey Johnson:

25 Years After Supreme Court Decision on Flag Burning

The American Flag Is Still “Toxic”

July 6, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Editors’ note: June 2014 was the 25th anniversary of Texas v. Johnson, the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined that burning the American flag in protest is a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Gregory “Joey” Johnson was the defendant in the case. Revolution newspaper had a chance to talk to Joey.


Revolution: Joey, could you describe for our readers how the flag-burning case Texas v. Johnson came about, including for many younger readers who perhaps were not yet born when it happened?

Joey Johnson: It began in Dallas, Texas, in 1984 at the Republican National Convention when Ronald Reagan was being renominated for his second term. Reagan was the first president, after the end of the Vietnam War,  to vociferously, unapologetically, and crudely reassert “America #1!” And a whole expressed theme of that convention was America’s post-Vietnam “patriotic renewal” and “bringing back America prouder, stronger and greater.”

Attorney William Kunstler (right) and Joey Johnson (second from right) in front of U.S. Supreme Court during arguments presented in a historic legal and political battle to defend the right to burn the American flag. Photo: AP

Tens of millions in U.S. society had gotten disgusted with those values during the 1960s. A lot of great things happened in the 1960s, but we did not actually make revolution, we didn’t seize power from the capitalist-imperialist system. So over time that system worked to “rehabilitate” the public to its patriotic empire-saluting bullshit. And it was after Reagan’s military invasion into Grenada, overthrowing the government there, the U.S. backing for death-squad governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the backing of the Contra “freedom fighter” mercenaries massacring villagers in Nicaragua. And we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people murdered in these U.S.-backed wars.

So the Republican Convention had Dallas laid out like a modern Nazi rally, with American flags lining the streets and this theme of toxic American chauvinism. Some of us from around the country made the trek to Dallas—supporters of the RCP and a lot of different youth, some anarchists and a lot of other youth who just really hated Reagan. We went there to counter all this USA #1 shit and stand with the people of the world. By the way, we had also protested at the convention of the other imperialist party, the Democrats, earlier in the summer.

I just want to tell young Revolution readers that back then, as now, one of the biggest strengths of the RCP was internationalism—the whole world comes first—and that message was brought into the Dallas protests.

Our protest in Dallas was raucous and defiant, a “War Chest Tour” that marched by all these corporate headquarters where we agitated, exposing the links between these corporations and U.S. imperialism’s plunder in the Third World, its backing for Apartheid in South Africa, military contractors, what have you. And then we burned the American flag in front of the convention center. That was a real juxtaposition of red, white, and blue chauvinism and in defiance against that, our standing with the people of the world. And the police arrested about a hundred people. A few of us got heavier charges, including the flag-burning charge. A few months later I went on trial and was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. I remember the prosecutor telling the jury they needed to load up on me, and make an example of me: If you come to Dallas and burn the flag, you’re going to pay.

They took me right to jail after the trial, but there were people outraged about my conviction as well, and they helped post an appeal bond. And we launched what turned into an almost five-year campaign to overturn my conviction. It started out as “Free Joey!” in Texas and there were some rallies and protests and a Statement of Outrage that was signed by a lot of folks from different walks of life. I remember the great musician Fela Kuti came through Texas and played a show in Austin and he signed the statement demanding the conviction be overturned!

Revolution: Could you talk about what happened when the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Joey Johnson: Well, to begin with, just to be clear, I was not then, nor am I now, in awe of the U.S. Supreme Court. I believed then and now that the U.S. Supreme Court is a highly political body of the U.S. ruling class, where these supremacists of the U.S. ruling class sort out big political and business questions for the capitalist-imperialist system. That is why they can take the exact same issues of law and decide them one way at one point in time and another way at another point in time based fundamentally on the needs of the system, and this is true on everything from slavery to abortion to “free speech” cases. So anyway, my point is I did not ask to go to the Supreme Court, I was dragged there.

There is a whole other way society can be that is in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), which is based on Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism. And that constitution renounces wars for plunder and empire, and values and promotes dissent as part of the process of continually revolutionizing society and moving towards communism.

But this was a battle where some powerful forces in the U.S. ruling elite selected my case, in a situation where they could have just let it be. I had won my case in the Texas Court of Appeals, but instead they took the case, and we analyzed at the time that it was very likely that they wanted to reverse the Texas court decision. I had to expose how the State of Texas and the government more generally was violating its own proclamations about “freedom of speech” by suppressing and criminalizing speech, or what is called “symbolic speech,” that challenges all the patriotic indoctrination that everybody gets in this country.

So there was a whole legal battle and briefs that had to be prepared and I was very fortunate because the great 1960s radical attorney William Kunstler represented me along with the Center for Constitutional Rights. There is a documentary that has come out in recent years, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, that I really encourage people to see.

Revolution: So this was both a legal and a political battle?

Joey Johnson: Right. When you come under attack politically, you can’t just fight in the courtroom, you have to fight there, but even more importantly we have to go out into society and take to the masses of people what the stakes are and what the government is out to suppress.

And that is what the RCP struggled to do in Texas v. Johnson and it meant being all the way out there exposing the flag as a symbol of American imperialism, and the need for revolution to sweep this system away, and standing with the people of the world against this empire, and real communism as the way forward, and at the same time focusing things up on what the real dividing line of the case was: forced patriotism. That if the government was allowed to criminalize expressions of contempt for the flag it is a form of compulsory patriotism.

And actually the case and our work around it and other developments in society and the world set off a huge and polarizing debate in society. I recall at the beginning of the case, the author Salman Rushdie was given a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini for committing “blasphemy” against Islam for his novel Satanic Verses. And the Texas statute I was prosecuted under was “desecration of a venerated object,” which treats the flag as a religious icon, so a lot of people made the observation that the government was trying to imprison me for blasphemy of the flag. Then very soon after that, Dread Scott, a revolutionary artist then in Chicago, did an incredible installation piece, “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” that included an American flag on the floor that you could stand on as you wrote your comments about the flag. And this caused a huge controversy in Chicago, with reactionary veterans’ organizations marching on the museum where the exhibit was and threatening Dread. But also veterans who hated the government for the crimes it sent them to do in Vietnam and elsewhere were supporting us. And prisoners were writing moving statements of support. So it was important that we were out in society, speaking at rallies, and colleges and law schools, inner-city and suburban high schools, being interviewed on TV and talk radio shows. Things were going to another level.

Revolution: Then there was a whole range of civil liberty and civil rights organizations that got involved, right?

Joey Johnson: That’s right. The ACLU and others submitted what are called amicus briefs (legal briefs where they argued why the outcome of the case should come out in our favor) to the Supreme Court. And a number of very prominent artists—including Jasper Johns—also submitted an amicus brief that included full color plates of their art along with legal arguments that if the case was decided against me, then their art could also be prosecuted. So the whole debate was more societal and more two-sided.

Again, we were fighting in the legal arena and out in society. And then there were developments in the world too that I believe impacted on the debate going on, including the whole thing of the collapse of these phony communist regimes in Eastern Europe that was going on in 1989, as well as the Tiananmen Square massacre that happened in revisionist phony communist China in early June 1989, just a couple weeks before the decision in my case. And I think a situation developed where the ruling elite in this country was politically, and this is reflected in the legal opinions, in dilemma; how were they going to continue to promote “political dissidents” in those countries while they were attempting to jail one here?

You know, Bob Avakian emphasizes “hastening while awaiting” strategically in terms of revolution. I think this has applications to particular battles. Because you don’t know ahead of time how things are going to turn out. And you don’t know how much “favorable conditions can be created through struggle.”

On the day of the Supreme Court hearing we had a protest in front of the Supreme Court before and after the oral arguments. A whole wide range of folks spoke and we had all these posters that showed different places in the world, like Panama and Nicaragua and South Korea, Peru, Iran, the Philippines, Egypt, and on and on, where masses had burned the flag of the American empire to show their outrage with the latest coup or invasion committed by U.S. imperialism in their countries. And then that evening there was an intense debate with several hundred students at American University. I knew it was not just a legal case, we were representing for all those around the world oppressed by the empire that flag symbolizes.

Revolution: What was it like a few months later when you won the case?

Joey Johnson: It was pretty wild. It was definitely cause to celebrate that the government was not able to criminalize public expressions of contempt for their symbol. They had to back the fuck up from forced patriotism. However, powerful forces in the ruling elite didn’t accept the ruling, right up to then President George Bush, Sr., who called for a constitutional amendment to the First Amendment to ban flag burning, and then Congress tried for a new federal law, which we also defied, resulting in a whole second round in the Supreme Court with more defendants, including Dread Scott and a Vietnam veteran who defied the law.

Revolution: So what do you think now, 25 years later?

Joey Johnson: I think Texas v. Johnson was an important victory for the people. And because of that, it is one of those things the powers-that-be want the masses of people to have political amnesia about. It is inconvenient history. All they want people here and around the world to see is some wholesome (in reality toxic) red, white, and blue patriotism commercial. This imperialist system, this empire that the American flag represents, is horrible.

Look at all the countries the U.S. military has invaded, occupied, destabilized, organized coups in, you name it in just the last 25 years. It is a long list. And most recently in Iraq there is Obama’s and the media machine’s propaganda displacing responsibility for the horrific suffering in Iraq onto the Iraqi people themselves, saying “We’ve done so much for them” after this system upended the whole of Iraq, did multiple blitzkrieg invasions against it, shock and awe, tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, did sanctions, you name it, more than a million Iraqis dead, and millions more injured and refugees. And again, more of the amnesia and training people to look at the world through “America first” chauvinistic lenses. Let alone what U.S. imperialism has done to other countries in the region and all the blood on the U.S.’s hands.

And meanwhile they are trying to train people in this country to be blind to all that. Or to be defensive, don’t open your mouth against all this or you are “hurting the troops.” So the empire is hiding behind the troops. So we need to be exposing that as well as challenging the troops about what they are being used for.

So we really do need to stand up against all this as an important part of fighting the power, and transforming the people, for revolution. Because really, aren’t people sick of looking at the world through the lens of “our national interests”? That is disgusting. It is archaic! Look at how interconnected and interdependent the world is today. And yet there is this capitalist narrow-mindedness. Well, the RCP says, “Stop thinking like an American, start thinking about humanity!” And really there are billions of people around the planet who hate U.S. imperialism, and there are tens of millions of people in this country who are ashamed of and in no way want to be associated with the outrages and crimes that the U.S. commits in the world, and there is the basis to win over tens of millions more people in this country to this stand! Because we really don’t have to live in the world as it is today. There really is a basis to live in a world where humanity and preserving the planet comes first.


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