Flags on the Mind

Posted Sep 4, 2020, by Ethan Story


This essay is the 6th of our monthly staff posts and is written by Community Advocate Ethan Story. These posts by staff are intended to be a way for people to get to know us better and to provide topical variety that is of interest to our members. This is also the 19th installment in our What’s on your mind? blog. Enjoy!

Vexillology (the study of flags) is by no means a hobby of mine, but I do like flags. I like how some flags have a bold and aggressive look: Think of the Albanian flag, a bright red flag with a double-headed eagle. Or when you come across a flag that goes against flag norms, such as the flag for Nepal, where it ignores the traditional square shape for tiered peaks to symbolize the Himalayas. Then there are some flags out there that at first glance I did not believe it to be a real flag; I’m thinking about the first time I saw the flag for the city of Des Moines, Iowa.

The flag that got me paying attention to flags was the old city flag for Pocatello, Idaho. In 2011, Pocatello adopted a slogan from a civic pride campaign, “Proud to be Pocatello.” The motto was printed on the bottom of a white flag with purple mountains and (this is what really got me) the trademark “TM” symbol. Yes, that’s right, the city flag had a trademark emblem on it. The flag was rated as the worst flag in all of North America in 2004. But not all is lost; in 2017, Pocatello adopted a new flag. The new flag has red mountains on a blue background. The mountains have three peaks with a touch of white, which gives the visual of snow capped mountains. There is a yellow sun that just crests the mountains. The new flag is by no means fantastic, but I like it much better than their old one. What I dislike is that it gives off the feeling of being more of a picture than a flag. Nonetheless, they made a good change.

Another flag that I was happy to see changed was the flag for Montpelier, VT. The old flag had a real cheap feel to it. First, it had two different color green hillsides. This, in itself, seems too complicated. For simplistic form, it would have been easier to keep the hills the same color. Next, a river runs through the bottom of the flag that forks off behind the hills. Peppered along the river are buildings such as the statehouse, a silo, and churches. Lastly, Montpelier is then spelled across the top to let all that see the flag know that this is the Montpelier city flag. Essentially, if you have to write your name on the flag, your symbolism has failed. Thankfully the state changed this flag. They still used the rolling green hills, but this time the flag was done in a solid green color with a dark blue sky. Then atop of the hills are 14 gold stars that form a circle above the green hills. These stars represent the 14 counties in the state and Vermont, being the 14th state to join the union. Montpelier is an excellent example of how a city can take the concepts of using parts of their old flag and combine it with a new, cleaner version of a city flag. In my opinion, their new flag is one to be proud of. It is simple, has good representation, and uses few colors.

In 2014, Provo, Utah, replaced their old city flag, and with good reason. The old flag looks like the public announcement star and rainbow “The more you know” messaging, only adopted for a flag. The old flag had the city’s name “Provo” printed in black on a white background, starting in the lower-left corner and making its way to the upper right corner. Then just below that was a rainbow bar. The rainbow bar represented the diverse, eclectic nature of the city. Their new flag is simple, in that it has a light blue foundation. In the middle is a mountain with a golden sky. Below the mountain is blue water. It is a much more attractive flag than the old one, and the residents of Provo city should be proud to fly the new flag.

In the last few months, a couple of flags have been making headlines, such as the Mississippi state flag. On June 30, the state of Mississippi voted to retire its state flag. This vote came after the backlash of protests and demands for change due to Mississippi’s flag having the Confederate battle flag on it. Currently, Mississippi does not have a state flag, but there is a commission that is working on it. This commission has the goal of drafting a proposal for a new state flag that will be voted upon by its residents in November. This nine-member commission has narrowed down to two choices from a list of over 200 hundred flags. These two choices have been dubbed the shield and the magnolia.

Mississippi’s old flag was the last state flag to have the Confederate battle flag on it. But arguably, there are still other states with vestiges of the Confederate symbolism on it. Georgia’s current state flag has a variant of the first national flag of the Confederacy. It could be said that Georgia’s rationale to adopt its flag was that the Confederate battle flag had a tainted history: One associated with white supremacists, the KKK, and Dixiecrats. It could be argued that the Confederacy itself was a tribute to slavery, and the Confederate flag would be inappropriate to use in any fashion. But in the broad popular culture sense, it’s the Confederate battle flag that has been co-opted and therefore has been determined to no longer be appropriate to be on a state flag.

Another flag that I have noticed being flown (or slapped as a sticker on a bumper of a car) is the thin blue line flag. The thin blue line represents the police as the line between order and chaos. This flag has changed in the last couple of years. What once started as a black flag with a blue line on it has recently changed to look much like the American flag, but with new coloring. In response to the killings of police officers in New York in 2014, Andrew Jacob, a teenage entrepreneur, drafted this new version. He took the United States flag but rendered in the colors black, white, and the blue line running across.

The issue behind this flag and the reason for it being in the news is that it means different things to different parties. Where one party uses it to show support for police officers, others use it to represent opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. Because of this, the flag has taken on more than one meaning, and it becomes difficult to know what the implication is for its display. Ironically, the new version of the thin blue line flag has a remarkably close resemblance to the black and white flags found in American popular culture: I’m thinking about the black and white flag Outkast used on the album cover for Stankonia. Nonetheless, the conflict around the thin blue line flag is complex.

No matter what type of flag you are looking at, be it a city flag, a political flag, or a flag representing a movement, it should adequately convey your message. Flags are designed to be flown by the communities they represent, and for the communities to be proud of their messaging. A flag is a banner for people to gather under. If you are a proud member of a community that has a flag, ask yourself “Would I fly that flag at my own house?” If not, maybe it needs to be updated. Much like in the city of Pocatello or the state of Mississippi, these communities realized that something needed to be done, and they did it. If you decide to draft a new version of your flag, here are some helpful guidelines for a good flag:

According to the North American Vexillological Association, the five principles of a good flag are:

  1. Keep It Simple.  The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

  3. Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set.

  4. No Lettering or Seals.  Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.

  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related.  Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.


  • Ethan Story

    Ethan comes to CCJ with a J.D. and a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. While attending Vermont Law School, Ethan worked as a Research Associate with the Water and Justice Program. In this role, he worked with diverse stakeholders to help protect their access to reliable, clean water. Ethan also interned with the PA Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania Environmental Council, where he worked on issues ranging from coal and oil and gas development to water treatment facilities. He has been published on the subjects of public trust, water rights, and other environmental issues. When he is not at work, he spends time with his family, running, and fly fishing one of PA’s many beautiful rivers. Contact Ethan at ethan@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org.

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