Coast Guard members were advised in a Friday notice from Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz that the service is “no different” than the Defense Department in its effective ban on Confederate flags on military property — except the USCG explicitly names the Confederate flag as a symbol that “threatens our Black shipmates.”
The new Defense Department policy lists the types of flags that are allowed on military property — the American flag, state and territorial flags, military flags and flags of U.S. allies — instead of listing exclusions, including the Confederate flag. “The flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in a memo on the official policy rollout.
The Pentagon is walking a fine line by not expressly naming the Confederate flag in its ban as President Trump has been defending displays of the flag. “When people proudly have their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism. They love their flag, it represents the South, they like the South. People right now like the South,” Trump told Fox News Sunday in an interview aired today. “I’d say it’s freedom of many things, but it’s freedom of speech.”
In June, the Marine Corps banned Confederate flags on its installations as a symbol that “has all too often been co-opted by violent extremist and racist groups whose divisive beliefs have no place in our Corps” and “presents a threat to our core values, unit cohesion, security, and good order and discipline.” Days later, the Navy announced that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday “directed his staff to begin crafting an order that would prohibit the Confederate battle flag from all public spaces and work areas aboard Navy installations, ships, aircraft and submarines.”
The Coast Guard’s Affinity Group Council recommended to Schultz last year that USCG should prohibit display of the Confederate flag. Schultz said at a March Coast Guard Academy forum that while USCG did not have a ban on Confederate imagery, commanders have discretion to take action “if it’s revealed and it’s offensive to somebody.”
At the beginning of the month, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote a letter to Schultz saying he was “perplexed at the Coast Guard’s hesitation” to follow the Marine Corps and Navy bans. “A Service truly committed to recruiting and retaining African Americans and fostering a culture of justice and equity simply cannot continue to allow the display of such a symbol,” Thompson wrote.
In his Friday notice, Schultz said that “Coast Guard members and their families interact with the communities in which we serve and our relationships with them are critical to mission accomplishment. The display of divisive symbols at a small command in a remote location is pernicious, obstructs command unity, and can destroy teams and be corrosive to community relationships.”
“In May 2019 updated Coast Guard policy provided that the display or depiction of a symbol widely identified with oppression or hatred is a potential hate incident, including but not limited to the display of a noose, a swastika, supremacist symbols, Confederate symbols or flags, and anti-Semitic symbols,” Schultz said. “It directed commanding officers to investigate these displays and authorized them to remove divisive symbols when warranted, even if the display does not amount to a hate incident. There is no benefit from a display of divisive symbols in our disaggregated and geographically widely dispersed workforce, and I have determined that the Confederate battle flag is uniquely divisive.”
“While the Confederate battle flag may be symbolic of different beliefs, it divides Americans and threatens our Black shipmates. In our military environment, such division clearly endangers loyalty, discipline, and morale; undermines unit cohesion and mission effectiveness; and marginalizes segments of our workforce. Effective immediately, display or depiction of the Confederate battle flag is prohibited in all Coast Guard work places, common access areas, public areas, and operating facilities,” the commandant continued. “This includes barracks and other quarters where the flag is readily visible, and the exterior of Coast Guard family housing. It includes, but is not limited to, automobile bumper stickers and other vehicle adornments, clothing and other apparel, and when the flag is displayed inside a vehicle but is in plain view and readily visible to the public. Prohibited display does not include private spaces, such as inside family housing, within personal property, or, except as described above, private automobiles.”
Schultz said commanders would order the removal of flags that violate the policy, which does not apply to official state license plates or flags — only Mississippi still uses a flag with the Confederate flag incorporated within, and that state has appointed a commission to design a new flag — and does not apply to “displays or depictions where the flag is only an incidental or minor component, such as in works of art, or in educational, or historical displays.”
“Commanders will order the removal of other Confederate symbols or flags, or other divisive symbols, when they determine, in consultation with the servicing legal office, that the display or depiction of these symbols adversely affect loyalty, discipline and morale, in consultation with the servicing legal office,” Schultz added. “Commanders will investigate the display of divisive symbols as a potential hate incident pursuant to REF (A). REF (B) describes prohibited conduct punishable under the UCMJ that includes intentional acts motivated by bias and targets a person who is placed in reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, or reasonably interferes with performance of military duties or good order and discipline.”