The photo went live on the Fourth of July, a young man, stone-faced, wearing a crown of flowers and holding in his hand a thin silver pole.
Dangling from its end, engulfed in flames, were the remnants of a once-flying American flag, only slivers of the stars and stripes still uncharred and visible.
Alongside the photo, posted to Facebook, was a lengthy caption written by 22-year-old Bryton Mellott, an Urbana, Ill., resident and Walmart employee who said he was “not proud to be an American” because of the “atrocities committed against people of color, people living in poverty, people who identify as women, and against my own queer community on a daily basis.”
He signed off his message: “#ArrestMe.”
Within hours, Mellott was in handcuffs.
Despite a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling deeming flag burning protected speech under the First Amendment, the Urbana Police Department justified the man’s arrest by citing Illinois’ 2013 flag desecration law — but only after Mellott’s post, which mentioned his employer, had caused so much unrest that police felt it was necessary to intervene.
The comments on his photo were filled with outrage from people offended by what they perceived as Mellott’s unpatriotic sentiment. Before the celebratory festivities even started Monday, the police station had fielded calls from irate viewers, demanding legal action.
But it was the threats, police said, that forced them to intercede.
“Shall we bring back the guillotine for this treason?” wrote one commenter.
“This guy should get the death penalty,” one person wrote.
Online, many said he should burn in hell and deserved to be beaten. The act was called “beyond disrespectful” and “a spit in the face” to servicemembers and veterans. His address was posted next to the photo with the words “have fun :^)”
Many of the insults focused on one part of Mellott’s accompanying caption: that he openly identified as queer.
“More like burn that fag look how he’s standing,” said another.
Even Walmart was being targeted.
When police showed up at the store early Monday morning to confront the man about his Facebook post, authorities said in a news release that Mellott “declined to assist in deescalating the situation by removing the public postings.”
Police told Mellott they “understood his freedom of speech,” reported the News-Gazette, but were concerned for his safety and the safety of those around him, especially at Walmart. Then they put him under arrest for flag desecration and disorderly conduct.
It didn’t take long for police to release the man and assign him a court date. Authorities consulted with the State Attorney’s Office, which called into question the constitutionality of the 2013 flag desecration law.
On Tuesday, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz announced her office would file no charges against Mellott, “as the act of burning a flag is protected free speech according to the US Supreme Court decision, Texas v. Johnson.”
Rietz added that her office planned to ask local legislators to review the problematic contradiction between the Illinois desecration law and the 1989 Supreme Court ruling.
In Texas v. Johnson, the high court upheld a decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that said Gregory Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was unlawfully arrested during a demonstration outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas after he set fire to an American flag.
Around him, protesters chanted: “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you.”
That ruling — the first time the Supreme Court had directly addressed whether First Amendment protections included flag burning — deemed unconstitutional a Texas law making it illegal to harm the flag in a way that might offend someone.
The majority opinion said that precedent led the justices to “recognize that a principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
Though defenses of Mellott’s actions online were sparse, those who did defend him condemned the violent rhetoric and homophobic slurs hurled at him and defended his constitutional right to burn the flag.
“Since I’ve served in the military, I suppose I should be angry that you’re burning a piece of cloth made in China, but I’m honestly not,” one person commented. “I’m more angry at the fact taxpayer money is being wasted to arrest and suppress someone who was speaking his mind. Still, you have to understand that this was in really bad taste. You seem like a good guy, but you should find better ways at channeling your anger to make a positive change. I hope you find happiness bud.”
At some point, Mellott removed the original post that accompanied his photo, though the picture remains online. Before it was deleted, however, the News-Gazette captured his words in full:
“I am not proud to be an American. In this moment, being proud of my country is to ignore the atrocities committed against people of color, people living in poverty, people who identify as women, and against my own queer community on a daily basis.
“I would like to one day feel a sense of pride toward my nationality again. But too little progress has been made. Too many people still suffer at the hands of politicians influenced by special interests. Too many people are still being killed and brutalized by a police force plagued with authority complexes and racism. Too many people are allowed to be slaughtered for the sake of gun manufacturer profits. Too many Americans hold hate in their hearts in the name of their religion, and for fear of others. And that’s only to speak of domestic issues.
“I do not have pride in my country. I am overwhelmingly ashamed, and I will demonstrate my feelings accordingly. #ArrestMe.”
Mellott has not responded to requests for comment from multiple news outlets, but he did write one request on Facebook Monday: “So it’d be super-duper if the death threats could stop.”
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