The Upside Down Flag

I am an American. I used to be a proud one. This was before a realization that hit me hard concerning the casualties of a dirty war. I am not talking about the war in Iraq. I am talking about the other war – the war on drugs. Every day, we see news stories that expose the realities of drug use in America. From celebrities to politicians to athletes and even ordinary people purchasing cold medication, the drug war looms large.

Recently, I was invited to show my art at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The venue was right up my alley. The two-day conference brought together art, music, film and spoken-word performances centered on the theme, “A New Criminology for the 21st century.” I decided to create an art installation called, “The Drug War.”

The art installation was a multimedia presentation of the most compelling drug war issues in the news. Its use of visual narratives reminds us of the war on drugs that ravages our communities. The installation began to take form, steeped in a motif of an upside down American flag, which signifies the universal concept of the state of distress during war. Several irate people stopped me to ask if I had permission from the administration to “disgrace” the American flag. I told them all I had a constitutional right to voice my opinion.

About two hours later a security team approached me. The leader of the team said “Mr. Papa, you must immediately take down the upside-down flags. I have been getting complaints from faculty and students saying that you are disgracing the flag.” I looked at her and pointed out that I was doing nothing wrong. My art was not disrespecting “old glory” because I displayed the upside-down flag for the right reasons. According to the flag code section 36, U.S.C. chapter 10, I was correct in my intentions of stating a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. She looked at me with indifference while the four men stood behind her standing in a military stance meant to intimidate me.

I immediately explained my position. I told her about the 500,000 Americans who were behind bars because of the war on drugs, and how this war ravages communities and destroys lives, all in the name of a drug-free society. I explained how billions of dollars are spent by the government to stop someone from putting substances in their bodies.

I looked at her and then the guards while pointing at the flags and said “I will not take the flags down.”

The head of security huddled with her crew while several sympathetic professors came to my aid. A meeting took place and it was agreed that they had to take this to a higher authority. I was asked to stop building my art installation while we waited for a verdict from the president of the university.

During that time, I had a flash back to 12 years ago when something similar occurred in a maximum security prison in New York when I was doing a 15-years-to-life sentence for passing an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine in return for $500. My art was confiscated by the prison guards, who told me I could not send out paintings to the free world that depicted the atrocity of imprisonment.

My mind snapped back to the present moment when one of the security guards tapped me on the shoulder. He said that a decision was made and I was allowed to display the upside down flags. I shook his hand and turned to the American flags and thought about the greatness of our Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to express our opinions, even if it meant turning the flag on its head to make a point.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York group working to reduce the harms of both drug misuse and drug prohibition. He can be reached


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.