Dozens of immigrants and refugees whose families fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War and its aftermath booed, shouted “No!” and chanted “USA! USA! Vietnam!” after city council member Kshama Sawant gave an impassioned speech explaining her (apparently unexpected) vote against a seemingly innocuous resolution recognizing the Vietnam Heritage and Freedom Flag, also known as the flag of the former South Vietnam, as “the symbol for the Vietnamese community in Seattle.”
The flag, which is yellow with three red stripes (the official Vietnamese flag shows a yellow star on red background) can be seen all over the International District and in many parts of the Rainier Valley.
To the dozen or so immigrants who spoke at yesterday’s full council meeting in front of a sea of waving US and Vietnamese flags yesterday, the three-striped flag is a symbol of freedom from Communist oppression and cultural identity from 1949 through 1975, when the Vietnam War ended and South Vietnam surrendered to the north. To Sawant, it appears to represent imperialism and colonialism, and a deliberate blurring of the complicated history of South Vietnam, which was itself governed by a regime that was no better in many ways than that of Communist North Vietnam.
“The struggle against colonial rule and the domination of Vietnam by foreign powers took many complicated and twisted turns. It led to suffering and tragedies on all sides, and all people in Seattle, with its valued Vietnamese community, need to be more aware of this history and this heritage,” Sawant said.
“All of you here are free to attach your own meanings to the flag. It is your right in a democracy. The city council, however, as the city’s highest elected body, has a duty to not uncritically endorse these projections and interpretations in the name of the entire city without a full understanding of the story of the flag.”
Though probably less than thrilled at being told, by an outsider, that they might want to reconsider their interpretation of their own experience, the crowd mostly kept quiet while Sawant continued with her history lesson.
“The former South Vietnamese government was also a dictatorship. The US war and occupation in Vietnam was totally undemocratic and was fought to suppress the right of the Vietnamese people to determine their own fate. The US war in Vietnam, which killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of US soldiers, was opposed by the majority of Americans and the majority of people in Vietnam and across the world,” Sawant said. “I think that as an elected body of a major metropolitan area, we have a duty to support these antiwar activists of the past and of the present.
“While having the greatest respect for the Vietnamese community in Seattle, I am unable to vote for a resolution that ties this particular community’s (identity) to a flag that is mired in controversy.”
As soon as Sawant wrapped up her remarks, the crowd erupted in boos, flag-waving, and shouts, which didn’t end until council president Tim Burgess warned them that the council does not “tolerate that kind of outburst.” (They exploded in cheers when council member John Okamoto expressed support for the resolution immediately following Sawant’s speech.)
Although Sawant’s office told me “some council members” were aware that Sawant planned to vote and speak against the flag resolution (O’Brien and Licata, perhaps?), the council seemed to be generally taken aback by her opposition (and the fact that came prepared with a lengthy written speech to express that opposition.
“I didn’t know” Sawant was going to oppose the resolution, Burgess says. “I don’t know if we’re surprised [by what Sawant does] anymore, but she made her point. I didn’t agree with it, but her point was that … the flag evokes a lot of history. … For myself and other council members I spoke to, it’s more about Seattle and our Vietnamese community. We weren’t making a political statement about the history.”
Incidentally, Nick Licata, who opposed the war at the time and frequently aligns with Sawant’s fist-pumping lefty agenda today, didn’t have any problem with the resolution. “We are in a democracy that values freedom of speech and the freedom of communities to celebrate their histories,” Licata said. “We do not all share the same history … but we all share the belief that fair and open elections are the only way to keep democracy alive. If that only could have been accomplished in Vietnam … perhaps you would be living in peace and freedom in Vietnam, but now you are free to vote and be recognized in a democracy.”
Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone says Sawant “knew [her statement] was not going to be popular, but I think what she had to say was generally well-received.”
The resolution to recognize the flag passed, with Sawant dissenting.