Flag waving as visual argument: 2006 immigration demonstrations and cultural citizenship.

Author:Pineda, Richard D.

From March through May, 2006, massive demonstrations, rallies, and protests regarding immigration debates in Congress and the media occurred in many cities and towns throughout the United States. The first major rally took place on Saturday, March 25, 2006, when an estimated 500,000 people gathered in downtown Los Angeles, in part to express opposition to the Sensenbrenner bill, also known as House Resolution 4377: Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December, 2005 (Watanabe & Becerra, March 26, 2006). Ensuing debates in the U.S. Senate over similar immigration control measures also sparked interest in the Los Angeles rally (and subsequent demonstrations as well). Key participants and organizers of one of the largest demonstrations in Los Angeles history included labor leaders, civil rights activists, local media (especially radio DJs), and the Roman Catholic Church, led by the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney (Watanabe & Becerra, March 26, 2006, March 28, 2006). Although other events, scheduled for March 31 (a holiday in some states celebrating Cesar Chavez's birthday), April 9, April 10, and May 1, had been planned before the Los Angeles rally, the latter was the impetus that drew national attention to the immigration debates and legislation in Congress.

Subsequent rallies also drew large numbers of participants in cities across the nation. On Sunday, April 9, in anticipation of the National Day of Action scheduled for the next day, large crowds turned out in several cities, most notably in Dallas where crowds were estimated at 350,000-500,000 (Miller, 2006). The following day, April 10, rallies in 140 cities drew large crowds. Organizers chose the April 10 date for rallies and vigils because Representatives and Senators had returned to their home states during Congressional recess and would be able to see large turnouts of constituents at the demonstrations (Watanabe, 2006). Finally, coinciding with International Workers' Day, rallies on May 1 were called a "Day Without an Immigrant." Participants were asked to avoid shopping and going to work or school, although organizers were divided on whether or not to encourage work stoppages and walkouts in schools, given the controversies that had arisen in previous demonstrations (Archibold, 2006). These rallies occurred in more than 70 cities, drawing crowds as large as 400,000 in Chicago, 300,000-400,000 in Los Angeles, and 75,000 in Denver ("Taking it to the streets," 2006).

At each of these rallies, demonstrations, and protests, there were numerous speakers, chants, posters, t-shirts, and other verbal statements. However, the groundswell of media attention was driven in large part by visual aspects, particularly flag waving. To avoid incendiary reactions, organizers encouraged people to carry U.S. American flags (Archibold, 2006; Gorman, Miller, & Landsberg, 2006; Watanabe & Becerra, March 28, 2006). While a variety of Latin American and other national flags were present, attention and debate were fueled especially by the presence of Mexican flags. Soto (2006) observes that "the use of a foreign flag in political rallies is not new" (p. B 1). Nonetheless, the presence of Mexican flags fueled criticism of the protests, the protestors, and their methods while further obfuscating substantive debate about policy changes ("The good, the bad," 2006; Page, 2006; Soto, 2006).

In this essay, we argue that flag waving constitutes a visual argument about cultural citizenship that is interpreted differently by different audiences. In what follows, we explore the literature relating to visual argument and then explain how flag waving functions as visual argument for two audiences: immigrant rights advocates and anti-immigration advocates. We conclude with some observations about what flag waving means for cultural citizenship and the study of visual argument. For immigrants, flag waving reflects an interesting tension between embracing cultural heritage and asserting U.S. American identity in establishing cultural citizenship.


The idea that images can argue has been controversial. In 1996, David Fleming concluded that images cannot argue because pictures do not offer a claim and supporting reasons and, because an image has no negative, it cannot be opposed. In her study of abortion rhetoric, Condit also contended that, even though some argumentative properties may be present, images do not argue because they are not propositional (cited in DeLuca, 1999, p. 11; Lake & Pickering, 1998, p. 80). Numerous other scholars, however, have explored the role of the visual in argumentation and have shown how images can argue (e.g., Birdsell & Groarke, 1996; Blair, 1996; DeLuca, 1999; Groarke, 2002; Lake & Pickering, 1998; Langsdorf, 1996).

Two special issues of Argumentation and Advocacy in 1996 contained several case studies of visual argumentation. Shelley (1996) examined demonstrative and rhetorical modes of visual representation in evolutionary models, contending that both contained elements of visual arguments. The demonstrative mode, in particular, may depict both the premises and conclusion of an argument. Blair (1996) contended that the visual does have a propositional element because images attempt to clarify both claims and reasons. He also argued that images can function as arguments in that they can change our beliefs. Birdsell and Groarke (1996) contended that visual arguments are possible even though they do not adhere to traditional definitions of argument. They emphasized that images draw heavily on three contexts to communicate their arguments: the immediate visual context, the immediate verbal context, and the cultural/historical context.

Audience interpretation is an important aspect of visual argument that is especially relevant to understanding flag waving as argument. In visual arguments, audiences must interpret the image they see enthymematically (Barbatsis, 1996; Finnegan, 2001; Lancioni, 1996). For example, Gretchen Barbatsis (1996) argued that, in political advertisements, the camera, substituting for the viewer's eyes, creates a framework in which the audience sees the story or narrative as its own. Delicath and DeLuca's (2003) work on image events also demonstrates the importance of audience interpretation (also see DeLuca, 1999). Environmental groups such as Earth First! have conveyed arguments about environmental protection, such as tree sitting and other staged events, that are mostly, if not entirely, visual. Delicath and DeLuca contend that these image events open arenas for public participation, employ images that claim and refute, and shift responsibility to the audience to construct an argument based on what they see. Particularly in the case of flag waving, visual argument is powerful because the absence of verbal representation opens the contextual space in which the argument is situated. Freed from the rigid context of the verbal, visual arguments invite more fluid participation and interpretation. This quality facilitates diverse voices in the flag waving debate: Multiple perspectives can coexist, legitimized by different responses to the argument.

The compelling theory of the visual ideograph explains how audiences interpret what they see in a visual image. McGee (1980) argued that the ideograph is an ordinary, abstract term that calls for collective commitment and creates a powerful guide for behavior. Edwards and Winkler (1997) extend this concept to images, examining reappropriations of Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. They contend that this "parodied image constitutes an instance of depictive rhetoric that functions ideographically" (p. 290). The flag represents "American ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy" for audiences who understand the cultural context of Iwo Jima, especially from a U.S. American point of view (p. 291). Demo (2005) also has pointed to the powerful imagery of the U.S. flag in immigration debates. Similarly, Cloud (2004) demonstrates how, through an ideograph of "the clash of civilizations," photographs of Afghan women come to represent U.S. American patriotism, democracy, and liberty. "Photographic images," Cloud notes, "are marked by metonymy, the reduction of complex situations into simpler visual abstractions" (p. 289). In the war on terrorism, media in the United States have constructed a binary between "us" and Other that scapegoats the latter.

This visual construction of "us"...

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