By Jakayla Phillips
It was a typical morning when the students, all prepared for an exciting day, sat silently as the teacher instructed them to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Everyone stood with their right hand crossed over their chest as they faced the large red, white and blue cloth that had 50 white stars and 13 red-and white-stripes, known as the American flag.
Vaun Mayes remembered the first time he’d ever recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Kindergarten at the Catholic school, St. Francis of Assisi, in Greenwood, Miss. For him, it was a just another day of being forced to follow the same morning routine.
“I always hated saying it,” Mayes said. “I’ve never felt patriotic or like I belonged here [in America].”
Like the other students, Mayes followed the instructions of his teacher and continued saying the pledge. However, the line, “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” eventually sparked much turmoil within Mayes, now 29, whose early inner feelings have now morphed into public protest: He was recently seen standing on the American flag at a protest against a Donald Trump town hall hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. (There were some confrontational moments; you can watch an audio soundslides presentation of it here.)
“When America talks about being the home of liberty, land of the free, home of the brave with equal rights and opportunity for everybody, I feel like it’s a lie,” Mayes said.
“We lie to ourselves like the American dream and America is for everybody and like it’s a melting pot that’s so welcoming, but the truth of it is, we are not all welcome here.”
Mayes said that the reality of America is the opposite of what it portrays. Instead, America has ignored its race problems. Mayes currently offers security services and works for independently contracted services to inform people of their rights when dealing with the law. Mayes was born in Milwaukee, but he moved to Mississippi at age four to live with his great uncle.
At 14, he relocated back to Milwaukee to be closer to his parents and attend high school.
Historically, Mississippi has been known as a repressive state for African- Americans due to slavery and Jim Crow. As a result, many of them migrated north.
“A lot of people think that the south is a lot more racist than the north,” Mayes said. “But that is actually not true.”
After attending an event, Tosa Fest, in Wauwatosa, Wis., Mayes said he encountered his first racial experience with a police officer.
“I had an officer stand in front of me when I was trying to patronize a business, it was either a pizza place or a place that sold ice cream, and tell me that ‘home is not this way.’ He walked me to a bus and made me get on the bus and go home.”
Mayes said that the officer was misusing and abusing his authority. As a result, that experience along with the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 provoked him to become more active against racism.
Three years later, following the death of Freddie Gray, while in Baltimore for martial law, Mayes said he was introduced to the idea of standing on the flag. “Someone came and told me, ‘we need to protect this queen; she’s about to do something,’ I didn’t know what it was,” Mayes said. “She laid the flag down in front of all these Army, Navy and different people, and she threw the fist up.”
Mayes said that being a part of that moment inspired him and led to him bringing a rendition of that back to Milwaukee as he started his own movement: The F Your Flag Tour.
Since then, Mayes has attended several events and rallies for justice and equality in Wisconsin, including Trump’s rally in West Allis, where he stood on the flag with his right fist raised in the air.
His Facebook fan page – The Many Faces of Vaun – has received over 10,000 likes from people all around the country.
“He’s been pushed to that extreme for him to act out this way,” Gabriel Moses, a friend and business associate of Mayes, said. “It’s a tactic to gain understanding, invoke emotion and bring attention.”
Moses said that she has experienced social and economic racism almost every day.
However, she was pushed to her limit after being pulled over by a police officer and thought to have drugs due to the color of her skin.
“I had to move my tongue all around,” Moses said. “And I had a flashlight put down my throat.” Mayes said that The F Your Flag Tour was created as a personal protest in order to make people listen to his message and get America to recognize and address racism.
“I’ve had people tell me that had they not seen me standing on that flag, they would not even pay attention to my message,” Mayes said. “It’s an attention grabber.
A lot of people don’t understand or care what goes on where we live, so for them to stop and have to listen to my message, whether they like it or not, it’s worth it to me.”
Mayes said that he loves doing this because it brings out the hidden racism from people, including politicians and law enforcement officers, and justifies his claim that America has unresolved race problems. While at Washington Park for a workout, Mayes said that he encountered another racial incident with a police officer.
“It was a whole lot of them. I don’t know if they were having an event or anything,” Mayes said, “but when I saw them, I had my flag with me, and so I drug the flag and walked passed them.”
Mayes said his point was proven after he spoke to one of the officers, and the officer said, “Why don’t you just leave? You like the free stuff [welfare]?”
“Our flag symbolizes unity, but literally, it’s just a symbol,” said a student from Ole Miss University, Christopher Neal, who has seen video footage of Mayes that’s been aired on the news and shared on Facebook.
“I agree that we are a divided nation and that America has never been equal. However, I think there’s a much better approach than standing on the flag.”
Neal said that, although he is also an African- American, he doesn’t think Mayes’ message will be taken seriously due to the extreme methods he’s using.
As a result of his F Your Flag Tour, Mayes said that his Facebook fan page – The Many Faces of Vaun – has received thousands of messages, death threats and hate mail from angry people of all races, including “black people,” who’ve served and love the country.
“I think what he’s doing is extreme, but disrespectful, no,” Moses said. “It’s people who have been treated very wrong and abused, that’s disrespectful.
I think it’s a lot of other things that are way more disrespectful than standing on a piece of cloth.”
Mayes said that his ultimate goal is to unite black people, offer moral and financial support and be on the frontline of whatever issue they’re fighting such as police brutality.
“This is not an attack on veterans or people who’ve served,” Mayes said. “It’s not a personal thing towards them. A lot of people internalize it.
We just all need to be aware of what’s really going on here.”
While a lot of veterans oppose Mayes’ F Your Flag Tour, Mayes said that he also received a lot of support from other veterans who’ve been “thrown away by the government” after returning home [in America] with no job, and/or deadly injuries and mental issues.
“I just want people to understand that when they salute this flag, it’s a lie,” Mayes said. “Until ‘equality and justice for all’ rings true for everybody in this nation, then I won’t support your lie by being patriotic and loving this country nor symbol.”
In addition to the F Your Flag Tour, Mayes has participated in many Stop the Violence rallies and cookouts, neighborhood cleanups and marches, memorial vigils and protests for justice against racism and police brutality.
Earlier this year, Mayes also traveled to Flint, MI to donate a truck load of water during the Flint water crisis.