In the ethnographic intervention, “Viral Soundscapes in the Public Square: The Confederate Flag Visits the U.S. Capitol,” Mark Aulander and Bryce Peake explore the aural dimensions of the stuggles over the Confederate battle flag in the United States.

Bryce Peake (University of Maryland Baltimore County) and Mark Auslander (Central Washington University)


Photo credit: Russell Smith.

Since the horrific mass shooting in AME Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, over two hundred rallies have been held around the United States in defense of the Confederate battle flag. The reignited national debate over the flag, the Confederacy, and the ambiguous legacies of the Civil War has been primarily framed in visual terms: the contested emblem, built around the St. Andrew’s Cross and adopted as the flag of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from 1862-1865, commands the visual field of protest and counter-protest, variously inspiring revulsion and pride across the divided polity. In this ethnographic intervention, however, we would like to draw attention to aural dimensions of the current struggle. How is the the space of the public square constituted through competing sound production, in an age of “viral” media, when participants emulate the cultural forms of telegraphy and visuality of internet fame, and few have any interests in prolonged listening to other’s positions? At the present moment, do we characterize the public sphere as a soundscape or an echo chamber?

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Photo credit: Russell Smith.

In early September 2015, we observed a pro-Confederate flag rally in Senate Park, on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. The rally had been promoted on Facebook and other social media forums, and local opponents of the flag hastily organized a counter-protest. U.S. Capitol police officers forcibly separated the two groups: about forty pro-Confederates were gathered near Senate Fountain in the park’s center, while about two hundred anti-flag protesters were pushed back by the police to the southern end of the park and then onto Constitution Avenue, just under the dome of the U.S. Capitol building. Both sides had public address systems. The pro-flag forces primarily delivered speeches; the anti-flag protesters chanted slogans. We circulated with some difficulty across police lines, interviewing participants on both sides.

Our edited audioscape compresses this three hour confrontation into a five minute sequence of overlapping voices. Reviewing the audio, we noted that it is often difficult to tease out which side is being represented in speeches or interviews, without access to the visual framing devices of flags and protest signs. For all their deep political divides, the competing participants share a deep distrust of the state, and are all profoundly critical of mainstream representations of American history. Thus, we hear pro-Confederate flag partisans noting that the Stars and Stripes (the U.S. national flag) flew over the slave trade and genocidal violence against Native Americans. The language of genocide is echoed by the Confederate flag’s opponents. At times, the pro-flag speeches are inaudible under the mass chants from across the lawn of “Fuck the Flag.” Young tuba players mock the flag’s defenders with flatulent eruptions; as the rally ended, protesters with a hand-pulled sound wagon blaring hip hop chased pro-Confederates towards nearby Union Station.

As we hear in our recorded auralization of the protest, the pro-Confederate demonstrators understand themselves as coming to the nation’s capital and its house of government to petition for redress. In contrast, the anti-flag forces aren’t framing things in national terms as such. For them, they are defending their city against outsiders. “Leave our city. Take that flag and run! Take your evil hatred and go home!”

Precisely where, we wonder, is “home” supposed to be? Does the speaker imagine a place, somewhere outside of his city, of Washington DC, to which racism, imperialism, and hatred can appropriately be exiled?

We imagine this audioscape as a starting point for discussions in the classroom about readings on political theory and democratic dialog. Habermas, central to this discussion, starts from Aristotle’s essential notion that man, the political animal, is such because of rational speech. To be sure, a lot of ostensibly rational “speechifying” exists in this soundscape: The former Miss Maryland describes the “truth” of hate in the air, and the need to develop a consensus about what history actually “is”; another speaker calls for recognizing forms of violence that the flag signifies historically in regards to genocide and in the contemporary moment as it regards escalating militarization; the tuba players reason that the flag, as a symbol of racism, was to be mocked out of the public square. Yet, with so many speech acts, and so little listening across lines of difference, is democracy possible? With so many floating signifiers — vocal and visual — we might ask what flag? Whose flag? Whose public sphere are we arguing over? Where does racism reside, and is any discussion of the place of “race” in the polity a matter of legitimate discourse?

Do we all need new flags? Or no flags at all? These questions signify the existential crises that might befall both sides of this so-called debate, if each could reach across the lines of mutually-determined demonization and recommence the slow, difficult process of listening to the diverse voices of the public square.