As we move past a tumultuous year of bitter politics, civil unrest, rising hate crimes, claims of voting fraud, a raging virus pandemic, and any number of protests, events have forced people to re-rethink what kind of nation America really is and what direction it’s taking. And what does its flag mean these days?
The timeline above highlights seven of the top protests that have perhaps challenged its real meaning. For example, the infamous storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 may have tipped the scales, making it harder for citizens to see their American flag as a symbol of “one nation under God.” From different points on the political spectrum, people give it different meanings.
But for one long-time patriot, the meaning of America, and its flag, has always been the same.
“Freedom. Hope. Respect. Love. Values, and caring”—This is what the American flag has always meant for John Amato, a Fresh Meadows native and proud flag waver, who is putting smiles on some of his followers faces and angry frowns on others in Queens.
Amato started waving his flag a month after the whole world went on lockdown. One day in March of last year, as his eyes perused his bedroom, he saw two small American flags that he had bought after the 9/11 attack, because he was so saddened at the time and wanted to support his nation as much as possible. The flags were 8’’ X 12’’ parade flags, with which he started his duty with. It was at that moment, he says, that he remembered what his parents used to say to him. “My parents always taught me to love my country and to love my flag,” he said, breaking into tears. “To get along with everyone.”
And at some point—he doesn’t remember when—he switched to one big one.
“I’m not a cop or a firefighter or a medical person,” he continued. “But when this started, I said ‘I gotta do something to help people.’”
That’s what he’s been trying to do ever since, aiming to spread hope and reassure people that we are all Americans, and that we need to help one another. So, during the peak of rush hour, between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on most days when people are trying to get home from work, Amato began waving his flag at traffic from the overpass at exit 24 of the Long Island Expressway. And people reacted. He sees a combination of honks, presumably supportive, and middle fingers sticking out of car windows, presumably not, as they drive under the overpass bridge of Kissena Boulevard. At first, some anti-Trump supporters cursed at Amato, saying “F Trump.” Apparently they thought that the flag symbolized support for Donald Trump. But after Joe Biden won the election and a new administration took over, Amato continued waving his American flag with pride.
“I always wave back at him,” said one daily passerby, Dr. Simon Guo, a pain management specialist who lives in Elmhurst. “But I want to know what’s the reason behind it and what he’s looking to achieve?”
Well, here it is.
“I wave the flag because I want to help all those people down there feel that there is hope,” Amato said. “We all have to have hope as a country that we are gonna get through this.”
For Amato, it is terrible that people can’t seem to have a civil conversation these days or agree on anything. He knows that calm and unity will not easily be achieved. Still, he feels it is his duty to give some time out of his day to try to spread hope and positivity, especially now that his Catholic parish, Holy Family in Fresh Meadows, has gone virtual and Father Sean, wrote a letter for the parish bulletin that said, “We as parishioners, have to be a messenger of hope.” Amato says he immediately thought that there was no better way to do that than to take those two little flags and start waving them. Ever since, thousands of people have seen him as they drive, including members of his parish, and he says Father Sean told him to “keep waving the flags, John, because that’s what’s helping people.”
Unfortunately, due to spinal stenosis, Amato cannot spread his flag love every day. His bad back is unreliable and pain is a determinant to his regular outings with his cane and flag.
Amato is 62 years old. Eleven years ago, he was a reading and writing teacher for kids in grades 1-8 at several local Catholic schools that were part of The Bureau of Non Public Schools. As a teacher, he says, he always emphasized teamwork when students were looking for an answer they didn’t know. For some, his flag waving carries the same message. “He shines a small light during these somber times where fear and hate are overwhelming folks,” said Jose Roldan, of East Northport, Long Island, another regular passerby in his car.
“Seeing this man every time I drove by became something to look forward to on my long drives to Long Island,” said Oli Bravin, of Nassau, Long Island. “In fact I made it my mission to wave at him every time I saw him in order to give back some of the joy he brought to me.”
To be fair, Amato does get his share of hate as well. For example, three months ago, a woman exited the highway, walked up the overpass and asked him to stop because, she said, it angered her. When Amato refused to stop, the young woman, who was in her 20s, yelled “God bless you, you need help. You’re a crazy man!” Two weeks ago, Amato said, a guy in a pickup truck yelled at him, “You want to take that flag and shove it.” Amato just laughs at all these people because the ignorance of getting mad at a flag makes no sense to him.
Amato is happily married to his “beautiful wife, Laurie,” whom he met at the Garden City Hotel in Long Island in 1999. She sometimes accompanies him to his flag duties, though, for the most part, she prefers not to out of fear that they will get attacked one day.
People on all points of the political spectrum seem to attach different meanings to the American flag, perhaps as much now as ever. But Amato keeps it simple: love of country. “When I see people honking, that tells me that there are more people that love America,” Amato said. “This is America. We all have to help one another.”
Especially, he said now, with “this terrible thing that’s happening to the Asian Americans. It is just awful. We are all citizens!”