Gov. Jared Polis defends Gadsden flag after student reportedly removed from Colorado Springs class


Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday responded to reports that a 12-year-old boy named Jaiden had been removed from class over a patch displaying the Gadsden flag, also known as the “Don’t Tread On Me Flag.”

The boy was barred from displaying the flag because school staff believed it to be associated with slavery and racism, according to video and emails published by Connor Boyack, a conservative author.

“The reason we do not want the flag displayed is due to its origins with slavery and the slave trade,” a woman says in a video that is purported to show a meeting between the boy’s family and staff at The Vanguard School, a charter school in Colorado Springs.

As news of the student’s ejection went viral, Gov. Jared Polis stepped in to defend the student and the flag. In a social-media post, Polis framed the Gadsden flag as a patriotic symbol rooted in the U.S. Revolution, not a hateful one.

“The Gadsden flag is a proud symbol of the American revolution and (an) iconic warning to Britain or any government not to violate the liberties of Americans,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Polis, a Democrat, continued: “It appears on popular American medallions and challenge coins through today and Ben Franklin also adopted it to symbolize the union of the 13 colonies. It’s a great teaching moment for a history lesson!”

The Gadsden flag shows a coiled rattlesnake against a yellow background, with origins in the American Revolution — a symbol of colonial unity against British oppression, according to Britannica. It was flown above the U.S.S. Alfred during the war.

“It has nothing to do with slavery. It’s the Revolutionary War patch,” a woman can be heard arguing in the video. “The Founding Fathers stood up for what they believed in, against unjust laws. This is unjust.”

In a statement to the media, Harrison School District 2 defended the action — arguing that the Gadsden flag was only part of a dispute with the family that involved other patches on the backpack. 

“The patch in question was part of half a dozen other patches of semi-automatic weapons,” wrote Mike Claudio, assistant superintendent of student support, in an email. “The student has removed the semi-automatic patches.”

The statement added that the “student returned to class without incident after removing the patches of semi-automatic weapons from the backpack. The Vanguard School and Harrison School District 2 worked in collaboration to resolve this matter.”

In the video, the boy’s backpack also sports a patch that says “J-Rod 4 VP Revolution,” with styling reminiscent of Ron Paul’s former presidential campaign branding, as well patches featuring Saint Michael and a “doge” style dog. 

Claudio didn’t immediately respond to a request for further comment. Staff at The Vanguard School didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Boyack. CPR News could not immediately reach the boy’s family.

The timeline of the Gadsden flag

Nearly a century after its introduction in the Revolutionary War, the Gadsden flag became a symbol for some Confederate supporters, who were fighting to secede from the Union and maintain their “right” to enslave people, as The Washington Post reported.

In recent decades, the flag has seen some general cultural use, with elements of the design or the “Don’t Tread On Me” phrase printed on license plates, bumper stickers and even U.S. Soccer jerseys produced by Nike in 2006.

The flag has also emerged as a symbol of the right, including among Libertarians in the ‘70s, and more recently among right-wing conservatives since the rise of the Tea Party, The New Yorker reported in 2016.

In recent years, it has sometimes appeared at the scene of violent acts: In 2014, a pair of assailants draped a swastika and a Gadsden flag over the bodies of two police officers they had just murdered in Las Vegas, NBC News reported. The accused cop-killers had a “reputation for spouting racist, anti-government views,” The Las Vegas Sun reported.

In 2021, the Gadsden flag was an enduring image of the pro-Trump Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

That recent history has put the flag at the center of numerous debates and disputes, including in Colorado. In 2014, a Black employee of the U.S. Postal Service filed a complaint about racial discrimination related to a coworker’s habit of wearing a Gadsden flag hat at a Denver facility.

USPS rejected the complaint, saying that the Gadsden flag does “not have racial connotations,” tracing its history back to Benjamin Franklin’s embrace of the rattlesnake as an American symbol. 

But the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offered a different perspective on the case: “After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military. However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.” The EEOC ordered USPS to investigate the case. Similar disputes have popped up from New Rochelle to Trinity College to the bases of the U.S. Navy.