No Quarter flag

“No quarter” items like flags, hats, bracelets and other such merchandise are found all over the internet and sold by major retailers like Amazon.com and Walmart, despite the message they send.

Melba Pearson

Melba Pearson, Criminal Defense and Civil Rights Attorney

There has been a rise in sightings of all-black American flags in Florida and across the country. While not only sinister in appearance, the meaning is even more so: “no quarter.” Their sharp spike began with a tweet about a police officer in Illinois who hung this flag outside his house and was unapologetic about it.

I have personally seen an increase of no quarter flags, hats and tattoos along my travels. It also was visible during the Jan. 6 coup attempt. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) even called for “no quarter” in response to social justice protests in the summer of 2020.

So what does this flag signify? It means people will be killed instead of taken prisoner in the “second civil war/race war.” To quote the Law Insider legal dictionary: “No quarter will be given means refusing to spare the life of anybody, even of persons manifestly unable to defend themselves or who clearly express their intention to surrender.”

No quarter runs afoul of U.S. law as well as the Geneva Convention, which governs actions of international war. Although our Constitution provides for the death penalty for traitors, the practice of no quarter was banned in the United States in 1863 during the Civil War. It was originally created by Franz Lieber and enacted by President Abraham Lincoln to ensure Union troops did not exact revenge on Confederate soldiers, in order to heal the country. The Leiber code ensured that Confederate lives would be spared, despite the anger and resentment felt by Union loyalists. It was the first modern codification of the laws of war.

The Department of Defense Law of War Manual specifically addresses this as well:

“It is prohibited to order that legitimate offers of surrender will be refused or that detainees, such as unprivileged belligerents, will be summarily executed. Moreover, it is also prohibited to conduct hostilities on the basis that there shall be no survivors.”

It’s ironic that outlawing a term that kept Confederate soldiers alive is getting new life with a new set of traitors that supported the Capitol insurrection because – and let’s not get it twisted – those who seceded from the United States and waged war on their neighbors to continue slavery were traitors. Scores of Americans were killed as a result of their actions.

How all of this got spun to become “southern heritage“ and used to continue to intimidate people of color – as with the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery who bore a Confederate license plate on their car – typifies the ongoing racism flourishing in this country. To be clear, the no quarter flag is part of the same family as the Confederate flag.

On a deeper level, the refusal to read, learn and accept accurate history is playing out in the debate around critical race theory. It has now been so broadly interpreted that if you even speak about slavery in the context of a classroom, you are doing something wrong as an educator. But critical race theory isn’t about making people feel bad; it’s about making sure that mistakes from the past are not repeated in the future.

The Confederate flag and its progeny should be looked upon like a swastika; a stain on the history of this country. These flags are part of the bigger problem of what it means to be American. The fact that our flag is being changed and desecrated illustrates the deep divisions that exist within our country.

What we are seeing is a romanticization of war by people flying these flags who have never been to war. They don’t understand how war tears families, communities and countries apart. They are also fetishizing the Confederacy as if it was somehow a better time in America – when Black lives could be bought and sold. That ugly nostalgia also contributes to the backlash surrounding teaching accurate history in our schools.

All of this gives rise to people like Kyle Rittenhouse, and make no mistake – his case is the extremist call to action. It is a test of no quarter. He answered the call of white extremist militia groups to attack social justice protesters in Kenosha, Wis. If he is found not guilty, it will send a message to white supremacists that there will be no consequences for promoting and starting their dream race war.

We must all be vigilant, aware and ready to use whatever legal means necessary to protect our democracy from the threats of racism and divisiveness.

Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and expert on criminal justice issues. She previously served as a homicide prosecutor in Miami, and as deputy director of the ACLU of Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.