Thirteen days after the attacks, more American flags fluttered from cars on the L.A. freeways than purple and yellow Laker flags did during the NBA playoffs. John Landrum, an aspiring filmmaker, and Bill Russell, a film editor, were meeting at their favorite greasy spoon in Venice to talk of terror, war and Old Glory.
How to show patriotism, without hawkishness, they mused. How to show support for the loss of fellow Americans, without advocating bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age.
Hunched over herbal tea and an Orangina, the two men came up with a solution to the philosophical quandary faced by so many conflicted people like themselves: Peace flags.
"It was such an obvious idea," said Landrum, 28, a lanky man with a flower-child aura and a bracelet of brown Buddha beads.
Antoinette Argyropoulos and peace-flag designer John Landrum check the color of the peace flags being printed at Seoul Texprint in Los Angeles.
(ANNIE WELLS / Los Angeles Times)
"How hard could it be to make flags?" threw in Russell, 34, his earnest, bespectacled sidekick.
"We realized, if we didn't do it, it wasn't going to happen," said Landrum, who has a peace sign tattooed on his ankle from his high school days at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas. They pulled out napkins and started sketching, the ideas flowing faster than an acid trip. They finally settled on two designs: a simple peace symbol on a blue background, and the one that would cause all the trouble: an American flag with the 50 stars arranged in the shape of a peace symbol.
Landrum and Russell had chosen to enter the usually peripheral flag business during the busiest time in its history.
In the days and weeks following Sept. 11, flag makers from Roseland, N.J., to Womelsdorf, Pa., were working overtime. Lines half a mile long wound around flag stores and owners stayed open till midnight. Customers waited hours for the latest deliveries, and telephone operators said they were inundated with calls for flag-store information.
According to the Pittsburgh-based National Flag Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting respect for the American flag, 20 million flags are usually sold each year. The final numbers for 2001 aren't in yet, but demand is expected to more than double sales to 50 million this year, said David White, the foundation's executive director. "This will be the biggest year ever, no question," said White, noting that a wave of patriotism also swept the nation after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, but the U.S. population has expanded vastly since then, from about 133.4 million to 285.6 million.
Fawaz Ismail, the 40-year-old founder and president of the Alamo Flag Co., which claims to be the largest retail flag company in the world, said he sold 20 times more flags than normal in September.
"The first 10 days afterwards, it was incredible," said Ismail, a Palestinian American who moved to Texas when he was 9. "We have never seen anything like it. We had a line of at least a thousand people every day." Ismail, who founded his 42-store chain 16 years ago, said he gave away $28,000 worth of American flag hats to customers in line at his Falls Church, Va., store, just so they wouldn't get frustrated.
Foreign flag makers, which usually account for 10% of the market, took up some slack. Eighty percent of foreign-made American flags come from Taiwan and China, but six days after the attacks, as the desire for flags reached a frenzy, Typhoon Nari unleashed itself on Taiwan, temporarily knocking out flag factories.
Domestic textile makers who had never made a flag in their lives jumped into the fray. The demand drove America's domestic flag makers--including Annin & Co., the nation's oldest and largest flag manufacturer and Valley Forge Flag Co., which makes the flags that fly over the U.S. Capitol--to issue a joint statement in October urging Americans to "Just Say, I'll Wait" for American-made flags.
That wasn't all. Bleary-eyed flag makers became overnight celebrities. Journalists clamored for "A day in the life of a flag maker" stories.
Into this maelstrom walked Landrum and Russell, neophytes to flags, textiles, printing and business, asking for a small custom order of a couple of thousand peace flags. Over the next eight weeks, these two young men would put their professional lives on hold, and their not-so-large bank accounts in jeopardy. They would meet colorful characters, provoke rage from strangers, and face obstacles that would have withered the ambitions of those less committed.
Within days of their Sept. 24 brainstorm, they had a Web site, www.peaceflags.org, and were soliciting business--$28 for a 3-by-5 foot banner; $15.25 for a car flag.
"Do you need to express your love of country but don't want war?" they asked. "Show your support with a peace flag."
Almost overnight the orders began. First, as a trickle, then a stream.
Problem was, there weren't any flags yet, and it didn't appear there would be any time soon.
They pulled out phone books and contacted flag manufacturers all over the country. They called telephone operators in random cities and asked for flags, flag houses, flag factories, anything to do with flags. All passion, no method, they forged on, working out of Landrum's tiny Venice bungalow, fast, furious and flag obsessed. They talked to a Palestinian American, an Iranian American, a Turkish American and a guy from Louisiana who told them he would make anything; after all, he'd worked with homosexuals before, making rainbow flags. They toured Southern California sweatshops; going deep into the garment district, where they had never been.
One of the first people Landrum and Russell reached was Hany Hamideh, a relative of Ismail's and a sales rep for Alamo Flag Co. Until it closed nearly two years ago, he ran an Alamo store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Hamideh, said Landrum and Russell, told them the peace flag could make them rich.
Rich? Suddenly the two were wrestling with their consciences. Despite their intention to give a third of their profit to disaster relief and the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan, they agonized over whether this venture would make them war profiteers.
"He [Hamideh] said, 'Don't you deserve to get rich? Don't you realize what a million flags is? It's a house. It's a car. It's a vacation!" Landrum recalled.
That's not how Hamideh remembered the exchange. He was open to the idea of peace flags. But given the American flag frenzy at the time, the idea of printing them now was almost laughable. "You can't tell a major player to stop production of American flags, which are selling at an unprecedented rate, if you know what I mean. All printers were making American flags. Forget making a custom order."
Landrum and Russell said Hamideh never called again. They assumed he was reluctant to go forward for political reasons. If polls said 90% of Americans were in favor of war, it made sense to Landrum and Russell that some manufacturers were wary of peace flags.
"We were unable to do it," said Hamideh. "Every manufacturer in the country wants the American flag and still cannot meet the demand."
Weeks 2 and 3
Through directory assistance, they found Rezan Bayazit of the Flag Factory in San Jose, which sells flags retail and wholesale. Bayazit, a Turkish American, loved the concept.
"It is mixing the peace with the original colonies, which is a very beautiful idea," said Bayazit. "People are still stuck on the old days. They think the peace symbol is hippie peace, but things have changed a lot." (The idea is not entirely original; similar flags were popular during the Vietnam era.)
Bayazit told the pair she saw strong demand for flags of peace. After the attacks, her company sold out of dove and olive branch flags. She said Earth flags, with a picture of the planet from space, also have done well.
But Bayazit has 5,000 flags on back order. Still, she told Landrum she could get the flags made. In Turkey. In six weeks. Minimum order: 10,000.
That violated the promise they made on their Web site that the flags would be manufactured in America.
Landrum and Russell soon found yet another a promising prospect in New Orleans, the Flag & Banner Co. Their contact at the company said he would print anything. But 10 days later he, too, backed out.
"We are a manufacturing company," said a man who answered the phone at Flag & Banner. "We have nothing to do with the philosophy or religion of any of these people," he said. "If you want a flag with an elephant on it, we make it. If your money is green, we take it. If not, we don't take it."
So why wouldn't the company make the peace flags?
"Do they send you reporters to obnoxious school?" he asked, before hanging up.
Russell and Landrum began to see themselves as a pair of persecuted peaceniks, struggling against the tide of a war-mad world.
"What I think," said Landrum, "is everyone was scared by the idea."
In early October, the pair got a break. In her column in the Nation, Katha Pollitt published their Web address. They were deluged by a torrent of e-mail, divided between praise and denouncements.
They even received an e-mail from Sharla Costelow, the widow of a Navy sailor who was killed when terrorists bombed the USS Cole in Yemen.
"Try explaining why you want peace flags to be flown to my little boys who have lost their father because of Bin Laden," she wrote, "especially to my youngest who is afraid to sleep with the light off because he is afraid that the bad guys will come and get him like they did Daddy."
Lots of orders; still no flags. By now, Landrum and Russell knew a little about fabrics. A little about flags. They decided to cut out the retailers and work directly with a printer. They hired a freelance middleman who knew the ins and outs of the industry.
The middleman, Sam, who would allow only his first name to be used, is an "all arounder." He knows where to get the right fabric and where to get it printed. Right away, he recognized the allure of the peace flag.
"Politically speaking, they were making themselves marked men," said Sam, an Iranian American. "But businesswise, it's something that was unique. Not only because it's different, but because if you check the media, there is a certain class of people out there who were not for the war, who at least would hang it in their living room."
Later, without explanation, Sam dropped out.
On the morning of Oct. 15, Landrum awoke to find he could not get onto his site. It had been shut down by the Internet service provider.
It's unclear exactly what happened, but it appeared that someone using an e-mail address containing a vulgarity sent out unknown quantities of porn spam urging recipients to e-mail peaceflags.org if they wanted to unsubscribe. Angry e-mail and phone complaints to the Internet provider, Domain Direct, led to the site being shut down. After persuading Domain Direct that they were not a porn site disguised as a flag company, the site went back up.
Weeks 5 to 7
By this time, Landrum and Russell were biting their nails. Literally, in the case of Russell. The orders were backing up, and they still had not found a flag maker. Landrum let his movie, the story of a homeless man living out of his car in Texas, languish. He'd alienated his conservative father. He'd barely seen his girlfriend. ("She never complained," he said. "She's for peace.") They'd hired a publicist. But they still hadn't printed a single flag.
Their defeats only made them more determined. "My great fear was that we were going to have to shut it down and refund everybody's money," Landrum said. "But we started this to prove a point. The peace movement is not marginal."
Finally, they found a family-owned business in Burbank.
Symeon Argyropoulos, chairman and chief executive of Golden Fleece Designs Inc., liked the peace flag right away.
"We prefer to live in peace," said Argyropoulos, "rather than bombing and destroying people."
He doubted anyone had refused to print the flag for political reasons. "For starters," he said, "those boys are inexperienced."
In early November, Golden Fleece arranged a run of flags at a textile printer in downtown L.A., but the colors were off. A lawsuit nearly ensued, with the printer accusing Landrum and Russell of being communists and threatening to call Washington.
Golden Fleece hired a new printer. Harold Boyarsky, who handles sales for the firm Seoul Texprint, said that in the days after the attacks, many immigrants--mostly Korean and Persian--who work in the textile business rushed to him for advice on how to make flags.
"The symbol of America is in foreign hands," he said. "A lot of Persians came in here after 9-11. ... They didn't know about the 50 stars, the 13 stripes. I had to teach them the history."
Boyarsky said his company has printed hundreds of thousands of yards of U.S. flags recently. "It's a fad," he said. "It's almost over."
On Nov. 16, in a long warehouse in East L.A. the first 500 yards of uncut peace flags streamed off the presses. Landrum and Russell watched with awe and relief.
Peaceflags.org has received its first bulk orders--from a Latin American Farmers relief group in Texas, and another from a business that specializes in peace paraphernalia. A State Department employee ordered six flags.
They have spent $5,000 of mostly Landrum's money to set up and have so far grossed about $17,000, a quarter of which has gone to Golden Fleece.
The flags are going out, but with so many orders to fill, the two men can hardly rest now.
Meanwhile, at Seoul Texprint, fabric scraps are piled in a corner. Boyarsky will sell them for next to nothing to someone who will send them to El Salvador, where they are will be made into clothes.
Could defective peace flags turn up as clothing in El Salvador?
Boyarsky smiled mischievously. "Maybe in Afghanistan."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times