Back at the beginning of the 20th Century, Panama gained its independence from Colombia with the assistance of the U.S. But the U.S. didn't help Panama unselfishly—it wanted to control the Panama Canal Zone. This strip of land running from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, on either side of the canal, had its own police, post offices, courts, schools, and TV and radio stations. The zone became U.S. territory, pretty much.
You may have guessed that the people who lived in that zone were called Zonians. These Zonians were, for the most part, very patriotic U.S. citizens.
Many Panamanians resented the 1903 treaty that gave the U.S. control of the Canal Zone. (I do want to point out that the treaty included cash payments from the U.S. to Panama for the rights—one large start-up payment plus yearly payments.)
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy listened to Panamanians' concerns, and he agreed to fly Panama's flag alongside the U.S. flag, wherever the U.S. flag was flown. But Kennedy was assassinated before this order was carried out. An overly patriotic U.S. citizen had sued in court so that he wouldn't have to fly Panama's flag, and the Panama Canal Zone Governor—trying to soothe everyone's feelings, both Zonians' and Panamanians'— declared that NO flag would be flown outside schools, police stations, or post offices.
He was trying to placate everybody—but even more people were now upset about this latest decision.
On January 7, 1964, Zonian high school students held a protest and raised a U.S. flag on the school's empty flagpole. When officials tried to carry out the governor's decree and lower the flag, the students posted guards and wouldn't allow it.
Two days later, having heard about the Zonian students' actions, Panamanian high school students decided to hold their own peaceful protest. From 150 to 200 students marched to the Zonian high school with a Panamanian flag, ready to raise it according to Kennedy's order. They were met by a large crowd of Zonian students, adults, and police officers. And in the not-so-peaceful meeting of the two groups, the Panamanian flag was torn.
You got that right: 25 people died—over flags!
However, this event was a turning point, and with the world condemning the U.S. handling of the affair, the notion that the Canal Zone should be returned to Panama began to take hold in the U.S. In 1977, a treaty transferred the Canal Zone to Panama.
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