Last year, football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, stating that he “could not show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Since then, other sports players have joined him in his silent and peaceful protest of overt racism that we haven’t seen since the 1960s. To be sure, the level of racism that we are witnessing right now has always been there, brewing strongly at home behind closed doors. But with the rise of what some call “political correctness” and what others call basic human dignity and common courtesy, blatant racism was becoming socially unacceptable, as it should be in any civilized society. With the unfathomable election of Donald Trump, we are seeing a significant rise in all hate crimes, as well as racist acts that should have been relegated to a scorned and embarrassing past. And with the advent of social media and the ability of anyone with a phone to video what actually happens to people of color — by their fellow citizens, by police officers, by merchants — we now have the capacity to witness both the covert and overt racism and microaggressions that people of color have had to endlessly endure.
Kaepernick’s solo act of silent protest, although mocked by some, has spread as other sports players have joined in solidarity, especially since being the subject of one of Trump’s many lunatic rants. In reading some of the comments about the protests by NFL and other sports players, I am even more embarrassed and ashamed to be American than I was the night Trump was elected to be president. There are lots of people with lots of white privilege talking about how these protests are a slap in the face to veterans or how they’re somehow disrespectful to the Constitution, or the flag, or how they’re pointless or how they’re not protesting the “right” things. These arguments are not only baseless, but show a complete disregard to American culture, American history, or the Constitution. These arguments also ignore the racist, xenophobic, sexist foundation of our culture that drive the protests to begin with.
Most veterans recognize that what they and the veterans before them fought for was for all people to have the right and freedom to protest, for free speech, for equality. They fought FOR the right to protest, not against it. In fact, there are few things as American and patriotic than protest itself. Thus, the argument that any protest is a disgrace to the armed services is small-minded and short sighted, and shows that the arguer understands neither the Constitution nor the armed services. I would be willing to bet, however, that many of these are the same people who wrap themselves in a flag and pound their chests about how “great” this country is on Memorial and Veterans’ Day while choosing to not vote in every single election every single year. But I digress.
Some have argued that sports players can protest all they want, but that the place or the circumstances were inappropriate. However, our constitutional rights aren’t determined by where we are or our circumstances. Colin Kaepernick’s first kneel was no more out of place or “inappropriate” than Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s “human rights” salute at the 1968 Olympic games. It was no more inappropriate than Rosa Parks’s refusing to give up her seat on the bus or Crystal Lee Sutton’s labor activism to address harmful workplace practices or Cesar Chavez’s leading farm workers to protest or Alice Paul’s movement to secure votes for women or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “outside agitating” with Ralph Abernathy in 1965. This argument is merely a way for white people to minimize the importance of and reasons for the protest.
Some have conflated blind nationalism or patriotism with respect for a country. However, waving a flag or standing for a song or revering any given symbol do not make one patriotic. Nor do any of these acts alone or together make someone a productive citizen or exemplify a great country. On the contrary, what makes a country great is not the symbols, but the people who are willing to stand up against injustice in any way that will get the most attention and affect change. It is the people who look at the state of the nation and say, “We can do better for more people in order to truly make this country great for everyone,” and then actually do something about it. After all, what is the point of the flag or other symbols if the ideals they represent are only applied to few, particularly when the few seem to comprise mostly white men? As Jim Wright, himself a veteran, has stated, “Making somebody salute the flag with your boot on their throat is NOT patriotism. It’s fascism.” I would prefer a country full of people capable of critical thinking skills and the courage to use those skills to benefit the country as a whole over a country full of people who wave flags or pledge their allegiance to something that they neither understand nor care when its principles are failing so many around them.
We know that peaceful protests can work to change a culture and a country. From suffrage to civil rights, protest and standing up for, or, in this case, kneeling for, social justice and what is right is, in fact, integral to positive change and evolution toward civilization.
I kneel with all of the sports players and with all of the unsung heroes who are working every day to try to make the flag worth waving.