This weekend saw widespread anthem protests at NFL games, as footballers either took a knee or joined arms during the National Anthem in acts of mass protest. It also saw my Facebook feed overflowing with memes and anger I haven’t seen since the weeks leading up to November 8. I felt compelled to write down some of my thoughts about this.
This was an act of protest, not an act of disrespect.
Colin Kaepernick started his protest in 2016 by sitting on the bench during the anthem, in an effort to draw attention to a pattern of systematic injustice against people of color at the hands of the police, which had been highlighted by several well-publicized deaths of unarmed black men by police officers.
It is a fact that black drivers are 3 times more likely to be pulled over and searched than white drivers. It is a fact that black people are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug use than white people, even though both groups use drugs at similar rates. It is a fact that while blacks make up only 13% of the US population, they make up almost HALF of exonerated, wrongly convicted people. This is not a claim that cops are racists or that police departments are corrupt. It is only factual evidence showing that American justice is not applied equally, which is a failure of the American promise that needs to be rectified.
However, as the national dialog moved from WHAT was being protested to HOW it was being protested, Kaepernick was contacted by NFL free agent and Green Beret Nate Boyer, who expressed his negative reaction to the optics of the protest. During a discussion between the two, Boyer convinced Kaepernick to instead “take a knee alongside his teammates … to show respect.” Kaepernick’s kneeling protest is, in fact, a deliberate show of respect for the values of the country and those who fight to defend them, as well as a means of shining the spotlight on a fact that should alert all citizens (and servicepeople in particular!): that American values are not being applied equally to all American citizens.
The kneeling protest was only joined by a handful of other footballers for most of 2016 and 2017, until Forty-Five decided to weigh in at a rally on Friday, where he declared players engaging in the protest should be fired. As a result, over that weekend more than 250 NFL players and owners took a knee or joined arms in symbolic solidarity with Kaepernick as a protest against Forty-Five’s incendiary rhetoric.
Keep in mind, Forty-Five is the President who declared that the torch-wielding, vitriol-spitting protesters for Robert E Lee’s statues were “very fine people,” but a quiet protester against injustice to US citizens is a “son of a bitch.” Keep in mind, Forty-Five is the President who, in defense of Putin executing dissidents, declared “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Keep in mind, Forty-Five is the President who, as a candidate, promoted the racist Obama birther lie for years. Keep in mind, Forty-Five is the President who uses Twitter to threaten, insult, and taunt both American citizens and foreign heads of state. When defending someone from a short-tempered foul-mouthed bully, it is not the defenders who are being disrespectful.
This was an act of protest, not an act of disrespect.
This doesn’t mean you weren’t offended by it.
This doesn’t even mean you are wrong for being offended by it.
But being offended by an act does not mean that that act was intentionally or inherently disrespectful; nor does your sense of being wronged imply that the offending action was, itself, wrong.
Protests like this HAVE to get a reaction in order for people to take notice. As the old American adage goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease;” and as Martin Luther King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” It took a century — ONE-HUNDRED YEARS — for our government to enforce the protections given lip service to in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments with the teeth of The Law through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and those changes didn’t occur because black Americans sat politely in the back of buses and genuflected to white Americans made uncomfortable by talking about race. They happened because people took to the streets and lunch counters and schools and protested. They disrupted. They offended. Do not forget that more than half of Americans in the sixties disliked Martin Luther King, his racial message, and his nonviolent but disruptive protests, even though we generally commend him for them today. It takes disruption and, yes, even offense, for many of us to pay attention to injustice that would otherwise not affect us.
Weigh what offends you.
Does not kneeling through the anthem offend you more than the fact that black men are 3 times more likely to be killed than white men after an altercation with the police?
Does the sight of an athlete’s knee on the ground offend you more than the sight of a cop’s knee on the back of a black man asphyxiating to death on a sidewalk for selling cigarettes?
Are you more offended by the sight of athletes locking arms to protest the president’s vulger words and actions than by the words and actions themselves?
Are you more offended watching NFL athletes failing to comply with its instructions than listening to a black woman answer “yes sir” and “no sir” with horrifying calm at gunpoint to the officer who just shot dead her boyfriend for attempting to comply with his?
Does not properly acknowledging the flag before a game consisting largely of violence punctuated by committee meetings offend you more than the fact that a black kid playing with his sister in a park can be shot dead by police without warning, but a white kid can murder a bunch of black churchgoers and have the police take him to fucking Burger King for treats afterwards?
If a citizen is more offended by a perceived slight against a piece of red, white, and blue fabric than by the actual pleading of their fellow citizens to recognize institutionalized mistreatment and injustice, then I would say who gives a damn about their hurt feelings. They stand against everything that that red, white, and blue flag represents.
This protest isn’t about a flag, or veterans, or Trump.
It isn’t even about you.
It’s about your fellow citizens, who seek justice and equity for those who have been denied it by those in positions of power and authority.
Let’s support their right to peaceful, deliberate, symbolic protest. Let’s listen to what they have to say. Let’s work together to make things better for all Americans.